hacking our habits: changing patterns of thinking & feeling
Why are some habits easy to form (immoral, illegal or bad for your health, as my Dad used to say) – but the ones we actually want, are far harder to set up? In this blog, we take a deep dive into the neuroscience of hacking our habits: how they form and how we can set ourselves up for maximal success by installing the ones we actually want.
Habits of thought & habits of feeling shape who we are
As is clear by now, if large numbers of us are going to find a way to move towards conscious evolution, then we have to solve the problem of how ordinary, time-poor, stressed out people in a world hurtling towards chaos and calamity, can find the time, space and bandwidth actually to become the change we need to see in the world.
To this end, we’ve explored the neuroscience of habits in a previous blog and now, here, we want to look at how hacking our habits can help us to shape who we are as people.
Because really quite large amounts of our lives are habits of feeling which lead to habits of thought which lead to habits of action. And if we’re going to reach a place where conscious evolution is the next iterative step, we need to learn how to feel, think and act differently in world in which our default is usually to pick a behaviour from our tool kit and implement it.
It’s only when we can’t find a useful default that we have to think at all, which is why taking on a new job, or moving house, or changing partners are some of the hardest things most of us do in a stable peacetime world (and ours still counts as that, more or less).
Defaulting to known behaviours creates rigidity & loss of resilience
In each of these cases, if we can’t default to known behaviours, we have to think of new ways to respond to changing circumstances – we need, in fact, internal resilience. But as we grow older, what tends to happen is that we break down known behaviours and construct new ones from the pieces. Very little of what we feel, think or do as adults is actually new – and that means we can find ourselves locked into patterns of behaviour and cycles of feeling that begin to feel as if they’re unchangeable because they’re unchanging. I have begun to let my habits define who I am rather than the other way around.
In this way of being, I lose my sense of being an authentic self, and my entire life from the moment I wake up to the moment of falling asleep becomes a constant rehearsal of who I believe myself to be: the stories that shape my sense of self. I have ceased to be resilient and in many ways, I have ceased to be authentic.
The only moments of flexibility happen in my dreams, when I tend to see the things I chose not to see in my waking life – the things that I have tried to suppress and failed. They appear as all the frustrations and terrors of the night that we call nightmares. Until I am living a fully coherent, authentic life – a life without denial and dissociation, a flexible, resilient life bound less by habit – the monsters of my unconscious and subconscious will continue to leap out of dark corners in my dreams.
Habit patterns arise out of fear of not having a response
This being the case, how would my life be, how would my relationships be, how would my dreams be, how would I walk through the world, if I was feeling something that felt to me to be a closer approximation to being the best of myself? And how much of this can I trust myself to allow to arise in the moment? Because it seems that a lot of our habit patterns arise in the first place out of fear of not having a response that works. Quite early in our development, as we shift from the little forager hunters we are as we’re born, we start to develop responses to situations that assail us. When something works, when we gain social approval, the basic laws of positive reinforcement kick in and we do it again. Pretty soon, that response, whatever it is, has become hardwired in our repertoire of behaviours and we pull it out in whatever circumstances it might fit.
But other things are happening in our brains as we grow up. If we look at our brain wave patterns through childhood development, we start off mainly in low frequency patterns of delta and theta. As we age, we move towards the higher frequency of alpha and then as we hit early adolescence, we begin the firing of beta that is our habitual adult daily response: the fast, jagged waves that sweep across our brains as we think in our endless loops. This is our usual spectrum – we move from delta in deep sleep to beta when we’re awake and worrying about stuff and the more we worry, the faster and more jagged the beta becomes until we hit white-out and can’t think clearly at all.
This is part of our standard behavioural repertoire too, and it’s not entirely healthy: we didn’t evolve to exist in permanent stress states and if we’re going to evolve beyond where we are now, it seems likely we need not to be in permanent stress states now, either.
Hacking our Habits – Meditation helps. Honestly!
The good news is that with meditation, hacking our habits becomes possible. We can shift that back to alpha, to theta, to delta, while we’re still awake. This is our usual spectrum, but it seems likely that some of us, some of the time, can shift to gamma waves, which are high frequency waves similar to the beta waves but much more coherent in terms of their amplitude and frequency.
And when we’re in measurable gamma frequency, that’s when we’re fully present in the moment, fully aware, and with a subjective sense of being fully connected to the world around us – there are no boundaries. We and the universe are one. And while it used to be that we only found gamma in Buddhist monks who’d spent 40 years meditating for 14 hours a day, there are signs now that ordinary people can reach gamma. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t take a life time of meditation, either.
And I believe this is where we need to go – this place of flexibility and resilience and absolute presence in the moment that allows full connection.
The question is how do we get there? And the answer is, by changing the habits of our feelings, thoughts and actions, one step at at time. As with any change in our behavioural repertoire, the new habit needs to be desirable, attainable, easy, obvious and rewarding. And, while settling into gamma isn’t easy or obvious from the perspective of the ordinary human being – you and me – I think we can get there if we work in small steps.
Which is what the Accidental Gods program is about. We work on connection, we work on our own internal coherence, we ask for help and we let go – and I think the gamma comes in the letting go.
With any luck at all, as we grow as a community, we’ll reach a point where we can bring groups together and measure some of our own brain wave patterns while we do these things, but we’re not there yet – so in the meantime, we need to keep going with whatever works best for us, keeping in mind that we’re aiming for internal resilience.
Changing the weather of our being
Being resilient – being able to shift the texture tone of our feelings – seems to be the key to all this. In which case, it’s interesting to look at the sequence that underlies this shaping of ourselves: AMTP – attitude, mood, temperament, personality traits.
My attitudes are short term – how I felt when I woke up and remembered the list of things I have to do today. How I responded at a feeling level to the news, to meeting a friend while walking the dog, to looking out across the rooftops and seeing a new car in the village…each of these is transient, like a rain cloud – it rolls across the landscape and it passes on leaving the underlying weather unchanged.
But if a cloud rolls in and then another and another, they become the weather. Similarly, if I stitch these feeling modalities together, they become my mood – I’m in a good mood, a cheerful mood, an angry mood – This is the warm or cold front that’s bringing the specific weather of the week or the month. It hangs around for longer and even if I have a short term attitude that is its opposite, my general mood will colour the way that I behave.
Seasonal weather underlies the weather fronts and similarly, if I’m consistently in a particular mood – good, or bad – then it begins to shape my temperament, which is a mood spread that colours our lives through certain phases. So we might be frivolous and prone to practical jokes all the way through university and then we graduate and the responsibility of work falls on our shoulders and suddenly we’re focussed on holding down a sensible job and paying the mortgage and worrying about our pensions so that we become pretty much unrecognisable to the people who knew us when we were a student.
Underneath all of this, clearly, is the global climate – the personality traits which are defined as ‘consistent patterns in the way a person thinks and feels’. Like many other things, these were thought to be fixed.
But they don’t have to be.
We can change our own weather
And this is what I mean by hacking our habits of thought and feeling. If we change our attitudes, then over time we shift our moods and if we can shift our moods, then we can shift out temperaments and with that, over a much longer time scale, we can shift the foundations of how we walk in the world. We can move from a daily background of fear to hope. We can move from despair to compassion. We can move from anger to wonder. All of these are possible.
What this shift requires is a baseline ability to see what we’re thinking and feeling – to not get too caught up in the dramas of our own moments. But it’s important to know that this is not denial. There’s a world of difference between doing the work on ourselves such that we can see our own process and let it float past without having to indulge ourselves in it – and brushing those same dramas under the carpet where they fester until they explode out.
For this to work it has to encompass an allowing, an observing, a witnessing and respecting of ourselves and our process. We have to learn self-kindness. We have, in fact, to learn to cherish ourselves, which can be a fairly alien idea to many of us.
So if you’re working in the membership program, or trying this yourself at home, then this is one of the key things I want us to think about as we do the visualisations or the meditations. We’re not doing these just for the sake of doing them. We’re not building a habit of 5 minutes of listening to a water visualisation in the morning simply to carry on with the rest of our day as if nothing had changed.
The point of our connecting and our growing into coherence is that we let the effects of these spill over into our days so that our underlying experience of the world changes over time.
In this case, with whatever form of meditation works for you – whether you’re returning your attention to a single point of focus or a letting it spread wide to the entirety of your present moment, you’re essentially becoming aware of being aware. And then over time, as we practice, as we become increasingly fascinated by the process of our own process, we can see thoughts and our feelings arising on increasingly subtle levels – and then we can choose to feel differently.
So, for instance, if it were the case that, to pick a random example… my team lost the election and now I think the entire nation is sliding fast into fascism and concentration camps. I could spend hours in very familiar cycling of despair and rage and ‘what if everyone else saw the world the way I do?’…. or I could see that at the point where it starts, or even just before it starts — and I can let it go.
And then I have a choice. I can carry on with my day and my thinking can whizz off into other habitual areas most of which are fairly self-judgemental and some of which are downright self destructive.
What fires together, wires together
Or I can replace that thought-feeling pattern with something more constructive, more likely to help me to keep balanced and open and connected. And, because what fires together wires together, if I consistently return to my default feeling, then over time, it will become hard wired in the same way my poor-me-the-world-isn’t-the-way-I-want-it-to-be became hard wired.
And this is one of the things I think that lies at the core of shifting who we are —this process of finding a default feeling that works for us and that we can reliably evoke in a way that feels authentic and grounded and that isn’t an excuse for dissociation and denial – and then practicing it as often as we practice our old feeling habits until the new wiring is as strongly embedded as the old.
Which is not trivial. We’re planning a workshop devoted entirely to this in the summer, because it is one of those things works well when explored in a community of like-minded people striving for the same thing.
But July is a long way off, and it never hurts to start early, so in the next podcast/blog, we’re going explicitly to explore the evocation of consistent, reliable, authentic, grounded feelings – that are going to stand us in good stead – what they might be, how to access them and how to begin to instal them as habits.
– spend 10 minutes meditating and write down what you think/feel
For now – If you have time, begin to take a look at the thought cycles that are repetitive in your own process. How often do they recur? How many of them are there? What kinds of attitudes, moods, temperaments are they associated with. How would you feel if you were free of these? If you can face spending at least ten minutes in meditation once a day for the next week in which you write down what you think and the underlying feelings associated with those thoughts, it’s a really instructive process.
If you’re in the membership program, come to the forum or the webinar and let’s talk about this, because it’s more complicated than it might sound. A lot of our deeply held thought-feeling units are so foundational that we don’t even see they’re there. They are so much the structure of our world that we take them for granted. But if we’re to gain the flexibility we need, of we’re to become truly resilient in the face of a changing world, then we need to start shifting some of our uncontested baselines. But we need to do it safely, so that we’re not left in free fall without any reference points. So start by just writing down what you think in meditation and see how much is repeated over the days.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Episodes in our Introductory Series
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What is it that makes us human? How can we bring the best of ourselves to the current crises – individually, and as a civilisation? This week, we talk to Matthew Taylor, former Chief Executive of the RSA, former political strategist to Tony Blair on the road to a better future.
As our world hurtles towards tipping points, how can we be part of the solution? How can we find resilience, in ourselves, our lives and our communities? Above all, how can we bring Active Hope to the world? Dr Chris Johnstone and Madeleine Young have set up an online training course based in Joanna Macy’s work that reconnects and we talk about it in this week’s podcast.
As we hover on the edge of the Great Turning, how can we find a spiritual practice that draws from the roots of who we are and yet provides the sustenance we need to help us navigate our changing world? Sue Philips of Sacred Design Labs explores the possibilities.
In a world that is literally burning, with politicians whose positions of power are predicated on their not listening, what are the most creative, thoughtful, caring people on the planet doing to bring about change? Sophie Miller of Ocean and Extinction Rebellions was an integral part of the stunningly impressive actions at the G7 summit earlier this summer. In this second of two parts, she reflects on her experience – and looks ahead to future actions.