Escaping a rut into a new pattern

Image by Neil Gibbons from Pixabay

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Romans 7:19 (NRSV)

This verse came to mind today as I have been realizing (yet again) how often I don’t do the things that I know will ultimately make me feel good (eating well, getting enough sleep, getting exercise, spending time outside) and how often I do the things that I know will ultimately make me feel less than good (stay up late, eat junk food, do my sloth imitation on the couch, spending too much time in front of my computer).

In the context that Paul wrote these words, he’s using this example to emphasize how depraved and evil all humans are because we are enslaved to sin. I’m not so convinced of the innate depravity of human nature anymore, but I do still find some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only person to have ever struggled with living up to the ways that I want to live.

In my case, most of the times when I don’t live up to the ways I want to live, it is due to some combination of laziness and samskara, a Sanskrit term we talk about in yoga that describes the habitual conditioning of our minds—and therefore our actions—to follow the same pathways over and over again. Modern neuroscience has confirmed that these habitual ways of thinking acting do cause the equivalent of ruts in our brain that cause us to fall into those comfortable patterns over and over again.

Even ruts that I’ve escaped from before are easy to fall back into because the patterns are so well-worn in my brain. Without constant attention, I easily fall back into these old patterns and find myself stuck again before I know it. (I know whereof I speak, after having spent the weekend lapsed into an old addiction to playing Sudoku online!)

I know from previous attempts at changing patterns that doing things in some new way requires that I get over an activation energy barrier to escape from my samskara rut. I need to make adopting the new pattern as easy as possible in order to prevent myself from falling back into the old way of doing things. It also helps to set up either a system of accountability or a reward system to keep me motivated!

But I’ve come to realize that the biggest factor in whether or not I succeed in making new changes is how I frame it for myself. Any pattern change that I try to make myself do because I think I “should” do it or “need” to do it is doomed to failure. It’s only when I find a way to genuinely frame it as something I WANT to do am I able to make any headway in shifting a pattern. This means that I have to want the outcome of the changed pattern so much that I’m willing to do the hard work it takes to make the pattern shift.

I have to want the changed outcome MORE than I want whatever pleasure or comfort my current pattern is providing. This requires me to dig deep to really understand what value the changed pattern will provide for me and what exactly it is that I’m getting from the current pattern. Knowing these two things is crucial to designing a way to make the new pattern a reality.

Some ruts are more difficult to escape from than others, of course, but once I have my positive motivation firmly in place, it’s so much easier to devise ways to help myself climb back out of the rut and get myself moving in a healthier pattern.

How do you change your patterns of behavior (or thinking) when you are trying to make a change? Are there things that you find helpful to keep you motivated during this process?

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