Coming at you today from Tulum Mexico! I want to tell you this story about my husband, Soren, and his tooth brushing adventure.
So, Soren’s standing at the sink, and he KNOWS you don’t use tap water in Mexico to brush your teeth. He’s standing there, with his toothbrush in one hand, puts the toothpaste on it, reaches for the sink, turns it on, then stops because duh Mexico water. So, he turns off the sink, opens the bottled water, pours it over his toothpaste covered toothbrush, and brushes his teeth. Then, 30 seconds later, reaches to turn on the tap to rinse, and stops because duh Mexico water. He pours the bottled water on his toothbrush to wash it off, then reaches for the tap AGAIN to get water to rinse his mouth! He starts to crack up, and then finally uses the bottled water for time #3 because BIG DUH, Mexico water.
This is your mind at work. You are one giant, walking mass of worn-in neural pathways. Unless you’re, say, 6 years old.
Now this is great news if your habits are good! If you get up, go to the gym, don’t really fight yourself on it, then fabulous! If you go to work, know how to knock out a few organized emails or use your complicated software to edit your studio’s TV show—great! Or if you start each day with some creative time, call your aging mom every day while you walk to the train, cook a dinner where everything comes out at the same time, and work through a great list of to do’s without stress —awesome. All these are terrific habits if they serve you in an efficient way, and accomplish the things you want to get done.
But what about all the conscious or unconscious habits you do every minute of the day? These can screw everything up. Let’s start with an obnoxious example. Let’s say every day you get on a scale, feel terrible about it, and then unconscious sabotage yesterday’s plan to cut back on carbs or whatever. Is that working for you? Do you even know that your habitual thought is undermining you? What if every time you go home to visit family, you prepare yourself for a fight. You see the driveway, your body goes into fight or flight. You walk through the door, smell the familiar smells and you immediately think you’re less than your father wants you to be. You see your sister and have a million habitual thoughts about what she could be doing to get the man of her dreams and within the hour you lay into her with criticism and wreck your weekend together.
Your habitual thoughts can sabotage everything. We have to fight them all the time. Or rather we have to stop our unconscious habitual way of going through our days long enough to even SEE these habits. This is the really hard part. That’s why going to new places vacations, adventures, moving, any change really is so helpful because it allows you to suddenly see how you’ve been thinking and doing things.
One of the things I love the most about teaching my improvisational self-discovery workshop is that most people there are doing something they’ve never done before. And immediately, when people are a little unsure or nervous, they go to their what I think of as lowest common denominator – they cling to their habitual bag of tricks. You’ll hear me say “the way you do anything is the way you do everything” and that’s what happens. If you’re a leader, and you get into a new setting, you’ll LEAD. If you’re a hanger-backer, you’ll hang back. You won’t even know you’re doing this perhaps, because the habit is so ingrained. Your entire being will just DO it. What I do in my workshop, is help you NOTICE this. For example, I’ll see someone who’s a really nice person (not a diva, but just totally over-manage a scene, and say, “Hey, you’re taking over the scene and not letting your partner get a word in. Why do you think that is?” I’ve had this particular one happen with a very famous and self-aware self-help writer and even she was totally startled at her own habit of taking over. She laughed and said, “Oh my god, that’s my family! They were all so dysfunctional I had to take responsibility for everyone!” So voila, she took over for everyone everywhere she went. It was incredibly helpful for her to identify her habit. Only after seeing it come out like that are we able to create a mindfulness practice – which ironically is actually also a habit! But a good one we want to create. And slowly over time you’ll be able to catch yourself more easily.
Now back to my husband’s remarkably good looking teeth, which by the way never had braces and I’m jealous of. One of the reasons that he was able to catch himself whereas lots of people would now have dysentery, is that he’s a practicing Buddhist. The dude is MINDFUL. And it’s an even stronger example of how insidious habits are BECAUSE he’s so mindful. I mean, damn, if the Buddhist mindfulness guy gets caught 3 times in 45 seconds, then are we all doomed???
No. The good news is that no matter how old you are the mind is remarkably flexible in these ways IF YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO IT. Which is an interesting saying. Put your mind to it.
So let’s try this:
First, just let this sink in and start to watch your more obvious habits: morning routines, work routines, communication with others, how you go about your day and get things done.
Second, (and this is harder), watch your thoughts and projections on other people. What are you assuming about them? Try verifying. Hey, I’m thinking you’re not enjoying this project or Hey, hon I’m thinking you are stressed and worried about work, is that true? You may be surprised to find your habitual assumptions about other people are wrong.
Third, (even harder maybe), is watching your own thoughts. Why are you pushing some particular boulders uphill? Like say at work, you always go and do email first because you want to “get it out of the way” and yet it always distracts you from looking at the big picture and planning your day well. You get side tracked. You get annoyed and upset by so many things pulling you in different directions. After an hour you’re worn out and have created more work and more problems and haven’t really gotten done the things you need. What was the thought that made this happen? “Oh I’ll get email out of the way so my mind and day is freed up to be creative or to work on the projects I never get to.” Okay, did THAT work for you? Not at all. So, NOTICE THAT! And next time, try a new habitual thought which will lead to a new habitual action. Tomorrow I do creative work first. Tomorrow I tackle that project before I even open email. Do it for a week. Look back on the week and see if it changed things. Of course it may take more than a week for a new habit to really take hold, but see what you need.
Some of my life changing habits just took a day (like starting yoga everyday for a year when I started my Kripalu certification program – but that’s because I agreed to doing that very consciously). And some took a year to really get into my life, like putting every single thing I’m working on into my calendar and getting it out of my head. Some things just take a decision and some take hard work to incorporate.
I’m going to leave you with this story. My uncle was at the hospital with his wife who was having a mastectomy and he was in the waiting room with my father. My uncle was around 50 years old and a life long smoker. My dad turned to him and very simply and not harshly said, You know, your wife is in there having both her breasts removed so she can live a long life with you, and you’re out here smoking.” My uncle looked at his brother, took his cigarette, put it out in the ashtray and literally never picked up another cigarette again in his life. Now that is a remarkable story, but it tells you who’s in charge of the habitual brain: your conscious self.
And here’s my final story. After sitting down and thinking about writing this blog, knowing I wanted to write about the Mexican tooth brushing experience, I went back inside, went to go brush my teeth, and yes, I turned on the tap. So there’s that. That’s what we’re up against! Take your time and be easy on yourself. Changing habits can be hard and let’s not make this an opportunity for self-hate, as my mother used to say when we’d go bathing suit shopping together. Okay? Just know it’s how your brain was designed to work to make you efficient and to protect you and help you quickly run away from dinosaurs if you happen to be one of the Flintstones. If you had to think about every single thing you did all day long it would be a disaster. So the goal is to learn to create habits and use them to our advantage. But we have to be mindful of what they are first. So, start a new mindfulness habit today – being habitually mindful of your habits! Start there.