It’s the time of year for cringe-worthy sayings like “New Year, New You,” for fad diets, juice cleanses and 21-day meditation challenges to begin. And now, amidst a global pandemic, I hear so many people saying things like “I can’t wait for this year to be over!” — as if suddenly when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, 2020, the world will suddenly right itself, the pandemic and the massive suffering it has caused will be over and we will emerge anew, 20 pounds lighter and free from anxiety.
I don’t believe in instant resolutions. I believe in the (sometimes painfully) slow, but always steady hand of evolution.
An evolution is the gradual development of something. A trip to a Natural History Museum outlines how it took a long, long time for homo sapiens to evolve from earlier forms of mammals — Neanderthals, Homo erectus and every iteration up until that point. Life on this planet has been evolving for billions of years. My life and your life have been evolving since the days we were born — for a couple or several decades at least?
For some reason, we believe that our own human evolution can — or should — occur suddenly, in a grand way — on a specific day of the year, no less!
People always ask me how I manage to meditate each day without missing a beat. They ask how I find time to journal and then share my thoughts on my blog or social media platforms. My response to them is simply this: How do you manage to brush your teeth each morning? How do you remember to put clothes on each morning before you leave the house? Why do you walk your dog several times a day?
The bottom-line answer is simple: It’s a habit.
And what’s more important than our habits? Nothing. Habits — positive or negative — help us evolve into who we become, incrementally, one day at a time.
Through a study published by Duke University, we know that habits — “good” or “bad” — form about 45% of our total behaviors. These habits are behaviors that we frequently repeat, compounding their significance in the makeup of our lives. Habits are our foundation, and when one’s foundation is weak, things start to crumble.
As a mindfulness teacher working with many different demographics and cultures across the globe, I can attest that people who fail at making changing changes in their lives are those who fail to instill new habits. And those who are unsuccessful at instilling new habits often find themselves failing because they try to do take on too much, too quickly or all at once.
Simply put: If a new habit requires more willpower than we have at the moment we commit to it, we will fail and the inverse is true as well.
My grandfather used to use a phrase that I always though was strange when I was a child but later understood when I grew older and wiser. “You can’t eat an elephant whole,” he would pronounce, “but, you can eat it one bite at a time.” Of course, as a child, I would literally think about the horror of eating an elephant! But later I learned, that proverbially, this elephant is the one that sits on our chest most of our lives and holds us back from living the best, freest version of ourselves. This elephant is any obstacle we face in our lives. Very rarely can we overcome the obstacle with one swift change; instead, changes require steady, incremental changes in the form of habits, one small bite at a time.
This incremental, evolutionary journey allows us to build, one day at a time, the habits we need to cultivate in order to live our best lives. Evolving our habits helps us build a strong foundation that all else can be built soundly upon. Easily? Unlikely so. Without inconsistencies? Absolutely not. Slowly and steadily instead, understanding that those of us who are inconsistent or quit the journey are often not lazy people. Instead, they are more often than not people who tried their best too quickly and ambitiously.
The development of habits and the making of resolutions fail because we focus on pushing towards glory.
But the development of habits that stick doesn’t just require that short burst of motivation and willpower. Motivation naturally drops after we get started with the quest, and just living our daily life can deplete willpower. The habitual or unconscious part of our brain does not respond well to the glory-seeking hero’s journey because those big sudden changes turn on our fight-or-flight response and therefore, its unsustainable.
And, while we may think that just five minutes of practice a day is unimpressive for our executive brain (the part that loves big, lofty changes!), it actually does wonders for our unconscious brain and avoids waking up the amygdala so to speak. It creates incremental changes that lead us to the long-term goal of mental health and stability, tools that we can rely on, again and again, when the going gets tough; tools that evolved from necessity, while we faced challenges and obstacles, that over time help us not just survive — but thrive.
May all beings continue to evolve in 2021.