Driving around town the other day, I spotted a massive Christmas tree. It filled every inch of a grand front window on a red brick house. The window probably measured at least ten feet high and eight feet wide. The home truly popped open with this enormous Fir sucking in anyone who saw it. I marveled at the idea these people still had their tree up in late January and in the same breath I thought if I put that much work into a Christmas tree I would probably want to leave it up for a while too!
So here we are. We have arrived at the time of year when the energy for changes starts to fizzle and we begin to welcome back the couch or the potato chips or the busyness into our lives. We have slid squarely into the post New Year’s resolutions stage of the year.
Let’s face it, we are creatures of habit. As if there is an invisible force repeatedly pulling us back toward what’s comfortable. Is it homeostasis? The Ego? What?
Knowledge is not behavior.
I read a quick one-liner some time ago which pulls together this universal struggle quite well: Knowledge is not behavior. No it is not. Knowing what to do and doing it each rely on different parts of the brain. These are separate skills sets. Anyone who has ever been on a diet can tell you that.
Breaking this down helps us navigate change more effectively.
We could over-simplify how we operate in the world by compressing it down into two modes, thinking or sensing. These modes correlate well to “knowledge” and “behavior”. In psychology, they call it top-down and bottom-up. Both of these modes have value. They each bring their own unique ingredient to the party and these ingredients are best served together like chips and salsa. When combined, these two deliver a rich full eating adventure with warm crunch, cool sauce, all topped off with a little bit of sweet and salty goodness. Yum.
Research by Barbara Fredrickson estimated that the vast majority of people (over 70%) are most often in a “thinking” mode. It is like a default setting for us. Most of us primarily think and evaluate our way through life.
Thinking gives us so much in life. There is nothing wrong with thinking but it is only half of the story. We also have sensing. It gives us access to a brimming treasure chest of wisdom to learn from and to help guide us. We need a well-developed sensing mode to flourish in the direction we want to go.
Thankfully, we get better at what we practice, even in psychology.
For most of us, it seems, our “sensing” mode could use a little boost. Mindfulness practice promotes the growth of our sensing mode. Through mindfulness we take in our world by perceiving it. We watch life as it unfolds. We are an active participant in the experience. This requires us to shift our attention to the present and notice the feeling of our body; we hear what we hear, smell what we smell, taste what we taste. We fully “feel” the moment rather than take it in with thoughts.
Of course we still have thoughts, but in a sensing mode, we work to observe the thoughts or any automatic judgments about good/bad, right/wrong, yes/no. We see the impact our thinking has on us because we feel it in our body. Like an adamant toddler, we firmly and repeatedly refuse to buy into these thoughts while we keep our focus on the sensation.
Mindfulness practice cuts out the middle-man. We create a 1 to 1 exchange with the environment. This takes us from the level of “knowledge” down to the level of “behavior” and behavior is where the rubber meets the road. Behavior is what we strive to change.
Sensing supports our increased self-awareness. We will feel and urge well before we will think about it. We catch ourselves early enough in the situation to make a new choice. This moves us up to the front of the peloton. We know we are thinking about eating the Oreo before we decide to eat the Oreo. Once we make a decision to take action, no matter if it is a decision to not go to the gym or to have seconds at dinner, then it becomes a herculean task to refrain. Being aware of the urge when it is still just a whisper promotes successful habit change.
Sensing helps us stop just long enough for our thinking brain to kick on and ask:
What is happening?
What do I need?
What’s most important to me?
We break free from the habit spider web and we proceed with power, with conscious choice.
We flip the auto-pilot switch off and submerse ourselves completely into our lives with both thinking and sensing. It is not perfect. It is an opening. A portal for discovery. We get proficient at shifting our attention so we can learn what we need to learn and eventually get better and better at jumping the hurdles of change.
Oh, and there will always be hurdles:)
Thanks for reading! I hope this article has sparked something new for you. If so, I’d love to connect with you in the comments section.