One of the human things we all do is repeating old behaviors. This shows up in our lives as habits. You might also have heard this called patterns. This is also a component of addictions. It really does make sense that we repeat some behaviors and to repeat them automatically. Imagine if we had to recreate brushing our teeth from scratch each night. If we had to rediscover how to tie our shoes each morning that could be a real problem.
You can see this in behaviors related to driving. When you first learn to drive each action is right in the forefront of your consciousness and you have to really pay attention to turning left and parallel parking. The first week of driving can be a stressful experience. Fast forward to years later and you can find people eating while they drive as they listen to music and allow interruptions with phone calls, look at directions all the while driving defensively without really thinking about any of it. Some have had the experience of arriving at the destination of choice so focused on their most prevalent thoughts that they realize they barely paid attention to driving at all and just have the experience of remembering pulling out of the driveway and then arriving in one piece.
Some habits and patterns we can put in the good category. Dental hygiene keeps our mouth and gums and teeth healthy. Sleep patterns keep us healthy too if followed consistently. Habits with substances may swing into the bad category depending on how much they impact your life. When it becomes addiction it has gone too far into the negative category.
As I learn more about looking at my life and my habits and patterns it is very useful to recognize what is and isn’t a habit. These can be hard to spot in your life because by their nature they become automatic. Going back to the process of driving you can improve your driving if you remind yourself to pay attention. A driver who can remind him or herself to be alert and drive defensively is more likely to have a safe trip.
But when we are not driving or taking care of our teeth, how actually do we spot that a certain set of actions is a pattern? A pattern is by definition a repeated design. A habit is defined as a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. You can think of this also as your “go to” response.
I want to share a story that my brother recently told me (with his permission of course).
My brother has been teaching a mindfulness class and explained that they were discussing how to actually interrupt habits when you spot them by simply doing something, or maybe more specifically anything but the typical habitual response. So, let’s say you always eat popcorn when you watch Netflix. See what happens if you eat something different, or knit, or stand up while you watch your next show.
My brother has been told that he has a pattern of getting angry. His nickname among friends was hammer. Growing up I remember lots of anger especially at one unreliable go cart that he and some friends made! Anger is a habitual “go to” response that he has been looking at.
My brother ordered a local produce box to be delivered to him as a subscription. He usually gets vegetables and also some yogurt. On a recent delivery he found the box around the house from where he lives and he lifted it up and brought it inside. When he opened the contents he started pulling out and sorting the vegetables and then noticed there was some white goo on some vegetables and then realized that the yogurt container had broken open!
Anger! The impulse surged through him immediately! But he remembered this idea and before he knew what he was doing he splashed a handful of yogurt in his face! He literally surprised himself and the surge of anger shifted as immediately to a surge of laughter! He truly had a deep down belly laugh that was a huge release.
I applaud his messy and shocking interruption. This is a kind of crazy action to take on the surface, but it is also profound. There is a lesson in his madness.
This showed up in my life in the context of a formal lesson. I had experience a severe sciatica back and leg pain and enrolled in a pain support group. In this group they explained that there are aspects of pain that are habitual that we rehearse. We discussed ways that we could spot these habitual tendencies and how to interrupt them and whenever I could try out my own version of interrupting a pain habit I found that it worked!
But I think the challenge is to develop a way to observe yourself. Spotting a habit or identifying a pattern you exhibit is a little like a fish noticing the water it swims in.
One place where observing yourself is the point is meditation. Meditation is the process of watching your thoughts. It is the practice of looking into your own mind. Over time and with practice it is possible to see thoughts arise. This makes the identification of patterns possible. Meditation also helps to build in space so that there is just enough space to choose how to react when any thought shows up.
One way is to react automatically. Another way is to observe what the automatic reaction is or is likely to be and to say to yourself, “Oh that’s interesting! I wonder what would happen if I chose something, really anything different.”
That’s when you might decide to throw a pie in your own face! That makes me laugh!