Using Mindfulness to Change Habits

These days we frequently see wonderful and inspiring quotes, like:

“Holding a grudge is letting someone live rent-free in your head.”

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

For a few moments, we enjoy the wisdom, but soon we are naturally whisked back to our busy lives… and often enough, the next time we should have applied the wisdom, we find ourselves in old reactionary patterns. And it’s not just us — children in school face a similar challenge of trying to apply what they’ve been told in the heat of the moment.

So how do we take wise quotes and actually begin to incorporate their wisdom into our lives, since they always seem to be easier said than done? Fundamentally, it’s a question of how we change habits. And we all know how hard that can be!

Fortunately, mindfulness is a perfect tool to help us change habits. Each time we practice mindfulness, we improve our ability to notice what is going on in our thoughts, our emotions, and our senses. We don’t need to start by changing anything — we simply need to notice what we are doing.

As we begin trying to change a habit, we may find that it takes hours or even days to realize that we were acting, speaking, or thinking in a way we would prefer to change. Gradually, we’ll find that the time between the incidents and our recognition of them reduces. Eventually, that time becomes so small that we catch ourselves just after the incident. The habit still hasn’t changed, but from there, we will soon find that we can actually catch ourselves before we act, speak, or think in an unwholesome way.

We may find that we are able to change the habit in certain circumstances, but not in others. That too will change — over time, we can continue to be mindful even in more stressful situations.

It’s important to realize that it’s a gradual process, which helps us to be patient and realistic. But what you will find is that as your mindfulness practice strengthens, changing habits becomes easier. The more time you spend building up your capacity for mindfulness, the easier it will be to apply it when you need it most.