In this episode, David addresses a question regarding changing habits – becoming aware of them, breaking damaging habits, and embedding new positive ones. Talking practically from his own experience, and using the analogy of a bus station and a road network, David talks about how habits are formed and suggests some helpful ways we can use conscious effort and self-awareness to overcome these negative habits and to cultivate positive ones.
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Today, I am talking about changing habits, I recently received an email with a request to talk about this – becoming aware of, and breaking damaging habits, and embedding new positive ones.
So, thank you so much for that request, it’s a great topic. And I think already implicit in the question is part of the answer, you called it a habit. So awareness that it is a habit, and labelling it as such, is already empowering. A habit is a regular tendency or practice, a routine of behaviour that you repeat regularly, and often subconsciously.
So it’s a fixed way of thinking or feeling, that we’ve acquired by our previous repetition of that way of thinking or feeling.
And I like to think of habits and these pathways of thinking or feeling, as a network of public roads.
So, let’s take this analogy. Your mind is like the bus station, and every time a thought comes through the mind, it’s like a bus coming into and stopping at that station. And so, if we’re living quite unconsciously, and we’re not practicing awareness of our mind and our thoughts, then every time a bus arrives in the station, it’s as the same as with a real bus, if we’re not paying attention to where it’s going and just getting on that bus, and we go on that journey until it’s end of the line, you’ve reached your destination, and that could be an emotion; such as jealousy, anger, fear, or even joy or excitement; or it could be a memory, a good or bad one; or an imaginary scenario…
And so, following any thoughts or feelings for the first time, creates a new bus route. A new pathway is formed in the mind. In fact, a neural pathway is created in the brain too. One we haven’t travelled before. If it’s a thought we don’t follow very often, then just like a bus with very few passengers, it won’t come to the station very often. And, in fact, it will probably only come to the station CONSCIOUSLY. When we request it.
If it’s a thought we have followed, repeatedly, regularly, subconsciously, then, that bus is going to pull into the station repeatedly, regularly, and if we’re living unconsciously, we’re going to get on it, and we’re going to strengthen that road, it will develop from a dirt path into a superhighway, and it will become easier and easier, and more and more subconscious every time.
And so, a habit is formed. And we’ve cultivated these ‘superhighways’ to our usual destinations – panic station, anxiety town, stress city.
Now, these habits then, good or bad, have become automatic. Automatically, the thought, the catalyst which begins the routine of behaviour, appears in the mind. The bus arrives automatically. And off we go. The good actions, the positive behaviours we want to develop, let’s say meditation, yoga, eating healthy, practising gratitude, going to the gym, these ones, do not arrive automatically. They only arrive with effort, conscious effort. And, the roads are small, narrow, bumpy, and it requires continuous effort to get to the destination, like having to poke the driver to stay awake.
So this is all a nice analogy, but what does it mean?
Well, what it means is, this is how habits are formed, over time, repeated unconscious action creates more repeated unconscious action. It’s a cycle that continues and gets stronger and stronger every time it happens.
So, to answer one part of this question, embedding new positive habits.
Is it possible to develop a habit through repeated conscious action? Consciously engaging in a behaviour, repeatedly, until it becomes a habit? Until it creates its own cycle, it’s own feedback loop that gets stronger and stronger? Absolutely. Examples are all around us, anybody who has ever achieved great genius in music, science, or art, anyone who has achieved remarkable results through training their body, meditation practitioners and contemplatives who have become more patient, calm, loving. All of these journeys started with effort, conscious effort. And the effort came from having an aspiration, and motivation.
So, to embed new positive habits, we need to start with a simple aspiration to achieve this habit.
With this aspiration, and by reflecting on the benefits of having such a habit, we’ll develop enthusiasm, and motivation, and this will help us overcome laziness, the first obstacle on the path to developing a positive habit. This means fully immersing ourselves in the WHY behind our desire to have this positive habit, knowing what it is we must do, thinking about it, and in the end – just doing it, repeatedly, consciously.
And we can know and be confident that this level of effort is only required at the beginning, and as the habit forms, as that road becomes wider, stronger, enthusiasm will start to naturally carry us, and then eventually familiarity will naturally carry us, and then our habit will be formed.
So that’s cultivating a new habit. What if say, the new habit we wanted to cultivate was patience, and in the way is a negative habit of being quick to anger, frustration, irritation. What do we do here?
Here, we cultivate self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to observe, objectively, our thoughts, emotions, memories, as if we were a third party observing from afar, not adding any story or interpretation to it, and without identifying with it, but simply being present with them. By cultivating self-awareness, we’ll be able to identify when a bus pulls into the station, when these thoughts of anger, irritation, start to appear in the mind, and with self-awareness, we’ll be able to pause, take a moment, look at the ‘destination’ written on the side and instead, observe the thought without identifying with it, or following it, and then from that space, we choose a different path. The path of patience, of peace, of calm. And so, just like before, that at first will take aspiration and effort. But, as we repeatedly choose to pause, and go in a different direction, it will become easier, as we form a new habit.
And I wanted to end here, with a quote from Viktor Frankl:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
I wanted to thank you for listening to this week’s podcast, I hope it brings some benefit to you. If you would like to learn more about meditation or join us for our free weekly online meditation sessions, then please join our Samadhi Community on Facebook. Please, don’t forget to subscribe and share and I hope to see you again soon.
What is the Samadhi Podcast?
The Samadhi Podcast is a series of bitesize talks and guided meditations that help you become a happier, more peaceful and positive person. Learn how to calm the mind, deeply relax, gain control of feelings and emotions, find inner strength, and let go of negative states of mind such as stress and anxiety by developing a positive approach to life.