I’ve never been much for the ceremony of making New Year’s resolutions. I’ve found that my resolve is not strong enough to form a new habit simply because the calendar has turned. My inspiration to change a habit—and the ability to effectively do so—comes more easily if I’m truly feeling the pain of that habit and am fully ready to take another path. Then I put mindfulness to work to help me implement the change.
Even then, it’s not easy. Habits are powerful. Our repetitive actions and thoughts lay down grooves in our bodies and minds. The more we practice them, the more unconscious they become. Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of the blog PsyBlog and the book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, says that habits make up about 50 percent of all the actions we perform each day.
Most of the habits we practice each day are quite useful—habits such as locking the door when we leave the house, brushing our teeth after eating, donning our seat belt or doing what it takes to be on time for work and appointments.
Still there are other habits we might wish we didn’t have, habits that range from the simply annoying—like biting your nails or cracking your knuckles—to habits that threaten our health and well-being or that of others—like habits of overconsumption (eating, drinking, smoking) or venting our anger inappropriately.
So we choose New Year’s—the time of new beginnings—to create a new intention.
In some ways creating healthy habits is the work there is to do in this life—to let go of what doesn’t serve us and the other beings that share our lives, and create new habits that allow us to spread more love and happiness around us. It’s just not easy. But there are things we can do to help. In my experience, the most powerful tool is mindfulness.
The Power of Mindfulness
Back in the 1980s when I first started practicing Insight meditation, it took very little time on the meditation cushion for me to figure out that my mind was lost in thoughts, reveries, snippets of music and emotional dramas 99.9999999 percent of the time. From there, it didn’t take long to figure out that 99.9999999 percent of the mind stuff passing through was the same recycled stuff repeating endlessly. Such is the power of habit.
As I began to recognize my unconscious patterns of thinking and reacting, I started to be able to recognize them earlier and earlier in the process. This enabled me to stop feeding the patterns before they really took hold of me and created often unhealthy reactions, at least some of the time. (Is it just me, or is it true for others that the negative thoughts that generate anger, frustration and other such disruptive emotions often the most addicting ones?) As I stopped feeding my habits, I found that there was space for all kinds of wonderful, new mental formations: creative energy, a deep abiding happiness and above all, silence.
Mindfulness Equals Choice
The power of mindfulness is that it gives us choice. Because our habits are mostly unconscious, they seem entirely normal for us. We’ve thought these thoughts, performed these actions so many times that we don’t have to think about them. They have tremendous momentum.
Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to slow down and examine the thoughts and actions we’re investing in. In seeing them we then have the choice as to whether to continue nourishing them—which may be entirely appropriate—or to stop giving them energy. The power of choice is the greatest power we have.
Mindfulness is a lifelong skill that takes years to develop. Our minds have a whole lot of momentum in the direction of entropy. It’s very helpful to remember this and to be patient with the process and with ourselves. We can start by setting aside a time each day—five minutes to an hour or more. It’s more effective to practice each day than it is to practice for long periods of time.
Settle into a corner of your house and simply sit and observe your mind. When thoughts arise—and they will—there’s nothing you need to do with them. Both indulging them and trying to push them away will give them energy. Simply observe. Know that thinking is happening. Some days thinking will be rampant; some days your mind will be more quiet. Over time, our habits change. Be patient.
Tips for Making your Resolutions Stick
The habit of mindfulness takes years, but what can you do right now to help your resolutions become habits? Here are a couple suggestions from Jeremy Dean’s interview:
- Be specific. Rather than resolving to lose weight or be nicer or more gracious, picture the specific situation you’d like to cultivate.
- Then—and this is really important—think of an action that will accomplish this. Again, be specific.
How to Develop a Meditation Practice
Here’s an example: Say you want to develop a meditation practice. Identify how much time you’d ideally like to spend, keeping in mind what is practical given your schedule, family and work commitments. Then, find a corner of your house or apartment where you can keep your meditation cushion or bench set up, so that it’s not a huge effort to set it up each day.
Also, I’ve found that now when I go to my cushion, my mind has habituated itself to quiet down a bit after so many years of sitting in the same spot. Even though I’m not a morning person, I’ve come to realize that if I don’t sit in the morning, it’s not likely to happen. Phone calls, emails, meals, errands, work and relationship commitments are more likely to come up later in the day. So I’ve developed the habit of sitting first thing in the morning—after feeding the cats, of course.
So here’s a breakdown:
Step one: Identifying the habit you want to create: Develop a meditation practice for x number of minutes a day.
Step two: Identifying an action: Commit to a time when it’s most practical, set up a space and then do it!
If you have any thoughts or suggestions of ways to cultivate new habits, please share them!