Ever had difficulties in a relationship? Ever had the same difficulties come up in another relationship? If you are a human being, the answer is probably “yes”, and it will probably remain “yes” if you substitute relationship with “job” or anything else. The same problems seem to repeat in our lives over and over again. This is because we are creatures of habit, and we have developed set ways of dealing with situations. Imagine a wife who becomes angry every time her husband leaves his trousers on the floor; this has been going on for years: he keeps leaving his trousers on the floor, she keeps getting angry. The husband has a pattern—“before going to bed, chuck trousers on floor”, and the wife has a pattern—“trousers + floor = angry”. Until one of them changes the pattern, trouser-related arguments will continue all the way to divorce court!
Our conditioned habits mean we are going to keep on attracting the same stuff in to our lives, whether good or bad. The habits control how we react to a situation, leading to a robotic way of living as we follow pre-programmed rules like “trousers + floor = angry”. Our mind will default to a familiar action with a known result, rather than a new action with a less certain or familiar outcome. The good news is that there is a way out of this, and the even better news is that the way out is very simple.
The Power Of Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful technique for changing habits using the deceptively simply technique of simply noting whatever comes up in the mind. Let’s take a look at process of meditating on the breath. You sit in a comfortable upright position, breathe normally and focus your attention on the breath. A thought will pop in to your head, and your job is simply to note it. Maybe you start thinking about cheeseburgers, and you simply note “hungry” or “food”; or you start fidgeting and thinking about what a waste of time meditation is, and you note “angry”; or you start thinking about that idea you had that is going to save the world, and you simply note, “daydreaming”. What this does is it immediately puts you in the driver’s seat of your consciousness. Generally, we are more like a passenger, with the mind behind the wheel – you think about a cheeseburger, then you think about how you should be vegan, then you feel guilty, then you think about that bad thing you did that time at that party, then you think you would quite like to go to a party, then you realise that you should be meditating and feel angry with yourself, then you feel angry with your partner for leaving their trousers on the floor last night… and so on forever. With the noting, this nonsense is put to an end; you note the thought and return to focusing on your breath. This practice can be extended to your daily life; whatever comes up, good or bad, you simply note it. Not reacting, not feeding the cycle.
How does this relate to habits? When we are mindful, we are no longer living like robots following pre-programmed rules—rather, we are enacting our free will. There is this beautiful moment when the thought is noted – a moment where we have a choice. You can either choose to follow your conditioned pattern of thoughts and feelings, OR do something different. Let’s say you have a pattern where whenever you get stressed you comfort-eat. So, something stresses you out, but before your little robot legs take you to the fridge you note, “I am stressed”. Now you have a choice: eat that chocolate cake, or do something else to manage the stress. Even if you do eat the cake, you are making a choice to eat it rather than following that pattern. If you eat it and feel guilty, you note the guilt. If you feel great, you note that. It is not expected that you will automatically do the “right” thing every time using this process, but eventually you will find it easier to make choices that serve you. In every situation there are actually infinite possibilities, which you can start to see once you stop following your robotic programming.
4 Steps To Freedom
A nice way to look at the process of noting is to break it down into four steps. Imagine you come home to find your partner has left their trousers on the floor. Of course, this sends you in to a screaming fury of demonic proportions. But this time you are mindful and follow these steps.
1) Notice it – “There is anger”
2) Pause – Take a moment to reflect – this is the beautiful moment when the habitual reaction can be stopped in its tracks.
3) Choose a different reaction than usual—instead of shouting at your partner, perhaps you accept their messy behaviour; or politely ask them to put away the trousers; or, if you are feeling like a saint, put the trousers away yourself; or if you are feeling less saintly, chop up the trousers with a pair of scissors and put them in your partners breakfast the next morning.
4) Note that you did something different, or even if you didn’t – note that you chose your habitual reaction.
The process of mindfully noting things is so simple that the human mind just can’t believe it – so we tend to over-complicate it. If this happens just note the over-complication.
A lot of the time we are like movie directors, creating the story of our lives, but if we use the process of mindfulness we become more like the writers. To realise that there is a moment of choice in every situation is one of the sweetest freedoms imaginable, so the habit of being mindful is one well worth developing.