My little dog Willow and I have a ritual. Every time I stretch out my palm in a high-five toward her, she slaps her tiny paw against it.
If I do this enough times she gets so fired up that she’ll ignore my hand and frantically look for a toy. After she retrieves the toy a few times, she graduates to chewing her bone. She’ll stick to this for a good half hour.
That one little hand motion, repeated a few times, sets off a cascade of energy into her 8 lb. body.
I do this after she’s been sleeping all day, waiting for me to come home. Otherwise, she’ll get excited, eat and then lie down again. Because I want her to be healthy (and not keep me up at night with her pent-up energy), I do the ritual.
Even little dogs need a trigger to take positive action.
What’s triggering your thought patterns?
I tell you this story because lately I’ve been observing my own triggers. Specifically, those that tempt my mind into old, negative thought patterns that I’ve dedicated so much time to dissolving through yoga.
What prompts our minds to sink into former thought habits long after we’re done thinking about them?
I blame it on neurology. And that’s what Charles Duhigg found in The Power of Habit, too. He writes:
“All habits—no matter how large or small—have three components, according to neurological studies. There’s a cue—a trigger for a particular behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward, which is how your brain decides whether to remember a habit for the future.”
When these habits are entrenched, Duhigg says, “they create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist.”
It’s easy to think about this in terms of a food craving. You’re triggered by the smell of funnel cake at a carnival. You buy the funnel cake every time you go. You’re rewarded with delicious fried dough which, unless you have incredible willpower or dietary restrictions, is hard to decline.
Eventually any time you smell funnel cake, even if you’re not hungry, you’ll want to eat it.
Confront your mind’s cravings
But how does this apply to our thought habits and not just our eating habits?
Our minds love to recycle the same thoughts. Like little dogs, they are entrenched in habit and stick to routine.
And that’s the mind’s reward: To keep you exactly as you are now, in your same patterns, because change? To the mind, change is the enemy.
In 50 Ways to Leave Your Karma, spiritual teacher Eric Klein writes that “even when situations change, the memory-based patterns of thought and action persist. Because they operate at a level of functioning that is faster than conscious thought, the patterns of the past assert themselves before you know it. Your memory-based reflexes seem to have a mind of their own.”
The way to counteract this is by revisiting the triggers at the top of the habit-forming food chain. While you can’t control the triggers from happening, you can control how you react to them. That’s the first step to reforming a habit.
Enter, yoga. (You knew it was coming, right?)
Use your triggers to form new mental habits
During a certain time of night, Willow begins her ritual of finding the best places to nap. She jumps on top of the chair. Then she lays on the rug. Then she pushes some pillows off the couch and snuggles up near me.
It’s like clockwork.
And so is my mind. When the sun sets, that’s when old thought habits emerge. During these times, I have to give myself — not Willow — the mental high-five.
Here you are again, I tell my thinking self. Hi. Now I have better things to do. See ya!
I learned this technique from meditation. It’s easy and you can do it, too. The idea is to witness your thoughts, acknowledge them and send the detrimental ones packing.
This is so much more doable than attempting to reject all thoughts during meditation. Plus, it doesn’t set you up for failure. So many people say they can’t meditate because they think too much. Welcome to the club!
The point is not to not think. The point is to create more space between the thoughts so that you can identify what’s there. Who are you in that space?
Welcome to your Self.
Meditation blasts holes in your habits to create new routines. And the reward? A quieter mind that doesn’t self-sabotage.
Your new daily habit
This week, I challenge you to create a 10-minute meditation habit. Meditate at the same time every day if you can.
If you immediately respond to this with a “no way!” that’s perhaps a good sign that you really need this.
But don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you hanging. Here’s a 10-minute guided script so you can relax into the practice. It ends with three bells to gently bring you back into the world.
Cozy up to a comfortable, quiet place and hit play. After you get the hang of it, you may choose to forgo the audio and practice on your own.
How do you rethink your mental habits? Share in the comments.