Many times when I’m trying to maintain or form a new habit, I find one of the more difficult things isn’t ‘resisting temptation’ or ‘making myself do something I don’t feel like’. Often it isn’t any problem that has to do with a conscious decision or willpower. Instead, what I find difficult is turning the tide of the previous habit. That is, changing a pattern of behavior that has become second nature and remembering when the time comes to do something different. In other words, I simply fail to do (or not do) what I had decided to do without even thinking about it.
For example, a few years ago I decided to start reducing my carb intake. There were very few moments where I wanted something carby and was consciously saying to myself, “no I don’t want this” and then giving in. What usually happened was this: I would simply eat the item without thinking about it, and soon after this other ‘me’ would emerge like a parent coming into the room to find the child had done something bad while they were away. “Oh yeah! I wasn’t supposed to eat that!” At the moment where is counted, I wasn’t mindful. It was like my lizard brain had taken the wheel so sneakily that there wasn’t even a fight for control.
Meanwhile, I had read about a few things that indicated our brains evolved to help navigate our physical environment. One of these was a study that showed people tended to forget things more when passing through a doorway than walking the same distance without a doorway (you may have had the “why did I come into this room?” experience). Another example was the “memory palace” technique whereby we imagine putting things in a physical space in order to more accurately retrieve the information later.
So, I got the idea of using something physical to help me be mindful. I had used this trick before in more subtle ways. For example, I wear mala beads not only because I can use them to gauge how long I’ve been meditating, but as a reminder of my practice in general. But this time I needed something stronger and more specific. I decided that I would pick a small item to hold constantly in my hand to remind me of my intention to eat less carbs. Keeping it in my hand throughout the whole day should make it more difficult to forget.
The first step was to select the item. You might think that it doesn’t really matter what the item was but something made me suspect that it needed to feel right. I had recently read The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda. I recalled the part of the book where the shaman told Carlos to “find his spot” on the porch. He sat down somewhere and was told that isn’t your spot – find your spot. Carlos looked for a long time and tried different areas and finally found ‘his spot’. There was some combination of complex and subtle sensations, feelings, and experience from that area that connected to something within him. It wasn’t important to know how or why this happened psychologically – just that he had found the spot that felt just right.
In the same way, I didn’t want just any item. Something natural felt right to me. I went outside and cleared my mind, and I began to walk through the yard, simply remaining open without reaching or trying to make judgments or conclusions. This was not unlike a shamanistic ritual I had participated in whereby one goes into an altered state of consciousness and waits to receive an image of one’s spirit animal.
Selecting the stone was not like going through a market picking up fruit or trying on clothes. In those cases you’re judging and evaluating until you find one that meets your conscious criteria. Instead, it is simply being still and listening to what arises.
I saw many stones and other items in the yard, but when I found the right stone there was no question this was it. I can’t tell you if it is the size, color, texture, or something else. I wasn’t trying to think in those terms. All that mattered was that there was a connection.
The next day, I tried holding the stone in my hand all day. It was small enough to allow me the use of my thumb and two fingers so I could do most things. But it would be a physical reminder of my choice to eat less carbs that could not be ignored or forgotten. It worked marvelously. There was no time I could begin eating something without realizing the stone in my hand and being reminded.
This same practice could work to kick start almost any habit where one is fighting against forgetfulness or unmindfulness and the tide of previous habit. For example, if one had an anger issue and wanted to remember to be nicer to others. Or, if one wanted to remember to be thankful at certain points in the day, or to be more patient in certain situations, and so on.
A nice cross correlation also exists. That is, as one gets more and more ‘used’ to the stone (to where you might think carrying it could end up on ‘autopilot’) the time also passes such that the habit becomes more and more ingrained. Eventually the stone is unnecessary – likely even before the habit is fully built.
There are some other things about this worth noting. For one, I would advise using this technique only in reference to specific habits one at a time. The more specific the more powerful it will be as a reminder. Secondly, don’t think that you can set it aside until the time comes to need it and then pick it up. It’s not really something likely to help with willpower, but with mindfulness in the moment. If you won’t be mindful enough to keep your habit, you won’t be mindful enough to pick it up just when needed. By having it in your hand throughout the day, it keeps you aware even when it isn’t time to do the thing you’re trying to build a habit with.
Be diligent and open to the little benefits we might not fully understand the mechanisms of, but don’t be superstitious. By that I mean there is no reason to build up theories or myths about how or why it works beyond what we really know. And, as with all practices, go easy on yourself and don’t beat yourself up for lapses.
Most importantly, always feel free to put the stone down if it would be unsafe, such as operating equipment or carrying sharp items where it might hinder your ability to avoid an accident – safety first!
Anyway, I thought this could be helpful to share. After my first success with this, I placed my stone on my altar. Recently I’ve started building a new habit and decided to pick it up again. I thought maybe an item unique to this new habit would be good, but my old stone still felt right. You may experience differently!
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