Do you often feel like you are stuck –like life has fallen into a pattern of doing the same old thing over again and you are continuing to repeat those well worn pathways in your brain and the well developed patterns of behaviour?
You may find yourself waiting for an external event, person or situation to change, and then things might improve and you can ‘do you’. The bad news is that you may be waiting for a long time, as the only person you can change is you and as much as you may not like to admit it, there are a lot of things in life that are out of your control.
Habitual patterns of behaviour are formed when you are very young. Often as a way of surviving, getting approval, being liked, getting love or attention. In other words you feel you must act or be another way to be accepted. It is human nature to feel needed, to be accepted and loved; we all desire it and need it. So you learn what you must do and what you must not do in order to be accepted.
It then becomes your second nature to be how you are and how you react to challenging situations. It may be second nature for you to withdraw, to implode, to act out, to explode and dump onto others, to be a people pleaser, to be the peacekeeper, to be the passive one, to negate your own needs, to make sure you get it right (perfectionism), to be harsh and self critical of yourself etc.
This learned behaviour and patterns are repeated through life and it can often seem like you are on automatic pilot.
When you get stuck in old patterns of behaviour, you are operating from the limbic/emotional part of the brain.
As an example of this auto pilot, you can imagine you are walking to the train station for your morning commute, but your mind checks out and your body operates automatically. Or you are driving from home to work. Your body goes through the motions of getting you to work without taxing the brain, all of which sounds beneficial right? It can be indeed useful, but only up to a point.
The problem here is, do you actually remember the commute because you were caught up in over thinking, daydreaming, becoming anxious about something that may happen or you may ruminate over what happened the day before.
Generally these automatic patterns of behaviour, your coping strategies or survival patterns you developed when you were young, will work until they don’t. One day you may get to the stage of saying to yourself – that’s it, I’m done, something needs to change and it is me.
When you get to that stage of having enough and being done with old patterns, it is such a gift.
Pema Chödrön, Buddhist teacher, author and Nun, talks about shenpa, (a Tibetan word meaning hooked) which is the urge or the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down or react. So you continue to feel stuck in your reactions or old patterns of behaviour.
This hook can happen very quickly, perhaps somebody might say something to you, make you wrong, judge you or even look at you in a way that reminds you of your mother/father or even a person who looks like somebody that has been challenging in your life.
You get hooked in that moment of tightening/reaction. You immediately go to feeling wrong or bad, you know that old story you tell yourself, right?
Perhaps you might feel tense in the body, dry in the mouth, feel hot, feel tense in the tummy, increased heart rate etc. It can feel like you are experiencing it for the first time. Perhaps you feel very young? Reactivation of an old feeling held in the body.
So how can you shift and become unstuck?
‘The gold is the awareness which gives you the capacity to do something different and move towards change’
It is important to know that is it not necessarily about getting rid of or renouncing reactions/triggers. Ideally what you need is to become aware and try to see the shenpa clearly and experience it.
If you can see shenpa or the hook, and the reaction as you are starting to close down, when you feel the tightening, there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and make a different choice.
Once you see how you get hooked and how you get swept along by the momentum – you have the capacity for some time and space to perhaps ask yourself, given I am having this reaction what is it that I need now.
Awareness is the Key
Your reactions keep you safe, let you know if you need to get yourself away – fight, flight, freeze response – however you don’t want to run your life by an old script. Looking for or being hyper-vigilent to the bear when in fact right here right now you are safe.
So let’s get practical on ways to recognise shenpa, and therefore have the capacity to do something different so you can develop Prajna. Prajna is the Sanskrit word and Buddhist term meaning wisdom, intelligence and understanding. You gain the capacity to see clearly and to witness the whole chain reaction.
The number one practice is Meditation. When you sit quietly you have the capacity to observe your busy mind and what it is telling you – to observe the impulse and the body reactions – to just notice – to be the witness and to keep coming back to the present moment. This can be by using your breath as an anchor, or perhaps a mantra – something like – right here right now I am present, or ‘be here now’, or breathing in peace and calm breathing out anxiety and unease.
The more you can do this, the more it will weaken the patterns of getting hooked into habitual patterns of behaviour and thought processes.
As you practice meditation, this wisdom becomes a stronger force than the hook or the shenpa. Hence it has the power to stop the habitual chain reaction.
Join me at my upcoming weekend Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga Retreat from 6-8 Oct, 2023, to gain more skills on ways to become unstuck and to shift out of habitual patterns of behaviour.