To give yourself a fighting chance against negative patterns, says Josh Korda, you’ve got to get at the driving forces behind them.
“Bad habits” and compulsive tendencies, such as procrastination, perfectionism, and addictive distractions, are formidable roadblocks to our long-term well-being, happiness, and self-esteem. To address our “bad habits” we need to understand how they operate.
First, they’re not a sign of “laziness” or “negligence,” as they’re initiated with little if any conscious choice. Compulsions are essentially defense mechanisms, behaviors that distract our attention from unnecessary unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or memories. Imagine arriving home to an empty apartment after a stressful day of work, confronted with loneliness or melancholy, then finding yourself binge eating or mesmerized by countless hours of Netflix. Such fixations briefly raise our dopamine levels, providing a false sense of uplift and reward, and pull our attention away from painful emotional states lurking in the background. If we put aside these distractions, our dopamine levels quickly plunge and the painful feelings (dukkha) return, with greater force.
Delving deeper, roughly twenty-five years ago a famous neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, explained that choices and behaviors are rooted in feelings, not rational thought; in other words, we act according to how we feel, not how we think. My conscious, rational mind will say “Salad is healthier than cheese,” but when I’m anxious, frustrated, or sad, grilled cheese wins every time. It’s the human condition to act in accordance with what positive feelings dictate and avoid what activates negative states, even at the expense of long-term, healthy goals and growth opportunities.
Some 2,500 years ago, in a teaching called the Paticca-samuppada, the Buddha explained human behavior in much the same manner as Damasio: positive feelings, or sukkha vedana, elicit craving, the urge to grasp and cling to what evokes pleasure. Conversely, negative feelings, dukkha vedana, create aversion, the urge to avoid or push away what creates pain.
The dharma, however, notes there is a way to free ourselves from these drives: If we want to interrupt habitually ingrained behaviors, we must bring awareness of these feelings into our attention and observe them until the feelings, positive or negative, dissipate and fade. At that point reason has a fighting chance at influencing our behaviors.
When I find myself putting off a healthy, though uninspiring task, I’ll visualize a pleasant, long-term result that would accrue, and generate positive feelings while I hold the task in mind. Eventually, associating a worthwhile endeavor with positive feelings makes it easier to focus on the routine I’ve previously sidestepped.
Meditation: Overriding the Habits of Procrastination & Distraction
In my own practice I’ve developed a method specifically to override the habits of procrastination and distraction.
Close your eyes and sit comfortably, bringing attention to the sensations of your breath as experienced in your abdomen. Try to subtly extend the length of exhalations, which helps down regulate the nervous system.
When you’re ready, bring to mind a task you’ve been avoiding, though it would be beneficial. It could be going to a yoga class, paying bills, you name it. As you visualize yourself engaging in the activity, become aware of the subtle physical feelings it evokes—perhaps a tightness in the chest, clenched teeth, contracted abdomen, or hesitant breathing. Use your long, slow exhalations to soothe the negative feelings associated with the task.
Now bring to mind a long-term positive outcome that would result from this task. Really allow yourself to fantasize about a wonderful outcome. Once this is achieved, bring your attention to the positive feelings that have been evoked. Savor the sensations and use the breath to spread them.
Lastly, with positive feelings invoked, bring your attention back to the task you’ve avoided, and spend a minute linking the pleasant feelings with the avoided routine. That’s it!
Finally, it’s important to note that behavioral change doesn’t occur after a single meditation—avoidance coping is notoriously resistant to change. Give these practices time and patience. They’ll work if you work at them.