Changing Habits

bad habits

Habits occur after the continuous repetition of an action; they become a behaviour. Sometimes they arise to provide comfort when experiencing an unpleasant feeling (or avoiding the real issue) or to ensure brain efficiency, so we don’t need to re-learn everything.

Half the time we don’t even realise what we are doing is out of habit. You can use meditation practices to help change habits, in particular, a mindfulness type of meditation where you bring your awareness to the moment at hand. Meditation practice isn’t about sitting and meditating, and then when you finish, it’s done. It’s about how the meditation sets you up for the rest of the day, and how you bring that meditative awareness into your daily life.

‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ habits

Often, people categorise habits as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but in reality, those simplified categories do not necessarily suit all habits. To determine what type of habit it is, you can ask your self ‘Is this habit positively impacting on my wellbeing, does it serve my deepest need or intention?

According to mindfulness teacher and author of The Here-and-now Habit, Hugh G Byrne PhD, habits can be categorised into the following:

  • Healthy or Unhealthy
  • Wanted or Unwanted
  • Helpful or Unhelpful
  • Unharmful or Harmful

An example of unhealthy habits is drinking, using drugs and even social media (or ‘surfing the net’ mindlessly) these things can disconnect you from the world around you, from your friends and family. And without realising it you may be causing pain to yourself and others. When I was young, anything that disconnected me from the experience of life was considered ‘anti-social’.

Take drinking. People often drink to ‘calm the nerves’ or to feel comfortable in social situations; being used to avoid an unpleasant feeling like anxiety or nervousness. Alcohol and drugs also might be used to avoid an unpleasant feeling like loneliness or even anger. 

The thing is, you might not even realise that you’re doing this because it has become a habit. And with drinking, it has become socially acceptable, it just what you do. It’s not until you question ‘why’ you want to have that alcoholic beverage, and take note of how you’re feeling at that time, that you can get an understanding of what it is you’re using the alcohol or drugs for.

An unhealthy habit can also be overworking. I know this one all too well. I remember years ago, I thought I had ‘got rid’ of my anxiety. I was feeling good all the time and was moving forward with my life and I was getting shit done. It wasn’t until I read an article on the different types of anxiety that I realised that I was using the busyness to avoid the unpleasant feeling of anxiety and to find some form of peace within me. But all the busyness would do was burn me out after a couple of months.

Habits are also created for brain efficiency. So for example, imagine if you had to relearn how to boot up your computer and log in? Or every time you got into your car, re-learn all the road rules? Habits like these are created so that you have more time and space to learn new things. It is also said that brain efficiency, is why the human brain has become smaller as we’ve evolved.

“…training to be in the present moment can free you from the suffering that comes from being lost in discursive thought, opening you to the freedom that is there in each moment.”


Changing habits

Good news is habits can be changed. It’s not a quick or simple process, it can take hard work, but it can be done.

To change a habit, you have to disrupt and discontinue the automatic behaviour or thought pattern. Which is why recognising your habits, and becoming aware of them is so important to be able to make change.

There are a number of ways to disrupt an automatic behaviour including: a change of scenery, avoiding your regular watering hole, taking steps to change a habit (rather than just going ‘cold turkey’), having clear intentions, becoming aware of your habits, deciding if your actions align with your values, and if you’re expecting that a challenge might occur that could trigger your habit, then pre-empt that experience by visualising how you might approach it (think it through).

You can use mindful meditation practices to help to improve your awareness in your everyday activities and how they are affecting your body and mind.

According to Hugh G Byrne: “…training to be in the present moment can free you from the suffering that comes from being lost in discursive thought, opening you to the freedom that is there in each moment.

Using meditation to change a habit

Our beliefs can cause us inner turmoil when associated with a habit. For example:

“If I have this alcoholic beverage I will feel less anxious, lonely, frustrated, tense…”

and so on.

This is a problem if the habit is considered harmful, unhealthy, unwanted or unhelpful.

A mindfulness meditation practice can help you to let go of those beliefs that keep you holding onto those habits which do not positively serve your wellbeing.

You can manage these thoughts and beliefs by having focussed attention, using a focus like the breath or mantra helps you to anchor in the present moment. When your mind wonders to a thought and you become aware of it, you take yourself back to the breath or the mantra.

This approach “…will help loosen your identification with thoughts and develop a more healthy relationship with them. You’ll begin to see your thoughts as simply thoughts and not necessarily truths.” – Hugh G Byrne.

You can then take this approach into your daily life, and when you experience an unpleasant feeling, rather than reaching for the harmful, unhealthy, unhelpful or unwanted habit that will make it go away, you can take your awareness to it. Sit with it, and you’ll find it will soon pass. It’s important though, not to obsess about the feeling. Just acknowledge that it is there, like you would if you were meditating. 

In Kundalini Yoga, we often use mantra throughout our physical practice and during meditation. A mantra that is regularly used with the focus on changing habits is Sa Ta Na Ma.

This mantra has been referred to as the mantra for new beginnings because of the symbolism of each syllable:

  • Sa = Infinity
  • Ta = life
  • Na = death
  • Ma = rebirth

Looking at it with regard to habits, you are using it to change your habits. I like to see it as the following process:

  • Sa = Infinity – where you currently are with your habit
  • Ta = Life – recognising that habit and beginning to make change
  • Na = Death – the habit no longer exists and your practising to create a new healthy, wanted or helpful habit
  • Ma = Rebirth – your new habit is now part of ‘you’

To change a habit you have to disrupt or discontinue the automatic behaviour or thought pattern. This is why we use the mantra Sa Ta Na Ma. Not only does it help to focus the mind (and if said out loud, regulate the breath) the theory is, that the mantra can be used to disrupt the ‘automatic’. For example, in physical practice, we use this mantra and reverse and mix up the movements, so you have to change both the physical and the mental. It’s challenging. For example:

  • Sa = hands clap in front of you
  • Ta = arms out to the side at shoulder height, palms facing down
  • Na = arms out to the side at shoulder height, palms facing up
  • Ma = hands clap above your head

You might repeat this movement several times, associating the syllable with the physical action, getting into a rhythm and getting used to it. And then the teacher may reverse it, or mix it up.

  • Sa = hands clap above your head
  • Ta = arms out to the side at shoulder height, palms facing up
  • Na = arms out to the side at shoulder height, palms facing down
  • Ma = hands clap out in front of you

You then may practice that several times for the teacher to then change the sequencing again.

Patience, determination and consistency

It takes time to change a habit. Consistency in your practice is developing a healthy, helpful and wanted habit. When you’re consistent and create a repetition of behaviour, the behaviour or action will become as automatic as ‘unconciously’ picking up your phone to check Facebook.

How long for something to become a habit comes down to the person and the type of habit you are trying to change. Research suggests that takes 66 days to develop a new habit. In Kundalini Yoga, the length of time depends on the meditation you are doing. In my article ‘3 tips for meditating’, I refer to a 40-day, 90-day, 120-day and 1000-day practice and what each length does for changing habits. But at the end of the day, the more you do it, the more embedded the habit becomes.


Falling off the meditation wagon

Do not punish yourself for having unhealthy, unhelpful or unwanted habits. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you. You’ve just lost your way a little, lost the connection to your true self, your life’s purpose, your passion or your calling (however you like to look at it).

Same goes for meditation, do not punish yourself or feel guilty if you miss a day of meditation and have to start again. This is one of the reasons why I don’t get too wrapped up in how many days I’m doing a meditation. I’ve made a commitment to myself to meditate everyday. It makes me feel good. I’m not doing meditation as a one-off course which I want to stop at the end of the 40 days. I intend to meditate every day, so if I miss a day (and it has happened!) I just start again the next day. No big deal. Sure, I’m annoyed at myself a little. But that feeling passes when I know I just can begin again. I’ve not lost my opportunity.

This is why I say the creation of a habit takes time, and that length of time to create or change a habit will be different for everyone.


Identifying if a habit is harmful, unhealthy, unwanted or unhelpful

A way of working out which category a habit sits in, you need to ask yourself:

‘What is it I really want in life?’.

Deep down, in your belly and your heart, what is it that you feel passionate about, that gives you that feeling of excitement, what is your true intention?

When you discover what it is you truly want, take a look at your habits both behavioural and your thought patterns, and work out if they are positively impacting on your wellbeing and contributing to your deepest needs and intention/ goal.

You can repeat this process as often as you like, while you move forward in life, because your intention may change. I review what my intention is each year. My purpose in life hasn’t changed so much, but my intention or goal to continue that purpose does.

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