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The anatomy of a habit
“People form habits and habits form futures. If you do not deliberately form good habits, then unconsciously you will form bad ones” Albert Gray
I have a terrible admission to make. An active lifestyle is something I had to learn. It had to become a habit. Since being unwell for the past few weeks I am struggling to get back into a good routine. I have found my shadow ‘couch potato’ self is alive and well. Why is that?
Habits are actions that we do so often that they become automatic.
We may have to learn the action the first time. Like cleaning our teeth. Then after a few times the brain decides it no longer has to pay attention and it becomes subconscious. It’s a habit – whether you like it or not!
And let’s face it, we all know habits can be either good or bad – depending of course if they help us or harm us. And regardless most habits go unnoticed – even the good ones – unnoticed until someone (like our doctor) or something (like our tight jeans) points them out!
When habits no longer benefit us – or worse – habits that we still may like begin to harm us- like smoking, over eating or drinking – we might begin to think about change.
And that’s when the seemingly intractable nature of habits can frustrate us each time we try to say no.
New neurobiological research is showing us that changing habits is hard because the behaviours we routinely repeat become strong neural pathways in our brain. Like a path worn through the grass that is a short cut home.
The neuronal pathways ‘fire’ each time we repeat the action. And if we frequently repeat the action in similar circumstance (e.g. having a cigarette with coffee or eat in response to stress) the behaviour and the circumstance link together – what ‘fires together wires together’ so the place, time or emotional states reinforce each other.
Its not all bad news though because our brains can change themselves and we can work to build new habits by practicing it – again and again.
And this is where mindfulness can help: Mindfulness is conscious awareness. Focusing on how we think, eat or respond to emotions is a way to see the habitual patterns we live in. And becoming aware is the first step towards change.
Next formulating an intention or goal helps guide the new actions and provides motivation to keep doing it. Our intention to engage in the new behaviour is the single best predictor of doing it.
So if mindfulness is part of what’s needed what is the other part? Actions! Doing it – not thinking about it – reading about it – talking about it…or writing about about it – but doing it! A new habit needs us to do it – again, again and again.
Hmm, so I guess that’s my cue – out with my shadow friend and off for a walk.
Just one last thing…if you want to change a habit it helps to remember the benefits.
So what are the benefits of being active? Many.
For me it’s the feeling of ‘well-being’ that comes from moving the body. Also it is the love of ‘being’. The experience of spending time mindfully in nature – the touch of the breeze, the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the scene and the joy of the sounds.
Ahh…there are just some habits that you hope never take on the true anatomy of a habit – unnoticed, automatic or unconscious. This is because an afternoon walk, like eating delicious food, brings such a harvest of sensory rewards that you want it to be mindful. Not just a habit – but more. A series of wonderful, mindful moments – lived again, again and again.
“Each breath is an invitation back to this moment, back to this life, lived in this one and only moment”
The mornings this week have been some of the coldest of the winter. It was -2° C on Friday, and -1° C was forecast for the first day of the weekend and for our usual early Saturday morning bike ride with friends. Good sense meant a later start, and out of the cold and frosty morning emerged one of the glorious sunny, and nearly cloudless blue sky days the Central West is well known for.
Cycling is popular in our town. However riding in a group means everyone has preferences for how they like to ride; some like to go fast and get to the top of the hill first, others prefer to put their heads down and burn energy to the ‘max’, while many of us prefer to stay together and chat about the week’s past events. Sometime I choose to ride out mindfully – which means I am by myself and mostly last. But the rewards are plentiful – the majesty of the hills, the visual array of the farms, the sounds of the animals, the momentary whiff of a fragrant garden and the personality of the different vineyards we pass. Time spent mindfully rarely disappoints.
This weekend out of the cold and frosts of winter emerged the first daffodils of the season. I love Daffodils. A sign of spring. A sign of a new beginning.
No matter where we cycle, the end destination is always the same.
The Quaff Café is a place described by the upholder of good food as a quirky, quiet backstreet cottage that has a quaint courtyard up the back.
Again everyone in the peloton has preferences – some do fruit toast, some do a hot breakfast and we all do coffee. The problem of eating with a group is that the sight of enticing food on the menu, or on other’s plates , can make us want to eat, even if we’re not hungry and have eaten before leaving home.
The unhelpful thoughts inevitably arise (“I want to eat this..” ). The narrative builds (“I have done plenty of exercise surely I deserve a treat”). You probably know how it goes…on and on, until the thoughts take over and we end up mindlessly eating too much, or not eating want we want. All of which can leave us feeling guilty or cross.
Psychologists call this the abstinence violation effect (a sense of loss of control over our behaviour that has a demoralising effect). In mindfulness practice this is called life. Mindfulness helps us learn to accept and tolerate the urges and cravings that invariably arise when we are surrounded by eating cues such as freshly baked scones! Triggers for “…eating because it’s there”, “eating because it’s nice”, “eating because I’m too busy talking” or “eating because I just don’t have time to think before the waitress comes ” and “eating because it’s in my mouth before I even notice what I’m eating”.
Eating mindfully is easy in theory – in reality in an environment filled with readily available food it’s hard. Very hard. And it’s hardest of all when surrounded by friends, with our attention swirling around in the joys, and conversations, and social pressures of being with others.
What to do? I think we are all in situations when we could ask what ourselves what can we do?
I have a little Kelly Rae Roberts plate at home that reminds me what to do. It says: •B•R•E•A•T•H•E
By breathing we give ourselves the moment: to respond, not react.
Breathing helps bring us out of our heads and getting swayed by our thoughts (I notice the thought: “Hmm… my partner’s ordering scones perhaps I should order something too?”).
Focusing on the physical sensations of our breath helps bring our attention back into our body. It’s the reminder to turn inward: Am I hungry? How hungry am I? Am I thirsty? Am I emotional? What does my body need right now?
Each moment our breath is an opportunity for a new beginning.
Even once we have made the decision what to eat (or what not to eat), when we’re eating with friends, it can remain hard to stay mindful. If we’re drawn into our friends compelling stories (“… and then she said to me… “). Breathe. When we’re back in our heads and lost in our thoughts (“…humff… that looks nice why did I just order coffee…”). Breathe.
A breath is an invitation back to the mouthful, back to the body, back to the intention to eat or drink this mindfully.
Each breath is an invitation back. Back to this life, lived in this one and only moment.
And yes, then I’m reminded again about the pleasure of eating mindfully. Half a scone on the neighbouring plate is pushed towards me. Still warm, it’s topped with homemade raspberry jam. I add a dollop of cream. One, two, three slow and delicious mouthfuls. I smile and reflect and I’m thankful – for his mindfulness, and yes how well and truly he knows me….
‘Pause’ and be mindful
Pause. Take a breath. Focus.
It’s so simple. Yet why do we forget this small, first step towards mindful eating?
It’s easy to forget to eat mindfully anytime, but at breakfast it’s more likely than most. Hurried. Routine. Same food often, day after day. Another workday and another meal with our minds more occupied by the “to-do list” than the food before us.
I was reminded to ‘pause’ at breakfast today by a wise teacher. The pause reminded me that breakfast is often the meal I enjoy most. Oats. Dried fruit. Yoghurt. Not much extra time was needed to taste, explore and fully experience it. A gratitude for the farmers and those who helped it arrive at my door. This moment. This food and it’s nutrition, nourishing and becoming me.
A pause takes exactly 3 seconds. Yes three. And this alone can make the difference between a mindful meal and a mindless one. The power of the pause is that its reminds us to ask: “Where is our mind right now?”
So perhaps a mindful eating practice may be:
- Pause before you start.
- Pause half way through the meal.
- Pause at the end of the meal.
- Pause when you notice you are distracted or eating out of habit.
Pausing may not be the only step – but it’s the first step – and without it, we spiral down into unconsciousness, with the loss of this one delicious moment forever. Mindless eating undermines not only our health but the qualities of our life. So if you do nothing else for yourself at your next meal, do this…
Pause. Take a breath. And focus on the food before you. It is such a simple way to bless yourself.
Welcome to Mindful Eating
Welcome to ‘mindful-eating’ and to those interested in learning more about mindful eating and mindful living.
In the beautiful Central West of NSW we celebrate delicious regional foods and wines grown locally. This, when combined with the spaciousness that comes from being in the beauty and nature of an exquisite valley ‘nested in the hills’, gives us plenty of opportunities to reflect. Reflect on how to achieve the balance between pleasure and health, enjoyment and moderation, work and leisure.
Life, we are told, is the best teacher. And life here, like living in all places, has plenty of lessons. Like our ancient hills, life has its up and downs with daily journeys that can go from hilltop to valley floor. Mindfulness, I have found, is an ancient wisdom that we can use to ease our path and to guide our way.
For those who like to seek, write, understand or explore I have found this valley to be a source of great inspiration. It gives us many moments to be mindful and nature offers many metaphors. So, whether you’re here for a few days or a lifetime, I hope this countryside can become your classroom too. It has a wonderful array of lifestyle moments and events – a harvest of abundant, delicious foods and wines, – and time, if we choose to take it, to reflect and re-consider our relationship with our lives, with our food and with ourselves. The cafes, the country lanes, the people and the places help us remember what’s important in life. Time spent here shows us how food, healthy activity and life can be a source of both great nourishment and great joy. May your moments in the beautiful Central West be many; may your moments in the beautiful Central West be blessed.
Twitter: Mindful Eating Moments @eatingmindfully