Xen Living 3: Harnessed Habits

Xen Living 3: Harnessed Habits August 23, 2008

key-to-success.jpgI came across an article a few days ago, entitled “What Would You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?”

That set me to thinking about the changing of habits, as it applies specifically to losing weight.

Typically, when you think of something like losing weight, you see it as requiring a very large effort of will, an ongoing tooth-gritting, fist-clenching determination.

You prepare yourself for losing weight. You set a date. You build up to it. You plan strategies. The herculean task looms, and you fear another failure. Then you get into it. You hold yourself back. You deny yourself. You agonize over how badly you want to eat, how badly you want to just give in and rest from this awful, horrible chore.

And yet …

If the obstacle in the way of your goal was a stalled car, you might actually have to exert a tooth-gritting, fist-clenching amount of effort to push it out of the way. But in the case of losing weight (or quitting smoking, etc.), there’s nothing physical to push against. The “obstacle” – just like the determination – is in your own mind.

You have the old habit and the new goal in apparent opposition, but both are these immaterial patterns – of thought and behavior – in your own head.

I was thinking: If you exert a massive effort in your own head, if you attempt to give energy to one of these patterns in preference to the other, are you possibly also giving energy to the other one? They’re both YOU, after all.

If you give power to eating light and working out, do you also give power to being lazy and chowing down without a care?

You’d have to, wouldn’t you? How many tooth-gritting, fist-clenched efforts fail? Almost all of them, isn’t it? How many people fail to lose weight? How many people fail to quit smoking? The TGFC energy in one direction has to be exactly matched in the other direction (maybe because there IS no other direction, there’s just you and your one mind), otherwise we’d change habits at warp speed.

It’s either that, or this other thing I’m thinking – that the heavy effort is the completely wrong image to have in your head. That there IS no heavy effort involved in changing habits. That it’s simply a small, zenlike decision, followed by the building of a directive structure, a mental field that you set up to evaluate and guide each following decision.

I think we have this directive structure in kindergarten form in the “little voice” that we all know about. The “little voice” could be the small, weak, untrained form of this mental field I’m talking about. And it’s a little voice for the same reason that unworked muscles are little muscles.

I know in the past that I’ve changed certain things in an instant, and with no effort. I decide I’m going to cut out sugar for a week or two, for instance, and I simply do it. And the effort of it is … effortless.

When I actually did this, on several occasions, I had friends over-react when they were eating pie, practically jumping up and exclaiming “Oh, I’m sorry! I know you’re cutting out sugar and here I am eating this in front of you!” But I didn’t even care about the pie. I didn’t crave it. In fact, I wasn’t even interested. I loved the smell of it, but it was like there was no connection between the smell and the desire to eat. There simply was no desire to have pie. Because I’d decided – gently, and without any special effort – to cut out sugar. And the mental field effortlessly set in place was a simple, zenlike “I’m not even interested in anything with sugar in it.”

The floundering-around we all do in the changing of habits, thinking of how hard it is, dreading the effort and the likely failure … what if that’s all just the result of a wholly mistaken idea about the way the process works?

It occurs to me that there’s a similar mistake – in a reversed form – at work in the fitness rhetoric that we’re all exposed to. Every fitness-related advertisement includes something about how easy it will be … with their gadget. “You’ll lose pounds and inches and develop a fit, trim body in just minutes a day!” “With the gravity-glide ab-o-cizer, it’s practically effortless!” “You’ll be amazed at how simple, fast and painless the Slim Gym is, as it works out your body automatically!”

Except that building muscle or endurance is NOT effortless. It’s hard, takes a considerable amount of time each day, and is sometimes even painful. (But it also requires no gadgets.)

Fitness, which we’re all constantly told is easy, is actually very hard.

But changing a habit, which we’re all constantly told is hard and time-consuming, might actually be very easy, and happen in an instant.

I have the suspicion that there’s some social force which deliberately reinforces the mistaken idea. Maybe because, after all, what would our relationships, our families and tribes and larger societies, be like if we were all able to change practically without notice? And what would the effect be on commercial operations which depend on us being pretty much the same, having the same hungers and needs, from day to day?

What if you could just stop eating junk food, and stop it completely, after making a simple, mild, zenlike decision, really the equivalent of a whim? What if you could stop smoking forever, after two minutes of thought?

Of course you’d face some physical cravings. But in those times when I stopped sugar, the cravings were interesting rather than commanding. My internal dialogue as I detachedly observed the craving was something like “Hey, sonofagun, look at what that’s doing.” I found it fascinating to feel the craving, but there was no connection between the craving and any sort of slavish response to it.

I fasted for a full week when I was younger, and the desire for food was that same sort of interesting phenomenon. I loved savoring the smell of food during that time, but it was like I’d cut the connection between the craving and the desire. One was physical and automatic, the other was mental, and the result of my own choice.

We’ve all heard of people, or have had friends, who “struggled” with weight loss, or with quitting smoking or quitting drinking. And oh my gosh, aren’t there a lot of helpers out there — tobacco patch sellers, support groups and classes, hypnosis hawkers, weight loss plans, fitness gyms and gadgets — telling you by implication that this will be extremely hard, and that you must have their help to make it easy.

But we’ve also all heard of people who quit cold turkey. Maybe they had to build up to wanting it, but when they did want it, something easy and instant happened in their heads, and they simply stopped the habit.

My old friend Dan – who quit a 35-year, two-pack-a-day smoking habit between one day the next – told me he didn’t even have the desire to smoke, after he one day decided, in a non-dramatic moment, to quit. And this was with an addictive drug, mind you. 

Another friend, Bill, quit smoking, pow!, with no outside help at all. He described the craving as a little guy in his head who nagged frantically and continuously and at high volume initially, but who gradually lost strength and faded out over time. But I got the feeling from his description that he was easily able to resist the nagging.

Maybe that zenlike moment of giving up a habit includes the understanding that you can feel something physically, a physical craving, but you can refrain – not even refuse, but just quietly refrain – from responding to it. Gently and without any fuss, you just recognize that you’ve decided not to do things that way anymore. Ever.

And the reverse zenlike moment of forming a habit is the realization that you can do something — after a small decision, and without any difficulty and determination whatsoever — wholly different and new. Forever.

Could it really be that easy?

"Best to you, Mr. Fox, and for your efforts."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out
"All the best, Hank! Your thoughts and words have always given me something to ponder."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out

Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment