Changing Habits: Being Aware of the Inner Process

How many people reading this want to lose weight (my hand would be raised here, by the way)? How many people reading this would like to eat a little healthier (once again, my hand is up)? Let’s make this a little broader. How many people reading this would like to change SOME habitual behavior? I would guess that nearly everyone reading this would have at least one thing they would like to change. And many of us have probably made multiple attempts to actually change the habit in question, only to slide back. I know I have.

Human beings are unique in the animal kingdom, chiefly due to our capacity to look BEYOND observable, moment-to-moment phenomena and question what is behind, above, or causal to the phenomena. We are the only animals that have undertaken to study WHY things happen, rather than simply reacting to WHAT happens. In a very interesting documentary, a scientist talked about the difference between how an ape and a young child reacted to an experiment. In the experiment, a reward was given for putting a block in the proper place. The ape could be easily trained to do this, and the child could, of course, simply be TOLD what she needed to do.


Once the ape had learned the routine, the scientists modified the block so that it was off-balance and could not remain standing once it was let go. The child would attempt to put the block in its place a few times, but would then stop to investigate WHY the block would not stand up. The child would understand that something unseen was affecting the behavior of the block and would investigate what this unseen force might be. The ape would simply continue trying to put the block in its place. There was no thought to look BEHIND the observable phenomena to an unseen cause.

This habit of ours also means we reflect on our own choices and behaviors in a way other animals do not. Eating is an instinct for other animals. It is a choice for us (well, partly — read on). Animals feel happy and sad. We feel happy and sad, and then analyze WHY we feel how we feel. We are, indeed, meaning-making machines. We are in some ways beyond pure instinctual living, and that’s a wonderful thing. But we’re not nearly as far above instinct as we think we are. Instinct still plays a pivotal role in our behaviors, and the very self-reflective part of our mind can actually make it HARDER to change behaviors.

In my personal and professional experience, the part of our mind that operates above instinctual behavior can easily mask the substantial part of our mind that IS driven by instinct. And I think that really points to why it is so difficult for us to change our patterned behaviors. You see, underneath all behavior is a pretty simple set of drivers. We want security. We want survival. We say we want happiness, but this is a term that lives in that self-aware part of our brain. I think a truer statement is that we want to avoid pain. That’s instinctual.

For other animals, that instinct comes straight through into action. There’s not much of an intermediate, reflective step to the process. It’s “instinct > behavior.” Not so with us. With us, it’s often “instinct > emotional/cognitive filter > behavior.” The problem is that we get so fixated on that “emotional/cognitive filter” that we don’t reach back to the instinctual base. I saw this over and over as a therapist. Clients would enact the same destructive behavioral patterns over and over. They often knew that those behaviors weren’t helping, but they couldn’t change them. And I think it was often because they were searching for both the rationale for the behavior AND the agent for changing that behavior in the middle step.

Here’s the problem with looking to the middle step — it’s not the source of the behavior for us any more than it is for other animals. But because our reflective step is so rich, so “full of meaning,” we get lost in it.

This is why practices like yoga, meditation, or exercise (particularly when done with a contemplative mindset) are so good for changing behaviors. These practices all ask us to go deeper than our emotional selves (in the case of Zen meditation, we are explicitly asked to go deeper than our rational selves, too), and dig deeper into a state where we come face to face with our instinctual drives. And in so doing, we have a better chance of getting to the root of our behaviors. And in rare cases, we might actually reach a state where instinct DOES loosen its grip — not because we’re deluding ourselves in the intermediate step, but because we are actually focusing the power of our reflective selves ON the instinctual drives themselves. This idea is at the root of all contemplative practices the world has to offer, both Eastern and Western (and yes, Western spiritual traditions have a long history of meditation and contemplative practices — just look up Sufism within the Islamic tradition, or the contemplative Christian practices of the early Desert Fathers).

I’ve often written about the fact that in my own life, meditation is the “lynchpin,” the thing that seems to make every other behavior choice in my life easier. If I’m meditating every day, changing the rest of my behavior becomes vastly easier. If I lose the meditation practice, it can start an avalanche of regressive choices everywhere else! Of course, the “meditating everyday” thing is the sticky wicket. I lose my practice as often as anyone else.

So what can we do? How can we keep our reflective selves focused where it does the most good? This is a question I’m going to continue next week, as todays’ blog space is running out. But even before we dive deeper, we can probably agree on one thing: Being aware of the inner process is always a first step. As the saying goes, you can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge the problem. We can’t address habits until we make ourselves aware of the full mechanism behind those habits. So even before we dive into practical steps for maintaining our focus, we can wrap up today with one simple suggestion: Look deeply. When you see yourself slipping into habit, don’t just get mad, sad, or lost in your mind’s chatter. Slow down, look deep, and understand the depth of the process that is leading you to the behaviors you want to change.