Release the habits that no longer serve you
You cannot teach an old dog new tricks. This idea is one of the best known proverbs of so-called “common knowledge.” As such it is rarely, if ever, questioned. In this second lesson of six in the Fall Program series, Discovering Your Soul Signature, based on the book of the same title by Panache Desai, Rev. Joanne explains that modern neuroscience and psychology have definitely shown that this is not true.
When the human brain (or any animal’s brain) learns something, there is a change in the neural network such that synaptic connections are reorganized, so that the new information can be recalled and used in the future when needed. Known as neuroplasticity, it is one of the physical foundations for learning.
When we are children, we learn things more quickly than we do as adults. Things such as language acquisition (mother tongue or second language), or motor skills associated with athletics or music are easier for children. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that children are less self-conscious about not knowing something, or failure. Children also have much more time available for the pursuit of pure learning because they do not have the responsibilities of adults that take up a great deal of time. Also, the brains of children have not yet formed as many neural connections as they will later in life, so new experiences have an easier time being assimilated.
Ninety-five percent of our brain activity happens at an unconscious level. The human organism is so complex, that if this were not true we would not be able to function and move through the world. If we had to actively think about breathing and beating our hearts, for example, any lapse in concentration would be the end of us. But as Rev. Joanne reminds us, the brain has an auto-pilot for higher functions too.
There is an area of the brain known as the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia (or basal nuclei) are a group of subcortical nuclei, of varied origin, in the brains of vertebrates, including humans, which are situated at the base of the forebrain and top of the midbrain. There are some differences in the basal ganglia of primates. Basal ganglia are strongly interconnected with the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and brainstem, as well as several other brain areas. The basal ganglia are associated with a variety of functions, including control of voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, habit learning, eye movements, cognition,1 and emotion.2
Humans are creatures of habit. Many of our habits are good things, such as brushing our teeth every day, exercising, working to support ourselves and our family, and keeping our living space neat and clean. But many of our habits are things we would rather not do. These might include tobacco use, overeating, chronic tardiness, or gossiping. As we age, the neural connections in our brain that are associated with these habit patterns become stronger. The saying “neurons that fire together, wire together” is literally true.3
Each time we repeat a behavior, the neural pathway is reinforced, which makes repeating that behavior just a little bit easier. This is a good thing for behavior we want, such as learning a musical instrument or second language. But the same process is taking place for habits we do not want, such as playing video games too much. (Do not misunderstand, I do not believe video games are bad, only that anything taken to excess can have a negative effect).
One of the challenges we face in making positive changes in our lives is the first step of recognition of root causes of our problems. Sometimes this is simply being lazy. If pressed, most people could list a half dozen habits that they would rather not have. Other times, we may have a habit, we know it is a habit, but do not recognize that it is having unintended negative effects.
There is a third type of habit. These habits are ones that we have, but do not even know that we have. Some of these behaviors may have been taken on early in life as a result of the environments within which we were reared. Our family of origin, teachers, friends, church community, and greater society and culture, all have an effect on how we process the world. This is not to say that we do not bear any responsibility for any such behaviors that we have adopted. Racism, selfishness, or lack of work ethic, for example, should all be things we endeavor to eliminate from our lives regardless of how we acquired such error thoughts.
So if we have habit behaviors that we would be better off changing that are unconscious, how can we identify them so that we can do something about it? This is a difficult question. One way we might approach this is to be aware of the feedback we are getting from the world. If you are chronically tired and have sore feet, you may have a medical condition that requires treatment, but it may also be that losing weight is the answer. If your spouse and children are becoming distant and less communicative, the problem may not be with them, but with you. Working eighty hours a week, breaking promises to go to a child’s soccer game or recital, and losing intimacy with your spouse may be clues that you need to reassess what exactly you value most.
Another way that may help us identify unconscious behaviors in need of attention is to take the question into prayer and meditation. Simply sit in the silence on a regular basis and contemplate the question “what can I do today to make my life a little easier, happier, better, than it was yesterday.” By connecting with God, or Divine Mind, we have access to the consciousness of all possibility. Within that consciousness exists a perfect Divine Idea to guide each of us.
Once we have identified a habit we would prefer not to have, and have decided to make an effort to change it, it is important to recognize that the decision alone does not guarantee the change can be made immediately, or easily. There is work involved. It is also important to be kind to ourselves and not blame any difficulty in making the change, or backsliding, as an inherent weakness. Such thinking can lead to a self defeating attitude, making it too easy to give up and fall back into old patterns of behavior.
Each time we try something new, or to discontinue a habit, it becomes just a bit easier the next time, and the next. Rev. Joanne gave us a visual demonstration of this principle using water and sodium bicarbonate. The first portion of powder added bubbled heavily. The next dose still bubbled, but a little bit less. After four or five doses, the solution became saturated and no longer bubbled. So too with forming or breaking habits.
If you have ever joined a health club after not exercising for many years (or ever), getting into the habit of going can be quite a challenge. This new way of being feels very strange. But after a few months of regularly going, not going feels very strange.
Over time, making small positive changes in our life can have a large impact. One does not go from being able to lift 50 lbs. to being able to lift 100 lbs. overnight, for example. Slow, but steady progress will win in the end. The most important thing to remember is that the Truth we affirm, know, and make part of our awareness takes over, and with the guidance of Divine Mind, it is impossible to fail.
The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thoughts to their steps. Proverbs 14:15
You are invited to create your own spiritual practice around this week’s focus. You could set the intention to make one change into the habitual pattern of your day. You could set the intention to become aware each time you find yourself engaged in negative self-talk so that you can change your mind. Set your intention and then do the work needed to bring your intention into demonstration.
Not all habits are fully good or fully bad, per se. For many people, video games are a diversion that provides them a great deal of enjoyment. I happen to like playing online chess. I have no intention of discontinuing this activity entirely, because I enjoy the mental stimulation. Having taken to meditation the question “what changes can I make in my life that will make a positive impact in my life,” I recognize that limiting my time for chess to one hour per week will provide a healthy balance for this activity, freeing time to pursue other interests, thus broadening my skills in other areas. What change will you make today, that will have a positive impact on your life?
1 Stocco, Andrea; Lebiere, Christian; Anderson, John R. (2010). "Conditional Routing of Information to the Cortex: A Model of the Basal Ganglia's Role in Cognitive Coordination". Psychological Review. 117 (2): 541–74.
2 Weyhenmeyer, James A.; Gallman, Eve. A. (2007). Rapid Review of Neuroscience. Mosby Elsevier. p. 102.
3 Let us assume that the persistence or repetition of a reverberatory activity (or "trace") tends to induce lasting cellular changes that add to its stability. ... When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A's efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased. Hebb, D.O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.