If you are looking to change a habit, mindfulness can be key a strategy. Habits can be hard to break, but the good news is, because they are learned, they can be unlearned. Let’s start at the beginning and take a look at what habits are and how they develop.
Mindfulness for Bad Habits: What are Habits?
Habits are simply learned behaviors that show up on a regular basis and are often automatic, being performed without conscious thought. As humans, we are designed to operate efficiently, so if we can free up our brain space by making something happen automatically, we do. This is partly why habits are so difficult to break. And one reason why mindfulness can help. More on this later.
“Habits are actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.”Benjamin Gardner
Habits are not limited to bad behavior. Some habits aren’t ones we want to break. Brushing our teeth or buckling in are examples of beneficial habits. Recognizing that habits are our system’s way of conserving energy can help us develop a non-judgmental attitude toward the ones we would like to toss, but just can’t seem to break.
Some habits are so ingrained that we believe them to be “who we are,” that they are not something we can change. Identifying with a habit can reinforce it, making it harder to change. Once we realize our habits are not who we are, but what we have learned to do or not do, we have a better shot at changing the automatic behaviors.
Once we realize our habits are not “who we are,” but what we have learned to do, we have a better shot at changing them.
Mindfulness for Bad Habits: How Do Habits Develop?
So now that we understand that habits are learned behavior that becomes automatic action or non-action, we can take a look at how we got stuck with the habits we have. How did our “routines” develop?
Take the example of buckling in. The context (getting in a car, for example) triggers an associated memory (seat belts are required) and then an action (buckling in). We don’t even have to think about it anymore. But when we were first learning to drive, we had to learn that association and subsequent action. It took effort. And likely we resisted. But the more we repeated the action, the more automatic it became.
The more we repeat an action, the more automatic it becomes.
We can form habits related to emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and how we take care of ourselves. The list is endless.
Mindfulness for Bad Habits: How Do We Break Habits and Form New Ones?
Once a habit is formed, like driving the same route to work every morning, it becomes automatic. Interrupting that automatic action takes effort. And habits are likely to persist even though the original motivation for the behavior is no longer present.
So how can we change this automatic behavior once it is carved into our neural networks? How do we jump the tracks to form different associations for cues?
5 Steps to Break Your Unwanted Habits and Make Positive Changes in Your Life
1. Choose your Habit
Decide which habit you want to start with. Maybe that choice jumps right out at you. Maybe you know you want to feel better but aren’t quite aware of what needs to change. Becoming more aware of our habits can help us decide which ones to keep and which we want to change.
The following exercise can help you not only decide what habits are not serving you, but also make you aware of the many beneficial routines you have adopted which have blended into your life.
Make a list of your habits, writing the ones you would like to keep in the left hand column, habits you are not sure of in the central column, and habits you are certain you want to ditch in the right. Take some time with this, a few days to a week can really help you become aware of all the ways you act automatically. Be sure to bring a gentle, non-judgmental attitude with you when you do this exercise. It’s not your fault that your system learns shortcuts, and you can only start where you are.
When you have your lists, take a look at the right hand column, those habits you have chosen to eliminate. Rearrange them so the habits you believe might be the easiest to change are first, the most difficult, last.
Choose one from the top. Think about which might be the least challenging to quit. Start small. Work with one habit at a time. Overdoing it could lead to overwhelm, which could lead to giving up.
2. Slow Down
This is where mindfulness comes in. We are often not aware of our thoughts, feelings and actions, and that is especially the case when performing a habit. Mindfulness is the act of slowing down to notice, to really pay attention. Meditation can help us develop mindfulness when practiced regularly. Below you will find a guide to a simple form of meditation which can help you develop mindfulness.
Mindfulness for Bad Habits: Guided Meditation
Choose a place to sit where you feel comfortable. If you are in a chair, sit close to the front edge and make sure your feet are flat on the floor. If you are on a cushion, make sure your knees are lower than your hips. Feel your body upright and relaxed. Imagine your head is suspended from a string attached to the top of your head.
Close your eyes.
Take a minute to check in. In this meditation, we are not looking to control or change anything. Just see what you can notice. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests beginning the process by asking yourself some questions.
So the first question is: What are you feeling?
Can you contact what you’re feeling? It could be your mood or your physical body, a quality of drowsiness or peacefulness, agitation or physical pain—anything. Can you contact that nonverbally and just get a sense of what you’re feeling?
To refine this question a little bit: Are there any emotions? Can you be present to them? Can you contact them?
We’re not talking about having to name anything or remembering the history of the emotion, or any- thing like that. Just be present to what you’re feeling right now.
Are you experiencing any physical sensations right now? pain, tightness, relaxation?
What about your thoughts? What’s the quality of your thoughts right now? Is your mind very busy? Is it quite drowsy? Is it surprisingly still? Are your thoughts raging or peaceful or dull? Obsessive or calm?
If I were to ask you personally, right now, ‘What is the quality of your mind at this moment?’ Whether it’s still or wild or dull, whatever it might be, what would you say?”Pema Chödrön
Just allow whatever feelings you are experiencing to be there, without doing anything about them. They may be uncomfortable. See if you can allow them to be there despite the discomfort. Conversely, you may feel yourself getting excited about some new idea that just popped into your head. You can allow this to just be there as well without doing anything about it.
3. Build Your Awareness
As you practice slowing down and simply allowing feelings, sensations and thoughts to exist, you are building your awareness muscle. By continuing to practice mindfulness, you are making awareness itself a habit. The more you allow yourself to just notice what happens for you when you engage in a habit, without any judgment, the more you can be curious about it, breaking the cycle of automation.
“When we get curious, we step out of our old fear-based reactive habit patterns, and we step into being.”Judson Brewer
When we are able to be curious, we shift from operating on autopilot to being more intentional about our actions. But this takes practice and repetition. As with any new habit you want to establish, it’s important to start small and to repeat regularly.
See if you can practice the meditation for 5 minutes several times a week (every day is ideal). Set a timer, and stick with it even through the discomfort.
4. Bring Your Awareness to the Habit You Want to Break
As you continue to practice allowing whatever feelings, sensations or even thoughts arise to simply be there without taking any action on them, begin to observe objectively what it feels like to crave that ice cream. What are you noticing in your body? What are you feeling, or thinking before you reach into the freezer? Take some time to reflect on this.
You can try writing those observations down. Or naming them out loud. You mights still reach for the ice cream, but the more you practice this step, the easier it will be to interrupt the habit and actually choose your next action. See more about this below.
What are the associations that are triggering the pull to act habitually? For example, we know that just getting into the driver’s seat can trigger us to reach for the seat belt. Is there something that made you get up and go toward the freezer?
Was it getting into your comfy clothes? A show you were watching? The mind makes associations, which is another energy saving mechanism. Being aware of those associations can help increase the chances that we break the cycle of automatic behavior.
5. Make a Different Choice
Maybe when you were going through that painful breakup, the evenings were especially hard, and ice cream made you feel better. In the beginning, reaching for the ice cream in the evening was comforting. And after repetition, the behavior became automatic. So even now, after the painful sting of the breakup is gone, your brain continues to reach for the comfort, even though you are now in a new, loving relationship and you don’t need comforting in the evening in the same way.
Being curious about why the trigger/behavior association exists in the first place can help break the cycle of default behavior, or habit. What need was the behavior satisfying in the first place? Does that need continue to exist? If it does, can it be satisfied in a different way? Awareness of the reasons behind the habit can help us make a different choice.
So instead of reaching for that ice cream, intentionally notice the feelings compelling you to reach into the freezer, and make another choice instead. Prepare yourself a cup of tea. Pop some corn. Your system will likely rebel, and you may experience some discomfort, but continue to be curious about what you are feeling. Allow the discomfort to be present while you make your new choice.
It takes repetition, awareness and gentleness to change unwanted habits. Remember to start small, be patient and be persistent.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Remember that when you change your automatic, habitual behavior, you are training your brain to walk a different path. Since we are designed to move toward the familiar, this will cause unease. Stay with it. Breaking bad habits is possible.
So, the next time you find yourself mindlessly engaging in a bad or unwanted habit, tune in to how your body feels, and be curious about the reasons the habit developed in the first place. Your mindful awareness can help you make a different choice.
This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.