Today I want to talk about patterns: habits, routines, rituals, any routine behaviours which include our physical actions, habitual thoughts and beliefs and ways of interacting with others.
Anyone who drives, or rides a bike, knows that when you first learn, the whole thing seems difficult, as you're trying to memorise and coordinate a series of new thoughts and actions, which initially feels unnatural. It can be even more challenging if you have a habit of thinking in a way that doesn't help your confidence levels; I can't do this, this is too hard, I'm just not cut out for this, the incessant negative mind is designed to keep you safe, but if not balanced, it never lets you grow out of your comfort zone or take calculated risks.
Eventually, your brain fully processes the knowledge sequence and then driving a car or riding a bike become much easier. At some point, the patterns become so ingrained, that you barely have to consciously think about them anymore. Your brain is doing exactly what it has evolved to do- your procedural memory takes over, and you can perform the task without being fully aware of what you are doing. This happens with everything we learn, and it makes life a whole lot easier. Thus, because our brains are so excellent at processing, we can go through life on a form of auto-pilot, where we move from situation to situation, acting on this 'easy' mode. As a result, our greatest gift, leads to our greatest challenge. If unshaken, we tend to live out our whole lives in a form of sleep mode. It is comfortable, and most of the time 'easy,' and it is also the opposite of mindfulness. In yogic and spiritual circles, we call this kind of mode 'unconscious' behaviour, and mindfulness 'conscious' behaviour or being 'awake.'
There are times when our unconscious mode can cause us more pain than ease. For example; I used to have poor self esteem. This was rooted in an unconscious feeling of shame, coupled with an unconscious belief that I had carried since being a child. I am not enough. I am not a worthy person. To be clear, this feeling and belief were not at the surface of my interactions, I wasn't outright thinking those things. Instead, the way they manifested was me personalising things that didn't happen the way I wanted. For example, if I reacted angrily or with self-pity, because I felt on some level I was being personally punished, or the situation was all about me. It was a perverse kind of self-centredness. I also had a habit of self-deprecating humour, which was based in these deep unconscious beliefs about self. These habits of mind became painful, because the more I repeated them, the more powerless I felt, as if the world was happening to me and I was some kind of helpless victim of circumstance. With my humour, I was also reinforcing my unconscious belief that I am not enough. I am not a worthy person.
So, how to break out of these destructive patterns? Like an invisible prison, patterns and habits are notoriously difficult to break out from- particularly habits of mind. The late David Foster Wallace gave an example of two fish in water. One fish says to the other "The water's great today!" and the other responds, puzzled "What's water?" We are like the second fish. It usually takes a high level of physical and psychic pain before we are willing to do the work necessary to change, because being conscious takes a lot of effort. We must reach a kind of 'bottom,' where we surrender and admit that the pattern or habit is no longer serving us, and be truly willing to do everything it takes to change.
In my own evolution towards a greater level of consciousness, I was shaken out of my slumber by psychic and physical pain. Incidentally, the brain processes these in exactly the same way. Our brain doesn't know the difference between physical and emotional pain. Here are some of the unhealthy patterns I have overcome thus far:
-Alcohol: This is a crutch that many people often over use to deal with stress.
-Over Exercise: This is a tough one, as it requires balance. If you do too much, like I used to, you can injure yourself, like I did!
-Poor posture: I still battle with this one. When my neck and back hurts, I will correct it, but when I'm not in pain, I slip back into unconscious slouching.
-Self-deprecation: This is also a cultural habit, but it was not serving me, so eventually I dropped it.
-Controlling Relationships: I used to always gravitate towards individuals who had this unhealthy relational pattern. Once I became aware I was doing it, I was able to change the pattern.
Cutting out alcohol, was my biggest habit change. It was a challenge, but what has followed that has been nothing short of a miracle in terms of my life improving for the better. I'm not suggesting that this is the pattern that everyone needs to change, but we all have habitual behaviours that bring us more pain and suffering than ease. I still have habits which bring challenges. It's a lifetimes work, and as I try to bring greater consciousness into more areas of my being, I feel freer and more empowered to take charge of my life. It makes me realise that in order for events and relationships to become different, I need to do the internal work first. Everything else just changes for the better naturally as a consequence of changing the only thing I can- myself.
How do you wake up from the slumber of unconscious behaviour? First you must notice that you are asleep. And when you do, meditation (stillness) helps to point the way towards the next right action. You may start with something small, like noticing the habitual way that you sit at your desk is not helping your posture, and gradually move onto higher stakes patterns such as noticing the way you react in challenging situations. It takes time to grow your awareness, but that is the starting point. Only when you become aware of your patterns, can you work towards changing them. Once you spot a destructive pattern, there are many ways you can work towards growing your consciousness: from yoga, to serving others, creating, therapy, addiction recovery programmes, eating cleaner, caring for the environment-the list goes on.
If you are currently struggling, and you feel stuck, trapped and powerless, like every day is the same, then send me a message. I am here to listen without judgment, and share my experience, strength and hope. Here's to breaking free of the invisible prison of destructive patterns!