If you could create a new habit by snapping your fingers, what would you choose? Would it be to wake up earlier each day? Start a writing practice? Focus more on work and less on social media?
Most of us have something we want to change about our lives. The problem is, most of us find it nearly impossible to change a damn thing. Changing how we live, how we work, or how we think could be one of the hardest things we ever do. Sure, we might start the day full of inspiration and intention, but then, before we know it, we’re doing the very thing we swore to ourselves we’d never do again!
I keep telling myself that I’m going to stop buying snacks whenever I go to the grocery store. Yet, what’s lying on the table in front of me? A scrunched up wrapper — all that’s left of a Santa-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. It was delicious.
Now, I’m not saying I should beat myself up for buying or eating that chocolate. I like to have something sweet after dinner, which is when I happen to be writing this sentence. There’s no sense in denying myself all the pleasures in life!
But, sometimes we need to crack down on our bad habits and make new ones. Some habits are killing us, some habits are making us unhappy, and others are making us assholes. And whatever kind of habit you want to kick or create, meditation is your friend. It is the one thing that opens up your mind in just the right way to make change easier.
If you want to learn how to change more easily, read on to discover how meditation will help you do it.
The space between stimulus and response
Viktor Frankl was a remarkable man. He spent much of World War II as a prisoner in concentration camps. This experience was hell on Earth by all accounts except one — his own. What he discovered in the endless misery of the camps was that no one could take away his freedom to choose how to respond to any situation.
Thus, the following passage is often ascribed to Frankl:
“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.”
Unfortunately, most of us never see this space. Why? Because it’s hidden by habit.
And let’s face it, our lives are run by habits. Whenever we do things repeatedly, our brains develop shortcuts to performing them — that’s a habit. For example, do you remember how much mental effort was required when you were first learning to drive? Now, you can do your makeup while eating a cheeseburger and having an engaging conversation, and end up exactly where you intended without knowing how you got there. That’s the power of habit!
While these mental shortcuts make life easier for us, they also have a distinct downside. Because these shortcuts are so automatic, we’ve lost the ability to notice the separation between stimulus and response.
So, you get into the car and — boom! — you arrive at your destination. You’ve spent the entire drive completely focused on an activity other than driving. But this isn’t a problem unless you want to change something about how you drive. Maybe you want to drive a little slower because you’re tired of paying for speeding tickets?
Unfortunately, the stimulus — getting behind the wheel— and the response — speeding mindlessly — have become so interconnected that it’s very difficult to pull them apart. You can’t see the space that Frankl refers to above and you don’t slow down. Inevitably, you get another speeding ticket and are furious with yourself for not being able to change.
Without the ability to see the space in which we can choose differently, we are fated to repeat the past over and over again.
So, how can we see the space?
We see the space with mindfulness
The word mindfulness can sound new agey, woo woo, and hippyish. It sounds like something people high on acid or mushrooms would rave about. It just doesn’t sound like it’s something for the rest of us.
Yet, scientists have been showing more and more interest in mindfulness and meditation over the past several decades. Take a look at this graph showing the number of research papers with the word “mindfulness” in the title. And techniques like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) are becoming increasingly popular for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
You might hate the word, but that doesn’t stop mindfulness from being useful. I’d argue that when it comes to creating habits, mindfulness is a superpower you don’t want to ignore.
But, what on earth is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a skill that is typically developed through meditation. It is the skill of paying attention to the present moment — sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings — in a non-judgemental way. In essence, it is attention and acceptance operating simultaneously.
So, how does this help us change our habits? Well, our attention is the only tool we have to alert us to the fact that a stimulus has happened and that our habituated response is going to happen next. In other words, it’s attention that allows us to see the space Frankl is talking about.
Our acceptance of the situation allows us to disentangle what we’re doing from our judgements about it. Although we may want to beat ourselves up for skipping leg day, drinking a Coke, or being distracted by social media, that negativity is mostly counterproductive. By accepting that we have a bad habit we want to change, we allow ourselves to focus on the problem and its solution, rather than be consumed by self-judgement and get nowhere.
Becoming more mindful is as simple as taking a couple of minutes each day to focus on your breathing. For two minutes, simply pay attention to your breath. Count to four breaths and then start over. It’s as simple as that. Or, use an app like Waking Up or Headspace. Guided meditations can be a great place to start.
As you practice, your mindfulness will increase, and this will give you an edge when it comes to kicking old habits or making new ones.
Simply put, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can help you build the life you’ve always wanted.
Will you give it a try?
Thanks for reading!