Practicing. I’m practicing right now. So are you. What are you practicing? Singing? Languages? But we aren’t just practicing our skills for our passions. Daily we are also practicing thoughts that create unhappiness for ourselves. No one can hurt us as deeply as we injure ourselves. With the inside job there is not deflection or reflection. No edit or panel to filter the thoughts. How can we hope to engage powerfully in our world while we are digging at our confident foundation daily? I want to talk about what we are practicing and how we can change it so that our practice makes us ‘better’, not ‘worse’.
Practice seems so natural and so good. My daughter is practicing the flute for school band. My son practices football and hockey several times a week. My husband is a football coach and he holds practices. We practice to get better. We practice at things we hope to improve at. Things that matter to us. We all have experienced practicing something with a goal in mind. When I am learning music, I work it like a drill often. Those few bars of music, over and over again. I’m hoping it gets easier or faster or more accurate. Whether a talent like singing or dancing, or a sport that you do solo or with a team or going to mixers practicing social interaction we are all practicing at something. It is what we do to get better at something that is important to us.
So, why do we practice things that we don’t want to get better at? Why do we continually repeat what we have already said we don’t want? Or at the very least, we don’t want more of in our lives? Why would we make that easier or attain? Or make ourselves faster to get there?
What habits are you unwittingly practicing in your life? Self doubt? Negative inner dialogue? Angry responses? Lack of patience with your friends and family? Personal neglect? Gossiping? Critical nature? And by practicing these things, what habits are you strengthening?
After all, that is what practice gives you. It makes one habit stronger over another. If I want to run faster, then I will make a habit of practicing exercises to increase my speed. It would be surprising if I didn’t get faster then. So, how can we be surprised to find our lives filled with fear, sorrow or anger when that is the habit we have been strengthening? If our first reaction is anger then we can’t be shocked at how it comes up so easily as our first thought. We have been practicing anger. Not patience. Not peace. Not calmness.
When I practice singing, I am working on strengthening good habits, whether in my style of breathing or the purity of the vowels I use. I wouldn’t practice shallow breathing or bashing at consonants and corrupt vowels, so why do I habituate poor behaviors? The ones that cause me pain? That reduces and cut down my self image or chips away at the confidence of those around me?
I do it, and you do it, because those weakening and poor behaviors have a seductive side to them that we can’t let go of. For example, anger can make us feel powerful or righteous. Self pity can make us attractive to help and we can be rewarded by our victim status by friends and family who swoop in to make us feel better. We have made ourselves the center of the world. That is awfully seductive. Our losses can be the most deliciously bittersweet pillows to rest on. We may feel the world so intensely that we feel drunk on the emotions and we relish that.
We don’t intentionally choose pain in the beginning. We just like the familiar and sometimes the familiar isn’t the best choice. And once those poor habits are strengthened and the groove well worn we find ourselves well down the paths of anger or self pity in an instant.
If these choices aren’t working for you, the question becomes: How do you change these habitual patterns? Here are the three steps you need to apply for change.
- Awareness– Notice the slide into the habit. From the first twinge or tug, you have to notice the habit in its beginning. Then you can look at the stimulus and start to see the patterns in your life.
For example:I’m having a great day. My mom calls. Before I know it I’m angry and spend the whole day irritated with everyone.
- Name it-I am on the path of anger. And if I keep going I will strengthen this response.
- Inhibit- At the point you normally twinge and then go off on the magical misery ride you stop. Reflect on the spot: If I strengthen this habit, will it bring suffering or relief?” Then you can make a choice. Do I want to do this, or will I just let it go this time? This step reminds me of the Alexander technique used for physical therapy in relieving body tensions. Alexander says to break a habitual physical action that causes muscle tension, one must inhibit at the point of the tense act. The same is true in your work in breaking a habitual behavior.
Our emotions are powerful stuff and they can cause not just mental damage but physical ill in us. Feeling guilt or shame does not help us. Nor weaken these damaging thoughts. Struggling against them is also not productive. The only way to disempower them is to give them our complete awareness. When we are completely aware of our thoughts we can see them for what they truly are. Insubstantial illusions that we have created as truth. From our awareness we can move towards a new behavior to strengthen by inhibiting the usual response and choosing a new one.
The philosopher Shantideva wrote twelve centuries ago in The Way of the Bodhisattva-
No other enemy indeed
Has lived so long as my defiled emotions-
O my enemy, afflictive passion
Endless and beginningless companion!