Do you have any habits that you’re proud of? Anything that you’ve worked hard to establish as a regular part of your daily or weekly routine? Maybe you work out, floss, call your mom, or say please and thank you every day. Perhaps you even have a nice thing going with a regular mindfulness practice (yes!! high five). Or, maybe there are habits you’re proud of having broken, like smoking or nail biting or letting your inner critic make you feel unworthy. Yeah…wait, what? What was that last one? Mmm hmmm, habits come in lots of forms, and not all of them are external.
Bet you didn’t know that the way your brain responds to situations – how you assess what’s happening, the motives you assign to people involved, the expectations you have for what will occur, AND how you do or don’t implicate yourself in it – involves a series of patterns, or habits of thinking. The show is led and directed by your internal narrator – yes, that’s right, the voice in your head.
Now before you go all Command + Q and log out of here, I’m not suggesting that you hear voices, although if you do, then add all of this on top of them. What I’m talking about is the quiet organizer we all have in our heads that attempts to help us make sense of the world. “Ah, yes, here’s what this is. Here’s why it’s like this, and here’s what usually happens next.” It tries to help you be prepared, and have a sense of security about what’s going on around you. It wants to help you use what you already know so you can move on to what you don’t know, and gather more information. Trouble is, sometimes it overdoes it, and lays down templates in places where they may not quite fit, or where you might be better served spending a little more time paying attention.
These are habits of thought. A few relevant examples might include nuggets of “self-knowledge” like “I’m not good at standardized tests” or “I am great at giving presentations.” Sometimes they involve other people, as in “I’ve met people like her before,” or “I’ve been down this road already.” And maybe you’re right, and maybe you have, and maybe things will go down just as you expect. But what do you think would happen if you didn’t roll your expectations out right at the beginning like that? Is there a chance that if you don’t expect to do well on an exam, you won’t? Or that when you treat a person as if they are already acting a certain way, they’re more likely to fall into that template with you? I’m not trying to write a quantum physics paper here or anything, but I do think there’s a chance that habits of thought create patterns of behavior, and that “see, I told you so” moment you have when things go just like they always have may be less about your predictions and more about your actions.
Part of the challenge is that this is subtle stuff, most of the time. These internal responses happen so quickly and seamlessly that we don’t even notice them. We think we’re just observing reality in an unbiased fashion. So how do we get out of the loop? Raise your hand if you know the answer…
Yup, you got it – mindfulness, of course! And yes, there is a pattern to the responses to the questions I ask here. But, you get an A+ anyway.
The only way to step off the merry-go-round in your head is to notice it’s there to begin with. To do that, you need an awareness of your thoughts, which is exactly what mindfulness is all about. Inhale, exhale. Find that space between stimulus and response, and notice how your brain pushes you towards certain assumptions and actions. Want to go in that direction? No problem, just make that a choice and suddenly, the template starts to look a little different already.
There’s nothing wrong with patterns, just as long as they’re built from intention and not inertia. The ride’s more fun then anyway.
Photo credit: Mink Mingle