Creating a New Habit? How Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Baby Steps Make Change Possible

July 24th, 2015 by

To reap the benefits of a habit, you must practice! Most of us have good intentions: meditate daily, eat mindfully, take daily walks, eat healthy meals. So why is it so hard to form a new habit and what’s the best way to do it?

is the tendency of the body and mind to keep things the way they are, even if things aren’t so good. We are wired for survival; homeostasis helps us survive. From its perspective, survival is all that matters.

Because we are multi-dimensional creatures with varying tendencies and capacities, we’re built to stay the same AND to change! The human brain is the only organ in the body that changes with experience. This is Neuroplasticity. As one of my meditation teachers notes: “You’re always practicing something. And whatever you’re practicing, you’re getting good at!” You will become “good” at whatever you consistently pay attention to—for better or worse. With neuroplasticity, we can influence what we become “good” at. The elements of change are present-moment awareness, patient persistence, and kindness and compassion towards oneself.

The last part is important; most of us feel guilty when we revert to old habits. Research shows that self-criticism kills motivation and is a big obstacle to change. Mindfulness and self-compassion can be applied in moments of self-criticism to support change.

How can we train ourselves to “do” the behaviors we want to get good at, and let go of those that aren’t serving us?

Most of our thoughts, choices, and behaviors occur automatically, resulting from old beliefs and patterns. These patterns have well-established roots in our brains because we’ve “practiced” them frequently. They have such hearty neural pathways that simply by choosing them it becomes easier to repeat them. In fact, when we consistently travel down these neural pathways, our brain rewards us with Dopamine, an addictive chemical that helps create memories and controls the part of the brain responsible for desire and decision-making. This chemical process behind Automatic Pilot is the reason change can seem so difficult.

Mindfulness, or present moment non-judgmental awareness, is a skill we can strengthen with meditation practice. Consistently practicing just 5-10 minutes a day makes a big difference in forming and letting go of habits. Don’t have that kind of time? Try 1 minute. Research shows that by breaking down the desired behavior into smaller steps, and committing to just the first step, you’re already on your way to establishing your new habit in the brain.

Once you’ve completed the first step, chances are that the next steps will get easier to take until your new habit is fully implemented. By strengthening your capacity to “attend” to the present moment through regular mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll improve your ability to “be present” when unwanted behaviors surface and will find that you have a choice about what to do next.

By dwelling within the present, even if only for a moment, you begin seeing new options. One option may be to take another baby step toward implementing a desired new behavior: savoring this bite of food rather than eating mindlessly, taking a walk now rather than continuing to work at your computer. This is how we re-wire ourselves to create and experience the life we want.

Thanks to research around habit forming and its relationship to neural pathways in the brain there are now many tools to help us replace old habits with new ones.  Here are a few, inspired by Gregory Ciotti, author of The Sparring Mind and How to Build Good Habits (and make them stick):

  1. Set an intention or name a “purpose” for why you want to develop this habit. The most successful habit-formers are those who are internally motivated.
  2. Know that you will fail, and when you do, simply forgive yourself and start over.
  3. Start small. The surest way to accomplish goals is to set big goals and small quotas. If you’re brand new to meditation, and would like to develop a regular practice, 3 minutes per day might be a perfect start.

Four Things Mindful People Do Differently

July 10th, 2015 by

Research continues to support the many health and quality of life benefits of mindfulness practice: stress reduction, greater physical well-being, and a happier, more stable mental state. Did you know that if you practice mindfulness, you are more likely to be successful in making positive behavior changes in your life (think weight loss, exercise, productivity), and you’re less likely to catch a cold or the flu?  Media personalities are also causing us to take a closer look, including ABC newsman Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works — a True Story. Anchorman Anderson Cooper recently participated in a meditation retreat led by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn as part of a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper reports that because of the benefits he has experienced, he is now a mindfulness practitioner. They’re getting our attention. But why should you build time into your day for mindfulness practice? How are the daily lives of mindfulness practitioners different from the lives of those who have yet to discover this millennia old form of meditation?

They Don’t Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster

Sure, mindful people have emotions—we all do, we are human! The difference is that mindful people are aware of their emotions in a different way. Their mindfulness practice trains them to be aware of and feel their strong emotions without automatically reacting to them.  When emotions arise, they are able to observe them from the safety of neutral ground rather than being yanked around by the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster. Over time, and with practice, they have learned from their own experience that even the most intense feelings are impermanent.

They Keep Calm and Carry On

Because people who practice mindfulness have practiced working with their difficult emotions, their reactions, decisions, and sense of self are less influenced by their emotional state when things “go wrong” or don’t turn out as planned.  Practitioners are more able than others to remain calm and effective in stressful situations, actively listening to others, and responding skillfully based on what’s called for in the moment, rather than reacting automatically.

They Pay Attention to Their Bodies

Mindfulness practice is about bringing awareness to the present moment, noticing thoughts and feelings as well as bodily sensations. People who practice this type of awareness have learned that it is OK to “be with” discomfort, knowing from experience that it too is not “fixed” but changeable. Mindfulness invites us to “hold” and attend to  discomfort in the body with kindness rather than resistance —whether it is the racing heart of anxiety, the burning tightness in the chest of anger, or the heartache of grief. By learning to turn toward what’s difficult in the body, and to explore it with curiosity, they have discovered that pain is often blanketed with layers of thought, resistance, and strong emotion. While everyone experiences pain, mindful people have discovered that without these layers of added psychological pain, their true physical pain is actually manageable. And by staying attentive to the body, they know when and how to take care of themselves, for example with a timely yoga stretch, exercise, or rest. Because they are more embodied than others, mindful people experience the fullness, richness, and aliveness of their embodied human experience.

They Practice Compassion

People who practice mindfulness and meditation tend to be less afraid of thoughts and emotions because they have looked at them and discovered that thoughts and feelings are fleeting and illusory. By the same token, they have willingly embraced deeply painful emotions and felt them in their entirety. Consequently, mindful people are more inclined to connect with and reach out to others who are suffering, and offer them empathy and compassion. The late great Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa referred to the “genuine heart of sadness,” or the tender, open, fearless heart of compassion that is awakened through practicing mindfulness. By knowing our own pain we connect more intimately with the human experience of others.

Tips for Mindfully Working with a Difficult Emotion

Sense into your body with kindness and curiosity. What sensations are associated with this emotion? Where are they located?

Notice what happens as you observe.  Do the sensations stay the same, intensify, diminish, or shift in some way?

Name the emotion. Is what you are feeling anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness?  Research shows that developing the skill of naming our emotions in the moment they arise helps loosen their grip.

Practice “just being” every day. Give your mind an “anchor” to pay attention to, for example the sensations of your breathing, or the sensations of movement during yoga. Notice when the mind wanders into thinking. Patiently return your attention to your chosen anchor, allowing thoughts to drift through your awareness like clouds in a vast sky.