Last week I came off the rails a little bit.
It’s been a helluva spring. After three months of COVID-19, a week of protests and riots, and half-a-year of working on my personal health and fitness plan I was feeling pretty wound up. Maybe it was the lockdown. Maybe the anger and hostility that seems so prevalent today. Maybe I’d been just a little too disciplined for too long. I decided I needed to let things unwind a little bit.
So I had a pizza.
And drank some beers.
In fact, I had the first beers I’d had since January. Service Brewing Compass Rose. Good IPAs. Cristi and I watched some mindless TV and I finished off the night with a touch too much box wine. As I tucked into bed I turned off my alarm for the first time in weeks. I was sleeping in.
I woke up the next morning with a headache. Dumb. I hate hangovers. The perfect punishment for poor decision making. I decided to skip intermittent fasting. Maybe a big breakfast would help my head. Cristi and I sat on the porch and drank coffee. No morning walk. No kettlebells. Discipline fail.
Truth be told, I was having some pretty negative thoughts. My headache had me in a grim mood. What had seemed like a fun break from my routine the night before was starting to feel like a failure of some kind. How did that happen? I had the strangest feeling that my self-control and discipline might begin to unravel despite the fitness successes of the past few months.
My personal fitness has fluctuated quite a bit with the years and it’s often been entangled with my mental health. I was overweight as a kid. Always looking for something to eat. Bored. Stressed. Whatever the reason was. Being a fat kid sucks. Kids are mean. It messes with you.
By high school I started exercising and dieting, determined to lose the weight. I kept right on going in college. Went overboard with calorie restriction, exercise and veganism. That created a whole different set of issues. I had to break my leg to break those bad habits.
Since then I’ve gained weight, lost it, and gained it back again. It’s a pattern many people are familiar with. One I had hoped to break out of.
This might all sound a bit melodramatic. One night of beer and pizza isn’t the end of the world. I was obviously overreacting.
I know. It’s silly.
But knowing that didn’t stop my mind from heading off on a fatalistic tear. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe I had set myself on a path that would eventually lead to the undoing of the progress I have made over the past several months.
Irrational, but true.
I thought about this as I sipped my coffee. At some point I decided that I could muster enough discipline to do my morning meditation. Better late than never. I sat down in the spare bedroom, set the timer for 30 minutes and focused my attention on my breathing.
After a few moments two words appeared in my mind. As clearly as if they had been spoken.
On the Path
Sometimes life feels like it has a trajectory. I think it’s natural for human beings to view the world this way. We place ourselves on a fictional path, create a narrative that begins in the past, passes briefly through the present moment and disappears off into some imagined future.
This path has forks. Random events that change everything. Choices that lead to outcomes. A fork taken sets in motion a series of events. Events that we imagine build momentum in a certain direction. Like a train switching onto a different track, accelerating toward an unseen destination. As events unfold we’re increasingly locked into the story arc of our lives. For better or for worse.
At least this is how it seems.
Part of the reason that life feels like this at times is the power of habit. While life is filled with random events and choices, it is largely driven by habitual patterns of behavior. The small things that we do every day. The things we don’t even think about. Things that are essentially automated.
What we do is who we are.
Where we are headed.
What do you do when you wake up in the morning? When you come home after work? What are the things in your life that you do automatically, without thinking? Do you open the fridge when you’re bored? Stop for a Starbucks on the way to work? Crack a beer when you get home after a long day? Turn on the TV? Or go for a run? Spend an hour writing? Pick up a book?
I’ve been reading a lot during the shutdown, and one of the most insightful books I’ve picked up is Atomic Habits, by James Clear. The book is a comprehensive guide to the mechanics of building new habits and breaking old ones. Reading it helped me understand just how much of our lives are on autopilot.
Intuitively I think we all know this. It’s why we can feel like our lives are on a path that’s pulling us toward some deterministic future. So much of what we do is automated. Yes, we make choices. Yes, randomness presents us with new challenges and opportunities. But most of all, our habits drive our lives.
I realized that my fear of backsliding was actually a fear of losing the healthy habits that have been developing over the past six months. I feared that I would revert to old habits and find myself carried away down a path I would rather avoid. Powerless to alter course.
Because I’ve been down that road before. I’ve had the experience of reverting to bad habits. It’s easy to do.
The reason, Clear explains, is that old habits don’t go away. They’re deeply wired into our consciousness. Old habits get pushed out of the way by new ones, grow weaker over time, but they’re still there. The rewards are the same. The triggers remain.
If we want to break bad habits we have to be able to recognize those triggers. Insert a pause between thought and action. Space for a choice.
How can we learn to do this?
We’ve all had the experience of getting carried away by a thought. In fact, before I started meditating regularly I didn’t realize how much of my day was filled with nonstop thinking. Something pops to mind, one thought follows another, and off we go on a stream-of consciousness daydream.
What’s more, we think these thoughts are us. Are we thinking them? Deliberately? The voice we hear in our head when we talk to ourselves. Who is it? Ever catch yourself explaining something to an unseen person in your mind? Who are you explaining to? Who is the voice that’s speaking? Who is listening? Is it us? Or just part of the machinery of our brains?
Most of the time we’re so caught up in our thoughts that we don’t even notice we’re thinking. Through mindfulness meditation we can train ourselves to notice when thoughts arise. Learn to catch ourselves in mid-thought.
This is useful.
It’s useful because, with practice, a person can catch a thought or emotion in realtime and diffuse it before it creates a problem. How many arguments could be averted, bouts of depression prevented, habits short-circuited if we could just notice what was happening in our lives moment to moment? Notice the triggers that set our emotions into overdrive. Put a small space between those triggers and the actions so we can choose rather than act out of habit.
Learning to notice thoughts is central to the practice of mindfulness mediation. In mindfulness meditation, you’re not trying to stop thinking. You’re not trying to focus on a single word or object. Instead, you’re simply observing your environment. Following your breath with your attention. Listening to sounds in the room. Noticing when a thought enters your mind.
When you catch yourself lost in thought, you focus your attention on the thought itself. You note it. When you do, a strange thing happens.
The thought goes away.
The more you practice, the more you realize that thoughts appear from nowhere. Almost as if they are thinking themselves. And when we focus on them, actually pay attention to them, they dissipate.
Thoughts appear and disappear of their own accord. Unless we allow them to hijack our minds.
The problem is that hijacking is the normal state of affairs. A thought pops to mind, we indulge it for a moment and it leads to another thought, which leads to another. We’re along for the ride as if we’re sitting in front of a screen watching a movie.
Sometimes our thoughts take us on a pleasant ride. Sometimes they lead us into dark places. This is especially true for people who are, for whatever reason, prone to negative emotion. Some of us get a negative thought in our heads and can’t set it down. We worry at it like a dog chewing a flea bite. Follow it down a path that leads to progressively darker territory.
I assume there are people out there who don’t experience this problem. As far as I can tell, some people are naturally optimistic.
The rest of us have to work at it.
Meditation, it turns out, is an effective part of that work. Part of the reason has to do with the mechanics of the practice. When you notice that you’ve become lost in thought you need to begin again without self-judgement. If you start thinking about how bad you are at meditating you’ll go tearing off on a new thought train. Lost in thought all over again. You have to practice just noticing the thoughts and then going back to observing your breathing or listening to sounds in the room.
This happens over and over and over again. Most people find themselves distracted by thoughts almost continuously. So a meditation session is an exercise in repetitively noticing and beginning again. The whole time you’re training your mind not to judge success or failure. Over time you wear a groove in your mind. A habit. It becomes a little easier to recognize negative thoughts in everyday life and set them aside without letting them lead you into darkness.
It’s a little like reprogramming your brain.
We all have things in our lives that we would like to improve. Habits we would like to shape for the better. Most of us would like to improve our health. Our careers. Our relationships.
The good news is that we can use small changes in habit to move in the right direction. We can then build on these habits to create systems that accelerate our progress. We can actually reprogram our brains. Move toward a better version of ourselves. If we focus on what we do every day we will have success. Even if progress seems incremental at times.
The bad news is there are going to be bumps in the road. Setbacks that make us question whether it’s all worth it. Thoughts that lead us down the path of wondering if we shouldn’t just give up on the whole thing. Whether we wouldn’t be happier if we went back to eating pizza and drinking beer all the time. Stopped exercising every day. Watched a little more TV.
The ironic thing is that thoughts like this can actually trigger our old habits. Stress eating. Binge drinking. The exact habits we’re trying to leave behind can be elevated by thoughts of failure. By getting carried away in a train of discursive thought.
That is what was happening to me the other day. I was disappointed in myself for drinking too much the night before. I was being carried away by negative thinking. I managed to convince myself to sit down to meditate. To put at least part of my daily routine into action.
When I did, I got a message. Loud and clear.
I realized that, just as I could begin again in meditation, I could begin again in habit forming. It was so simple. Just begin again. Don’t attach judgements to the situation. Don’t allow yourself to be carried off in negative thought. Just do the thing. Work the system. Reinforce the good habits.
So I did. I set the alarm. The next morning I was up early again. Back into my routine. That’s all it took.
The habits I’ve been building for the past several months have put down roots. I know with time those roots will grow stronger. I’m no longer using discipline to try to force myself into a pattern of behavior. That pattern is becoming more automatic every day.
I’m actually managing to reprogram my brain. For the better. Which is something I once doubted could ever be done.
If I can do it. Anyone can.
If you’re interested in learning about mindfulness meditation I highly recommend Sam Harris’s book Waking Up. It’s a look at meditation from a scientific angle, without any religious overtones. Harris also has a meditation ap that’s available for iPhone and Android. The Waking Up Ap includes an introductory course with daily guided meditations. It’s very helpful, regardless of whether you’re just getting started, or have practiced for some time.
James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, is well worth reading. It’s a practical guide to making incremental changes in your daily habits that can dramatically shape the trajectory of your life. Clear lays our simple guidelines that help create new habits and break old ones that are holding you back. If you’re interested in hearing Clear’s ideas before buying his book you might enjoy this podcast.
I first heard about the idea of using systems rather than goals and reprogramming your brain in Scott Adams’ book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s one part autobiography and one part solid advice for creating a more successful approach to life. Useful. As is Adams’ podcast: Coffee with Scott Adams.
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