What you practice grows stronger

1 Jan 2018 1:34 PM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

by Tim Burnett

As the tumultuous year of 2017 draws to a close I'm thinking about what I can do in 2018 to be a better person. A better friend. A better father. A better husband. A better teacher. A better citizen.

It's so easy to look out there and expect other people to be better. Our attention is so strongly drawn to examples of what we consider bad behavior in others. And 2017 was a doozy of a year for most of us with that compelling observation. Our stress responses have been triggered often I bet, regardless of your politics, by the words and images of the various kinds of "news" this year just for starters!

And then there are the people we know personally! Why doesn't she return my messages more promptly? Why is he still drinking/overeating/wasting so much time online? On and on it goes in our mind.

It's so easy to want others to be better, but when we turn our attention to our own growth and development we can go so quickly into overwhelm. Our habits and patterns are so strong. We can make the same New Year's resolutions year after year and never quite get there. We get distracted. We spend our time and other resources on things that don't truly make us happy, much less support our growth and change.

I love to share this poem in workshops and classes about the process of habit change.

Autobiography in Five Chapters

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in... it's a habit... but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

-Portia Nelson from There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

We don't like those middle chapters too much. We try to jump ourselves immediately from Chapter I to Chapter V. But it seems it doesn't work that way. There's a process here. Sometimes a very slow process. And it involves seeing more clearly: what are the holes in your sidewalk? And it involves taking more responsibility for our lives. I think of the quotation: "It's not your fault, but it is your responsibility."

In her book on habit change The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal makes a few interesting points about this process. Mostly she says that willpower is like a muscle, we need to exercise it and strengthen it and it gets tired. We need to practice.

And she says part of why this isn't easy is that the brain's reward center is wired towards distraction. It fires off pleasurable neurotransmitters that makes us fleetingly happy in the anticipation of reward. Picture the endless scroll of a Facebook feed or the endless possibilities of a bag of cookies. The interesting thing is the brain isn't responding to the actual taste of the cookie or the experience of reading some new tidbit from someone's life, it's responding to the exciting hope that the next one will be even better. We all know where that leads.

This all makes me think of Shauna Shapiro's inspiring TED talk "What You Practice Grows Stronger". She repeats this phrase what you practice grows stronger several times and gives a story from her life to explain it and backing it up with a bit of science.

What do you want to strengthen in 2018? Do you want to strengthen outrage and disgust? Or do you want to strengthen patience, kindness, and resilience?Sometime one worries about losing one's "edge" here. If things in the world aren't okay with us don't we need to stay angry to be motivated to respond? 

I don't know if there's science yet to back this up but I don't think we need anger to respond. I think anger leads to unhelpful responses more often than not. We need to be motivated for sure, but I wonder if that motivation can come from a more balanced and positive place. A place of inclusion, compassion and understanding; a place that's less likely to lead to yet more division and confusion.

And if we look at where we have the biggest influence, it's right in front of us. With our family. With our co-workers and classmates. With our neighbors and friends. And what kind of person do you want to be in those interactions? Distracted or present? Righteous or kind?

So that's my goal for 2018. From moment to moment practice more of what I want to be: practice patience; practice resilience; practice kindness; practice honesty; practice being more direct and not procrastinating or avoiding for fear of conflict or failure; practice showing up even in the face of those underlying fears that I'm not good enough or people won't like it (or me!).

And I've reluctantly learned that I need help in this enterprise. I can't just go it alone. Not much really changes if my goals are private (or even secret).  I've been amazed by how much it helps to have a bit of an exercise buddy. And I would never have kept up meditation all these years without a group to practice with.

None of this is easy. But the good news is positive intentions, especially with more present-centered attention, and a little follow through leads to some positive "upward spirals" - sometimes quite quickly.  It's satisfying and joyful when we notice we're navigating the tricky waters of life with a little more ease. It's wonderful when we find ourselves rebalancing our perception and savoring the good things, not just reacting to the bad. And inspired by this we take the next step in a very long journey.

What would you like to strengthen in 2018? What will you practice?

Happy New Year,


Tim Burnett,  Executive Director
Mindfulness Northwest

Willpower by Kelly McGonigal

The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger, TED talk by Shauna Shapiro

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