One thing I know is that I resist change. Despite what my intentions are, what I want for myself, or what I tell others, when I think about change, I scrunch up my nose, lift my shoulders up towards my ears, and either have a blank look on my face, or an air of irritation. Why? Because change is hard. Whether it’s voluntary change (like getting to bed earlier) or involuntary change (like watching another birthday go by), it is uncomfortable. And really, who wants to be uncomfortable?
Clients discuss wanting to change their eating habits, wanting to make more friends, wanting to curb their anger or be more accepting. Then there are the issues of changing or establishing careers, starting new hobbies, deciding whether to marry and/or have kids, continuing or ending relationships. It seems that desiring something different from what we have is embedded in our DNA.
It’s hard to believe that as much as we want different lives for ourselves, we resist. Some put change off to some fictitious future time (my personal favorite), or some start off with bursts of energy only to taper off days later (I know this one too). Some convince themselves that whatever is going on now must be better than whatever future unknown is ahead, and others have the I-can’ts and I-won’ts of doubt. As far as I’m concerned, these are all typical responses to change and yet they don’t help us ultimately get to where we want to go.
Then what does help us get to where we want to go? According to Charles Duhigg, author of the recent book, The Power of Habits, understanding how habits form is a key to changing them. Understanding our mindless behavior includes bringing it to consciousness by slowing it down. I remember hearing the story (an urban legend by now) of the man who goes to the Indian guru, and says, “I have struggled for so many years to stop smoking – I’ve hid them from myself, asked others to hide them, tried non-nicotine products, the patch, avoided the kiosk on my way home from work, EVERYTHING, and I still can’t stop smoking.” The guru replies, “My friend, my task for you is to smoke a cigarette so mindfully that you’re aware of every single second of it.” “But guru, I want to quit smoking, not continue it.” “Do as I say,” replied the guru. So the man went to the outskirts of the town where he was by himself. He sat down, took out his comforting cigarette. He felt somewhat ridiculous (in fact, uncomfortable) and as mindfully as he could, he lit the cigarette. He began to notice the smell – it was pretty acrid. He began to notice the taste – dry and somewhat stale. He inhaled and felt the smoke travel down his throat and into his lungs taking with it a certain life force – almost like how the rain floods take both the good and bad soil as they travel downwards. He envisioned the smoke and nicotine actually turning his lungs black. By no means was this a pleasant experience, as it had usually been. It was awful! He couldn’t believe what he was doing to himself! After consciously smoking half of the cigarette, he had to put it out. It was too much, too disgusting. From that point on, he didn’t touch a cigarette again.
While I don’t know the validity of the story, I like it because it captures both the mindfulness piece, the relational piece, and the experiential piece of change. A huge part of change is fostered by slowing things down, being mindful, and enduring the challenging feelings that come up.
Psychotherapy is about corrective experiences, insight, and connection. If you need help making changes in your life, give me a call at 510.594.4300 or email laura [at] holisticgardner [dot] com.