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Monday, July 29, 2013

Habit, Part 3

I don't have a scientific study with statistics to prove this, but using my own experience as a guide, the biggest obstacle and the most critical step in changing habit is thinking differently.  It's the slight change in thinking that says to take a second longer than I'm used to, a second longer than my habitual approach to whatever I'm struggling with, and in that one second, change can happen.

The one second isn't just breaking the old habit; it's the new habit that I'm starting.  That one second, or 5 or 10, disrupts the pattern that happens now without any thinking whatsoever, and all I need is a little hint, a little reminder, to get started.

What's that little reminder for you that says take just a second and think about what you're doing before you do it?  For me, it is literally reminding myself that habit requires change, and that if I'm unhappy with my habit, if my habit isn't serving me, no matter what kind of habit, this one second is the most important action I can take to begin and sustain that change.

I remind myself that no matter how hard it is at this moment, it's going to get easier and easier each time I honor that change.  And in the middle of struggle, remembering that things can actually get easier matters -hugely.  It matters that I'm moving closer to being the person I envision, that I'm proud of and content with how I'm behaving, and that I don't have shame or disappointment shadowing me.

It's not always easy, and I'm not always successful, but moving ever closer toward real and sustained change satisfies deeply.  There's such liberation in knowing that I'm more than a victim of deep, old habits, especially those created in response to my environment from even before I could make clear decisions.

If we're lucky, we have wise, understanding adults guiding us through the challenges of growing up.  But so much of the time, we are shaped by moments that we experience and process alone, and we are left to figure out how to care for ourselves, how to interact in ways that feel safe and secure. But those coping skills I developed as a child fail in the more nuanced world of adults.  I'm not a small child, and I'm not dealing with childhood circumstances.  So if my habits are that old, that unconscious, then for sure it's time to make some real changes, time to overcome some old habits.

So I'm trying to stay wide awake, to notice what is right in front of my face, and the obvious meaning in the obvious things..  There is subtle and hidden meaning, but there is also so much that is so obvious that we miss its meaning because we're so used to seeing it.  Sometimes the most invisible thing is the one you're so used to seeing that you don't even notice it's there. Pay attention.  I am.  And it's making a difference.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How Many Steps Does It Take?

Coming to the end of yourself can be an incredible blessing.  As long as you rely on your own limited resources - your own knowledge, experience, talents, skills, understanding, expertise - your capacity is defined by those things.  And they may take you far, as far as you want to go.

But sometimes they don't.  Sometimes you reach the absolute limits of your capacity, of your ability to manage your own creation, and it's unsustainable, shaking at its foundation and either falling down around you, or just waiting to.  I don't know which is scarier: impending destruction or its aftermath.

I do know that reaching the end of your own capacity, your own answers, your own ability to manage what you've created, is the beginning of liberation, of freeing yourself from your shortcomings, your weaknesses, your mistakes. It doesn't mean you don't have to face the consequences of your creation, or that you are somehow free from the responsibility for what you've done, but it's a great starting point for building something new.

You don't try to re-build a burning house while it's still burning.  You wait until the fire is out and the destruction and damage are done, and then you begin to re-build.  So if your life is in ruins, if you are standing among the ashes, understand where you are, that you have lost what was unsustainable, and now it's time to consider who you are and what you want in its place.

This is no way diminishes the reality of the loss, the pain of destruction, the toll of everything that is gone. Some say that suffering is an illusion, but what is more real and more immediate than pain?  We are so motivated by pain - escaping it, avoiding it, numbing it, working around it....  And especially in the moment, saying that devastation is a blessing may seem cavalier and insensitive.  But please know that the end of what you know isn't the end of everything that is.

If you're reading this, maybe you've reached the end - of yourself, of some situation, of a relationship, of something that you had invested in but never did belong to you.  Maybe you've reached the end of something you never wanted to end or has ended unfairly or unjustly or incomprehensibly.  Or maybe you want a new beginning, but don't know how to find the end.  However you've gotten here though - here you are.

So many of us have come to the end or ourselves, and thankfully, those who have come before us left a trail of crumbs to help us find our way to the next place.  I haven't dealt with addiction personally, but the 12 Steps from Alcoholics Anonymous are 12 very good steps, starting with surrender, with admitting, acknowledging and accepting that you've gotten to the end of yourself.  And then taking some steps to go beyond yourself and into something bigger - much bigger - than just yourself.  I've listed them below, with a couple of modifications:

1. Admit you are powerless—that your life has become unmanageable.
2. Believe that a Power greater than yourself could restore you.
3. Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand Him.
4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.
5. Admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your situation/wrongs.
6. Be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly ask Him to remove your shortcomings.
8. Make a list of all persons you have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continue to take personal inventory and when wrong, promptly admit it.
11. Seek through prayer and meditation to improve your conscious contact with God, as you understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for you and the power to carry that out.
12. Have a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, try to practice these principles in all our affairs.
You don't have to be dealing with addiction or abuse for these to be helpful. Many of these steps are identical ones I've taken in my own life leading to the most important and profound transformations I've experienced.  Turning within and taking full responsibility for your life alters the way you understand yourself and especially yourself in relation to your circumstances and relationships. Admitting that you don't have unlimited power, and that you need help from something beyond yourself is both scary and simultaneously liberating.  And you may be sad and in pain as you go through this process, but you will never be sorry for it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Habit, Part 2

Here's what I know for sure.  Habits, and the mechanism that creates habits, is very real and very powerful.  And while habits may define aspects of your life, of your thoughts, words, and actions, they are not you.  You are so much more than that.  You are an amazing soul with great potential, who maybe has developed some bad habits, but those habits aren't your destiny.

Old, deep habits are hard to break.  The older they are, the harder they are to change, and I'm not sure if the pull of old habits ever really goes away all together.  But when you fill yourself with power - your essential, pure self - through meditation or prayer or another spiritual practice, then you can see how much easier it is to change, and especially to create new habits that better honor who you truly are.

If you spend all your time trying to break habits, all your time trying to fix the old stuff, you don't have enough energy to build the new. And building the habits, new attitudes, new understanding...all that is the key to real change.  Real change doesn't come from fighting the old; it comes from creating something new.

I can see for myself all the ways that habits developed from times in my life when I was reacting to my environment as best I could, but not very well.  And these habits have a very deep hold in my life. They aren't the best habits, and they don't serve me so well now, but I can see how strongly embedded in me they are.  The more clearly I see them, the less power they have.  Not because I'm spending time fighting them, but because I'm spending a lot of time getting to know what I want instead and taking steps to build that.

Connect to G*d, to the source of all virtue and spiritual quality, and let that strength become your own. Turn within, even if just for a moment, and notice what's inside of you, away from the roles you play and the distractions of your life. Let that strength lift and inspire you right out of the rut of old habits. Stop trying to do the impossible, which is dig yourself out of a hole.  Harness all your enthusiasm and creativity to begin forming the kind of habits that are the basis for the life you want.

It takes some time and some focus and some energy, but it's so worth the effort.  Plant the seed of new habits now.  They will grow and bear such sweet and succulent fruit in your life.  What takes real effort now will become second nature soon enough.  So instead of feeling bad about everything you're not, spend some time, starting right now, paying attention to all that you are, all your good qualities and your endless potential.

Then pick one thing, and build on that,  And if you can't find one thing on your own, then ask someone who loves you to tell you at least one thing about yourself.  And if you can't find that person, then ask someone who knows you well.  And if you can't find that person, then just sit with an open mind and an open heart, and ask G*d to show you who you are and all the amazing gifts with which you've been entrusted.  Because He will.  G*d will reveal your own beauty and value to you in ways you maybe only hoped for.  And that's the start of something amazing, something you can really begin to build on.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Circadian Rhythms

The body moves in rhythmic cycles, physical energy ebbing and flowing, like the tide, raising and lowering according to time and temperature and light and all sorts of indicators that cause us to respond to our environment.  We respond with hunger or sleepiness or alertness or emotion.  Every day our circadian rhythms, the biological and physiological cycle,  informs and influences how we engage with the world.

And there are spiritual rhythms - spiritual cycles - as well.  As Ecclesiastes/Koheleth so well puts it, "Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under heaven."  A time to be born and a time to die; a time to sow and a time to reap; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to be silent and a time to speak.

We can each feel our own internal physical rhythms, but how aware are we of the spiritual rhythms?  Of the pull into silence and solitude and contemplation?  Of the pull inviting exploration to develop the gifts with which G*d has entrusted us?  Of the pull seeking a new way to understand old problems?  The soul pulls us toward the places needing attention, just like sleepiness pulls us toward rest each night.  And we ignore the pull of either sleepiness or spiritual renewal at our own peril.

Next time you feel the internal pull, give it a try.  Disengage, even for a little while, from everything that seems so pressing, and see what that pull is pulling you toward.  Like our circadian rhythms that give us cues and clues about how to successfully navigate our physical world., the spiritual rhythms tell us when to start or when to stop; when to face or when to withdraw; when to engage or when to detach; when to push forward and when to retreat.

In the ocean of life, these rhythms are the waves, carrying on them and between them and below them the meaning and wisdom that we need.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Habit: Part 1

The one absolute truism that no belief system can change, that no amount of desire or discipline can change, is that humans are habit-forming creatures.  The question is never if you will form habits, it's only a matter of which thoughts and behaviors will become habits, and how and what to do about the ones you already have.

Habit is a beautiful thing.  This internal mechanism guarantees that our thoughts and behaviors will become second-nature.  That is, we only have to exert conscious influence about something for a short period of time before our subconscious and unconscious take over.  Hold a thought, or perform an action enough times, and all decision-making disappears.  You begin to think the thought or perform the action quite literally without thinking about it.

Like your morning routine.  How much thought do give to what happens after awaking in the morning?  For most of us, not much.  Get up, have coffee, take a shower...  And the more thought we have to give, the more complex the activity and routine, the more stress we feel because we have to engage our conscious mind to make decisions around routines that we typically rely on habit to complete.  

If you add checking email to that routine, or getting the kids ready for school, or making lunch before you leave for work, you begin to add decision-making into the mix, and what was simple habit becomes more complex.  Instead of simple acting out of habit, you have to think, decide and execute.  

Staying consciously engaged can be exhausting, and we human beings have a finite capacity for that kind of engagement.  We have a certain amount of energy available for thinking about decisions, and most of that energy is used in pretty routine ways, so an added burden to that energetic load is significant.  It's why we forget to do easy things, like pick up milk, or deposit the check, or anything else that might be out of the ordinary.  Because if it's not a habit, if we have to think about it, we just might not have the extra energy for one more thing that day.

Human beings succeed in simplicity, and we fail in complexity.  And it's simple math that we do.  This isn't  about intelligence or mental capacity or intellectual complexity.  This is about how human beings use energy.  And the more we can rely on this marvelous mechanism of habit to steer us positively, the fewer choices we have to make about how to think, act, and behave, so the greater the chance that we'll succeed at being the kind of person we want to be.

There is no secret to long-term success at any endeavor.  It's simply this: make it a habit.  Whatever it is, make it a habit, or you will not be able to sustain your effort.  If you want to have more peace of mind, make your spiritual practice a habit.  If you want to lose weight, make your new eating plan a habit.  If you want to read more and watch less TV, make it a habit.

You can try every other kind of approach; you can try overcoming bad habits with the sheer force of your willpower, but whatever success you have doing that will end the minute you face one more decision in your day, a little bit of tiredness, or a change in routine that throws you off your game.  Success depends on most of your decisions being simple and habitual so you have enough energy to think about the big stuff when it comes along, and make good decisions when you have to.

If you are using all that decision-making energy just to figure out what to have for dinner, or what to wear to work, then you've got nothing left when you really need it.  And that's why we fail in complexity.  Because daily life demands a lot of us, and always more than we're expecting, and multiple demands overwhelm our capacity.  It's not a human failing.  It's just how it goes.

Stay tuned for the next installment about habit, when we explore how spiritual practice enhances our habit-forming capacity and enables it to really work on our behalf.