What Are You Practicing? — How To Culivate Conscious Choice_Featured_, Consciousness, Meditation Friday, August 10th, 2012
(By Larry M. Berkelhammer, PhD)
We are all very diligent about practicing. In fact, we are practicing something in every moment. The problem is that most of the time, we are unconsciously practicing unhealthy behavior. And if we’re not fully aware, it’s inevitable that we will inadvertently practice something that’s unhealthy or that isn’t aligned with our life values.
Which of these two behaviors below would you rather be practicing? You choose.
Here is how to cultivate conscious choice:
There is a simple yet powerful question that will help you shift from unconscious, destructive practices to healthful ones. Throughout the day, practice mindfulness by asking yourself: What am I practicing in this moment? The purpose of asking this question is to become aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and doing and give yourself the opportunity to try something else that’s more likely to enhance your health.
Following are some ways you might respond to the question as your awareness improves. As you can imagine, some are healthy and others are not:
- I’m practicing self-pity.
- I’m practicing anger.
- I’m practicing self-criticism.
- I’m practicing gratitude.
- I’m practicing avoidance.
- I’m practicing seeing the light in other people.
- I’m practicing reaching out to someone.
- I’m practicing authentic self-expression.
- I’m practicing assertiveness.
Are you aware of spending a lot of time practicing self-critical thoughts, or ruminating repeatedly over a familiar issue or problem? You may find that your thoughts spin like a hamster in a wheel— running nowhere. And the more you do this, the more you will continue to do it. You will ultimately get very good—expert, even—at something you really wouldn’t want to do at all if you were fully aware of how this practice impacts your health and happiness.
Here are some suggestions as to how you can become skillful in this practice:
When you find yourself feeling sad, you can ask: What am I practicing? The answer can help you to see that the reason you’re feeling sad is that you’ve been practicing ruminating over an event in your life that stimulates sadness.
When you find yourself feeling anxious, the answer is usually that you’ve been practicing assigning negative attributions to future events: When I go to the doctor today, I bet she’ll find my numbers are worse is one example. You have, in effect, been practicing inventing unpleasant outcomes that have no basis in reality.
When you find yourself feeling lighthearted, you have probably been practicing taking your thoughts lightly—in other words, de-fusing from your thoughts.
When you find yourself feeling angry, you have probably been practicing blame.
Let me offer two personal examples:
While I’m shaving, a memory flashes into mind of a provocative, antagonistic remark I made to someone fifteen years ago that resulted in some mutual discomfort. Now, many years later, I immediately feel shame and regret for having made that comment. Even though the words left my mouth long ago, I berate myself for being so insensitive today. My body tightens against my self-criticism. I feel stressed and contracted. Then I remember to ask the question What am I practicing? The question wakes me up from my old unhealthy thinking pattern and allows me to feel compassion for myself for having experienced this interaction again. This immediately alleviates my tension.
In another example, I’m about to go to a medical appointment. As sometimes happens, I feel anxiety and dread. As soon as I realize what I’m feeling, I ask myself: What am I practicing? I find that I’m practicing some familiar, unhealthy, anxiety-producing thoughts. With that realization comes the awareness of choice. Almost simultaneously, my breathing slows and my anxiety diminishes. I think about how ironic it is that the very stress my body experiences as I anticipate the appointment makes it more likely that I will need even more appointments.
This technique can be applied to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness as well, which are easy to experience if you have a chronic medical problem. If you experience them once in a while, they’re harmless, but when they represent an entrenched pattern they become pathogenic; they can lead to depression and become deleterious to your health. Once you learn to identify the pattern by asking yourself what you are practicing in the present moment, your experience becomes, Oh, I’m feeling that way again. With that awareness, you can develop the ability to change.
Dr. Larry Berkelhammer teaches people how to live well with serious conditions on his “Mind Training to Improve Health” blog: www.larryberkelhammer.