Habits of mind are there to make things easier. For example, we don’t have to remember how to get to work each day or how to make the coffee – we habitually go through the motions to get the important things done. But those same habits can also be detrimental – providing a sort of perceived comfort zone that keeps us stuck in patterns that leave us feeling less than content.
Let me explain.
If we are comfortable enough that we don’t reallyneed to find another way to live, but we still know we aren’t living fully, then our habits are getting in the way. They sap our will to move toward a better, more free, more fulfilling life. Essentially what it all comes down to is this:
Would you be willing to shake up your comfort zone if it meant feeling more alive?
If so, what follows are a few suggestions.
Think about the amount of time you spend complaining (even silently) about relatively minor events: the traffic, the rude people in the market, your mother, spouse or child, other people’s bad attitudes, the weather. Now compare that to the amount of time you actually notice when you don’t hit all the red lights or the market isn’t crowded, or that someone wasn’t annoying? Or even the simple oft-overlooked fact that it is actually a beautiful day.
Basically, it’s not so much what happens in a day as how much attention we give it that determines the quality of our life. What would it be like to not be upset by relatively minor events? Could you stand not worrying about anything for a few days?
What we pay attention to and how much attention (time, energy, thought, emotion) we give to those things determines to a very considerable degree how we experience our lives – what we value becomes clear when we start to look at the way we spend our mental energy. Simply by shifting the focus and the intensity of our attention we can transform the world as we experience it.
Identifying the source of our beliefs is another way to catch ourselves in the act of making ourselves more miserable than we need to be. The term Confirmation Bias refers to the fact that we have a tendency to notice evidence that confirms our biases, that proves what we think is true. For example, if I think that given two choices I always choose the wrong one, every time that happens, I think to myself, “SEE!” If I believe that a person is negative or critical, every time they say something that can be interpreted that way, I think, “SEE!” If I believe that I hit every single red light on a particular street, when I do…well, you know the drill. Conversely, it’s important to recognize that in all likelihood, I sail through untold green lights without even noticing them – unless I begin to pay attention.
Most of us can muster only fragments of sustained attention, moments of time when we collect ourselves like a handful of coins at the bottom of a bag that we might use to pay for small things. If we can begin to realize that we have some choice about what we pay attention to, then we can begin to change our experience of life. Ideally, we don’t just exchange one partial truth for a different biased view, but rather we begin to see things as the mixed bag that they usually are.
This idea is at the heart of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the currently popular Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. The reality is that there is usually a mixture of both green lights and red lights. People are all a mixture of many qualities. We make good and bad choices. It is rarely one or the other, but our mind likes to settle on a verdict so that it can feel settled and “just right.”
This all seems like a good way to feel better in life, but we can also turn that idea on its head and try to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is the skill that sufferers of OCD have to learn in order to get better, but it is also a way of living that everyone could benefit from practicing.
Instead of spending so much energy trying to feel better, to be happy – instead of trying to get rid of your discomfort – try to lean in to the difficult moments. You may find that they aren’t as difficult as you expect.