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Train Your Mind to Break That Habit

An Interview with Hugh Byrne

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Illustration of liquor bottle on top of car

Kentucky Bound by Vivienne Strauss

Most of us have unhealthy habits that we’d like to break. But it’s difficult because habits are the ways we think, feel, and act automatically and unconsciously. In his new book, The Here-and-Now Habit, meditation teacher Hugh Byrne says that mindfulness practices can help us break unhealthy habits by allowing us to see our thoughts and actions in the moment so that we can let go of old patterns and develop new ones. Byrne recently spoke with S&H about habit formation, different ways that mindfulness can help us change our habits, and how breaking unhealthy habits can ultimately lead to enlightenment.

How do we form habits?

When we do something frequently enough under consistent conditions, we form habits. The situation or context in which we do something—the time of day, place, who we’re with, what we’re feeling—triggers the brain to assign that behavior to brain processes that deal with automatic and habitual activities. When the behavior, or pattern of thinking, is repeated often enough—and this varies from person to person and from habit to habit—it is assigned to these faster acting and more instinctual brain processes.

Why is that?

Charles Duhigg, who wrote The Power of Habit, has written that habits are essentially the brain’s way of saving space and making things simpler and more efficient. If we had to think about how to drive a car—on a conscious, intentional level—then every time we drove we would need much more brainpower and we’d need much bigger brains to do it.

So habits are efficient from an evolutionary standpoint. From this evolutionary perspective, it really doesn’t matter whether the habit is a healthy or unhealthy one. It matters that we can create efficiencies through habit formation.

But why is it so hard to change a habit once we recognize it as being unhealthy?

Because the brain processes have made these actions and thought processes automatic and unconscious, so we’re more likely to default to those once the trigger arises. So when our good intentions come up against a strong habit, it’s like a Model T Ford racing with a Ferrari: the Ferrari’s already at the finish line before the Model T has started.

So it’s really understandable why habits—even very unhealthy habits—tend to continue. That’s where mindfulness comes in, which is beneficial for both working with unhealthy habits and also developing positive ones.

The idea is that mindfulness is a tool that gives us the capacity to make choices during the moments when we are usually acting unconsciously. Is that right?

Exactly. You could say that mindfulness makes visible what was invisible, so then we can make choices. First of all, we have to notice when a habit isn’t really helpful to us. In the book I use an example from when I was working a regular 9:00 to 5:00 job in an NGO, and I’d come home and have a couple of glasses of wine in the evening. Now, I wasn’t drinking whole bottles of wine, but I noticed that there was a pattern and a kind of leaning in to the habit. There was a slight tightening up if I didn’t have it, and then I’d feel like I was missing something. So I had to be prepared: I had to make sure that I had the wine at home in order to be OK.

So I thought, There’s something here that isn’t very helpful to me. So seeing that is the first step, and then once you can see it, you can start to work with it. Then it becomes a more moment–to-moment practice where you can ask yourself, What would I have to accept and be open to if I weren’t going to have my two glasses of wine in the evening? What would I have to feel and experience?

It’s very likely there’d be some uncomfortable bodily feelings. There’d be some thoughts in the mind like, Wow, I really would like a glass, or a feeling of discomfort. But mindfulness can help us learn that we can be OK with some discomfort and that we don’t have to keep finding a way to avoid uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings. We can foster a willingness to be with our experience, even when it isn’t exactly our favorite thing to be with.

It sounds like mindfulness is operating on at least three different levels when it comes to changing habits: first when you notice that you want to change it, then in the moment when a trigger arises and you decide not to be triggered, and then afterward being able to hold whatever comes up.

Yes, mindfulness comes into play before, during, and after the impulse to perform a habit. Once we’ve identified something, we can see what it is that leads up to it. What are the precursors? Where does it happen? Why does it happen? Then, when it’s been triggered, a lot of the practice is learning how to stay with it without acting out the habit, and that requires awareness. It also usually requires some level of acceptance and self-compassion. Then afterward—and this is especially important when we’ve acted in a way that may be unhealthy or we wish we hadn’t—we can be kind to ourselves and learn from what happened. And then we can ask, Was there a point in the process when I made a choice that I would like to avoid making in the future?

I’d like to talk more about mindfulness in the moment when a trigger arises. What often happens to me is that I find that I can be mindful in the midst of an impulse but, seeing the choice in front of me, I’ll opt for the instant gratification. Is there something that can be done about that lack of willpower?

That’s an interesting and important observation. So there’s enough awareness but there isn’t enough willpower to actually make the choice. In that situation, what I find useful is to come back to intention, to think about what really matters to us. If something doesn’t really matter—or if we feel that something isn’t a big deal—then, when push comes to shove, we’re not going to choose the hard route; we’re going to go the familiar and comfortable way.

But what happens when you reflect on your deepest intentions? What do I really care about? How do I want to live? What do I aspire to become? It might be that you want to have a life of greater peace, ease, or freedom. You might aspire to have loving relationships. Once you identify what that intention is, you can reflect on what gets in the way of enabling it. Then you might notice that certain habits are causing stress or strain or suffering, and, if they do, then reflect on how important it is to make a change.

The other thing you might do, if there’s not enough willpower at a particular moment to make the choice you want to, is to think of strategies in advance of the moment. If I always get a candy bar from a certain machine and want to stop, what will I do the next time I walk by the machine? Maybe I’ll take a walk around the block or get an apple out of my bag, or do something else that you plan in advance of the situation. The research shows that this can be really supportive of changing unhealthy habits and developing healthy ones.

Earlier you mentioned the importance of self-compassion and acceptance. Does that actually work better than beating yourself up about the things that you don’t want to do?

It’s certainly true in my own experience. Let’s say I want to do something that’s healthy and I don’t succeed. If I beat myself up about it by being really critical of myself, what happens is that this reinforces the sense that I’m an inadequate, bad, or unworthy person who somehow isn’t good enough to succeed.

That’s not a healthy way to bring about change. If I meet my experience with acceptance, compassion, and kindness, then I’m really just acknowledging my own humanity. I’m not saying it’s great that I didn’t succeed with my healthy intention; I’m just acknowledging that in that situation, at that moment, I didn’t have sufficient awareness or depth of practice or the willpower to do differently.

Then I can come back to my intention and begin again. The wonderful thing with mindfulness—and I think this is an affirmative quality about life itself—is that we can keep beginning again.

There have been studies of self-compassion that show how effective it can be in cultivating a sense of well-being and health. So it’s not just that being compassionate is a loving way of being toward ourselves and others—it actually has an impact. Compassion has been shown to be highly beneficial for working with different emotional conditions, psychological conditions, and even physical conditions.

This reminds me of a T-shirt I’ve seen that reads, the beatings will continue until morale improves. There’s this illusion that somehow if we can punish ourselves enough, we’re going to create the conditions to change. It’s obvious that it doesn’t work.

We’ve been talking about mindfulness in the context of habits, but I wanted to ask you about its relationship to Buddhist wisdom and liberation. Do you conceive of enlightenment as breaking all of your unhealthy habits?

Yes, I do think of enlightenment as an ending of unhealthy patterns and habits that cause suffering. Unhealthy habits are basically the ways in which we’re hooked into unskillful ways of being in the world that keep us locked in craving. And craving can include aversion, delusion, and other ways that we separate ourselves from full presence in our lives.

So when we’re caught up in unhealthy habits, essentially we’re suffering. The suffering may be very extreme, as in the case of addictions, or it may take a more subtle form. But nonetheless, there is a sense of contraction and a sense in which we’re not fully free. The more we can abandon these unhealthy patterns and free ourselves from them, the more we are liberating ourselves.

Ultimate liberation is really about untangling ourselves from all of the deep roots of habits and from any thoughts or actions that lead us to suffering. Not just changing the behaviors, but getting at the deep-rooted patterns. Otherwise, we might just replace one habit with another, the way somebody might give up alcohol and become addicted to sweets. That may be a positive step, but there is still that underlying sense of being hooked. You haven’t actually gotten off the hook, you’ve just repositioned it in a somewhat beneficial way.

Each one of us can decide whether our goal is the ultimate liberation that the Buddha taught about or just being able to live with more ease and less stress. The great Thai forest master Ajahn Chah said, “If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace. Your struggle with the world will be at an end.” Each of us can choose what our overall goals, objectives, and deepest aspirations are.


3 Themes for Changing a Habit

Take some moments to sit comfortably and reflect on three themes: intention, obstacle, and commitment.

Intention. What matters most? What do you care about most deeply for yourself and your life? (It might be a wish to live with peace and ease; to live joyfully; to be in loving relationships; to manifest your full creativity, or whatever your deepest wish for yourself is.) Now imagine you’ve achieved this peace, well-being, joy, or another intention, and let yourself take in how it feels in your body, emotions, and mind. Allow yourself to experience these feelings.

Obstacle. Now ask yourself what gets in the way of living out this intention here and now, at this time in your life. Is there a behavior or a pattern of thinking that leaves you feeling unhappy, unfulfilled, stressed, anxious, ashamed, or some other emotion or feeling? (It might be wanting something you don’t have, or wishing something would change, or being distracted or disconnected much of the time, or being stressed or anxious.) Notice what comes up for you. And meet whatever you experience with kindness and without judgment.

Commitment. How important is it to make a change in this area—to let go of an unhealthy habit or develop a more beneficial one? If you identify a habit or pattern that you wish to change, be specific about the steps you will take to change it. (For example, if you want to cultivate the habit of meditation, Each day when I wake up I will have a cup of tea and then sit down to meditate for 30 minutes; or, if procrastination is a strong habit pattern, I will work on my taxes each day for at least 30 minutes in the evening.) Envision an obstacle to carrying out this new behavior and think about how you will meet the obstacle if it arises. Keep a daily record of your efforts to change this habit. And remember, you can begin again in any moment.

Sam Mowe is a writer who splits his time between Brooklyn and Garrison, New York.


Sam Mowe is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His interviews have also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and The Sun. He is also the editor of Lineages, a publication of the Garrison Institute. Sam is a regular contributor to Spirituality & Health. 

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