Stop & Look, Understand & Transform

With the start of the new year, chatter surrounding ‘resolutions’ reigns supreme. From family members, coworkers, and even the media, everyone seems to be discussing how they will improve in 2014. At the same time, you might even find yourself stuck somewhere between making healthful intentions and implementing them. 

Mindfulness practice can help bridge this gap. When we are aware, we can change long-ingrained patterns without condemning or depriving ourselves.

Psychologists and philosophers agree: Will power is not a gift, bestowed more generously on some people than others. Willpower is a “normal human brain capacity that can be strengthened or tired out like a muscle,” (Understanding Your Willpower, Boston Globe).  According to Stanford health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, will power is a mind-body response.  We can improve our will power if we exercise, eat right, have adequate sleep and practice mindfulness.

We all carry wholesome and unwholesome “seeds”—that is, emotions planted deep within the soil of our consciousness. Unwholesome seeds are those of anger, anxiety, fear, despair, and jealousy, while wholesome seeds are those of calmness, joy, resilience, compassion and mindfulness. It's entirely within our power to water our positive seeds so that they can grow, blossom and ultimately send more positive seeds into our consciousness. But we must be thoughtful and kind in our approach.

Reflecting upon our ingrained patterns and establishing realistic concrete resolutions are great ways to make positive changes. Once we’ve identified new intentions, it’s time to care for them.  Just as we water and weed a garden regularly with tenderness, we must devote loving care to cultivating a healthy consciousness.

By being mindful of the present moment, whatever that moment is, we allow change to happen naturally, without struggle, without the usual resistance and judgment that cause us to suffer more. (More in Savor, pg 68)

Many of us have a strong inner critic. We can be very harsh with ourselves when we don’t stick to resolutions, but this negative reinforcement is not effective. We end up disconnected from the present because we are ashamed, or because we fear facing our own judgment.

Care for yourself as you would a young child. Teach yourself to act differently with patience and generous love. Without judgment, notice the language and tone of your inner dialog. Would you talk to a toddler this way?

When a bad habit arises, greet it with a smile: “Hello familiar habit, I recognize you. I understand why I’ve carried you for so long, but you no longer serve me, so it’s time to let you go.”

Replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones is a good practice with double-fold benefits. Every time you crave excess sweets, for instance, drink a tall glass of water infused with your favorite fruit. Notice how good the choice feels— and sincerely congratulate yourself for making this decision.

Furthermore, research by Dr. Wendy Wood has shown that when people are under stress, they tend to fall back on habits whether they are healthy or unhealthy. This implies that we can make good use of our stress by cultivating healthy habits routinely when we are not stressed, and our healthy habits will become the default when we are stressed.  

When we’re tired, discouraged or frustrated, we’re most likely to return to comforting, unhealthy habits. In these moments it’s best to call upon our ally, our own in and out breath, to help us gain awareness of our internal bodily state. Following our breath, we connect body and mind instantly—they become one. We will feel nurtured and soothed, fully present to consider the situation at hand with clarity.  

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I calm my body.