Old Habits

Many people want to make a change in their life.  This tends to involve starting new habits, like diet or exercise programs, goals to take more time for self-care or efforts to meditate regularly.  Getting started with something new brings its own challenges, such as finding motivation, practicing time management, and developing consistency.  It also may mean giving up an old habit that no longer serves.  That comes with a whole other set of obstacles.

Our habits have become routine because they have been practiced often over long periods of time.  The process of repeating an action in this way actually forms new connections in the brain, through neuroplasticity.  In other words, old habits are hard to break not just because they are familiar, but because our brains have actually become wired to perpetuate them.  The more a habit is practiced, the stronger the connections become.  Of course the good news is that new, healthy habits will also foster new connections, but it will take regular consistent practice.  The old connections will also still be there, and will initially be stronger than any new ones.

Ancient yogis called patterns of thought or behavior Samskaras.  They were often described as grooves worn into a surface, the stronger the pattern, the deeper the groove.  I love this description because it offers a clear visual image.  Think of an old dirt road in the country.  Many wagons travelled this road, and wore down a path.  Now any wagon will easily fall into the grooves left by previous wheels.  It would take a lot of effort to steer onto a different part of the road, and we may find that half-way down, we fall into the old ruts anyway.

People tend to become frustrated or ashamed when they struggle to let go of old patterns of behavior.  The truth is, it’s hard to forge a new path when the old grooves are waiting there to pull you in.  Change takes patience and effort, and it requires resisting the comfortable grooves over and over again until the new habit is as strong as the old one.  Remember this every time you find yourself frustrated by discovering you’ve fallen back into an old habit.  There’s no need to beat yourself up, just steer your course onto the new path and start again.  As many times as it takes.

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