The more I practice mindfulness, the more I see my habits more clearly. I now realise how strongly our lives can be governed by deeply rooted habitual patterns. Our habits can be very subtle and take time to even notice and possibly years to change. Yet, the act of intentionally sitting still and in silence, simply paying attention to how the breath feels in the body can help to gradually change the habits of a lifetime. How does this happen?
Mindfulness meditation involves training the mind to return to the present moment via the breath and the body again and again and again. Every time that we notice the mind has wandered off and started thinking – we return our focus to the breath moving in the body. This process settles the mind and creates space for our very busy minds to rest in.
Giving our minds a rest feels good and clears out some of the emotional clutter that can bog us down. We learn to notice thoughts and let them go free without grasping or clinging to them. The same can be applied to emotions and physical sensations coming and going in the body. During meditation when we learn not to fixate on every thought, emotion or physical sensation that may arise in the body, we learn to let them go. This process creates space in the mind, and we see more fully what we are spending our mental and physical time and energy on.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” writes Annie Dillard. I have found this simple yet profound statement very helpful and it has stayed with me. When we begin to see how the mind works and where it habitually goes, we begin to see what we’re always so busy doing. This new awareness gives us a choice. So, rather than clinging to certain ways of being in the world or to a fixed sense of our own identity, we can begin to gently let go of aspects of ourselves that no longer work effectively. Things that really used to bother us can seem not so important now. You may ask, “doesn’t this just happen as we get older?” My response would be no, not necessarily. In my experience we can spend a lifetime repeating the same habits and going down the same roads until such time as we not only notice these habits in ourselves, but subsequently learn the tools and skills to change these habitual patterns.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to re-wire our minds with new habits that, when practiced repeatedly, eventually become hard-wired and like second nature to us. So, once we become aware of our habits, we can slowly begin to change them. For example, many of us are in the habit of worrying, being stressed and so on and can believe that “this is just the way we are”. Indeed, people sometimes introduce themselves in my workshops with a phrase like “I’m a worrier” or “I’m always late” and I am struck by the solidity of these self-identifying statements. It’s as if these traits or habits are viewed as fixed and permanent. Would we label ourselves positively with the same conviction I wonder? According to Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”. So negative experiences tend to ‘stick’ while positive experiences tend to slide off us. This means that we need to work a little harder to balance out this bias.
Mindfulness and self-compassion practices can help us to overcome the brain’s natural negativity bias. One simple practice that I particularly like involves placing your focus on the intention behind an action, for example, when someone does something nice for you or gives you a gift. It is so easy sometimes to take things for granted, to not pay full attention, to gloss over these pleasant events or gestures, rather than taking them in and really appreciating the intention behind them. These gestures need not be grandiose by any means, for example, I came home recently to a home-cooked meal on the table and a place set out so beautifully for me, with obvious care. I think I said something like “oh, thanks” at the time but in hindsight, this was a mechanical, rather than a meaningful way, of acknowledging the kind gesture.
A day or so later during silent reflection, that kind deed came to my mind again and I reflected on how nice it was of my sister to take the time to go and do the shopping, cook the food, lay the table so thoughtfully, with me in mind. The intention behind it was the key and I merely skipped over it at the time. I am grateful that I had time to reflect and to really savour the goodness and intention behind the action. There are many examples of such kindness in our daily lives, when someone does something for us, often at a cost to themselves. By taking some time to notice kind actions in your daily life (however big or small those actions are), and deliberately soaking in the positive feelings they create for up to 30 seconds, you are forming new habits. This is neuroplasticity in action.
There is a huge growth in research and practices on how we can incline our mind towards kindness and gratitude and the physical and mental benefits of doing so. Rick Hanson offers some wonderful practices for savouring the good and is the author of several useful books, including ‘Hardwiring Happiness’.
Weekly drop-in mindfulness sessions continue throughout the Summer from 9.30 – 10.30am on Tuesday mornings at the Market St Clinic, Skibbereen. For more information on future workshops and courses call Susan on 087 2700572 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.