The Mindfulness Habit

The reward for trailing along behind my mother as she surveyed the wares of Hens and Kelly’s, Kleinhan’s, and the myriad other department stores along Main St. in Buffalo, was our visit to the Mayflower. The little donut shop, wildly predating Timmy’s and the ilk, offered more than just Saturday afternoon treats. Lettered below its distinctive schooner of a logo were the wise and cautionary words: “As you ramble on through life, brother (bear in mind this was 1955!), whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut — and not upon the hole!” Would that goal attainment and the rocky road to building sustainable habits was that easy. (Frankly, if the goal is effective weight control — we may have a serious problem with that advice in any event.)

Nevertheless, as I dissected this little aphorism, more and more it seemed to contain the elements necessary to navigating this path – just in need of a little ‘fleshing out’, as it were. So, in search of a better mouse trap, I first thumbed through The Habit Factor — maybe not as tasty, but with a bit more substance than our little shop of delights. Martin Grunburg’s recent offering, is a (painstakingly thorough) analysis of the relationship between goals and habits, unorthodoxly (but not originally*) placing the emphasis on habit being the roadway to goal attainment; the latter often being left more to happenstance than a planned and carefully executed, gradual process. And I began to consider applications for establishing and maintaining a regular, meditative practice that eludes many us.

Grunburg maps out a six-step process beginning with the identification of a goal, in specific terms, written out, and having some inherent value to us. While this might sound like an obvious starting point, he notes that ‘you can’t achieve what you can’t see’; rather the equivalent of knowing you want to go on a holiday – need to go on a holiday! – then setting off on the trip without much of an idea of your destination; or for that matter, what route you plan to follow. (All very adventurous and 1970’s to just ‘hit the road’ – but decidedly vulnerable to getting side-tracked and never really arriving anywhere.) In addition to setting start and end dates, he underscores the importance of ‘capturing the ‘why’’ of the goal, then visualizing what it will look like once achieved. Again perhaps a self-evident step, but one that such common ‘goals’ as quitting smoking, losing weight, etc. might fail to quantify or specify. (I would question whether achieving such ‘negative states’ even constitutes a goal – and perhaps need to be reframed in positive, identifiable increases in behaviour – than the absence of same; again, somewhat like planning the vacation around where you don’t want to go!) The ‘why’ is as much associated with the goal’s value to you, the emotional energy (aka ‘investment’) that it embodies, as the act or achievement itself. He suggests identifying the various dimensions of one’s life (sometimes summarized as the body-mind-spirit triad) that might be reasonably included in specifying the personal importance of a goal; the logic being that the broader the connection or impact, the more likely it will be achieved.

As an example, our son Andrew identified as a three-year goal – commencing March 2011 – the public performance in recital of Bach’s complete organ oeuvre. Anyone who has known this young man for any length of time is well-acquainted with his ‘spiritual connection’ to his music: most certainly his passion and quite possibly the main vehicle through which he has explored his spirituality. Learning this body of composition is a challenge to any ‘mind’ — most certain to change and expand the ‘mental’ elements of his being. And to watch an organist perform is to marvel at the coordination, the physical ‘inclusiveness’ of having hands and feet flying over two (or more commonly, three or even four) separated manuals (keyboards) – pushing and pulling stops (as in ‘pulling out all the . . .’) as they play. Body…mind…spirit.

To carry Grunburg’s ‘formula’ further, he underscores the importance of setting milestones, breaking the meta goal into smaller, more quickly achievable, interim stages – again, not a new strategy, but one that is often given short shrift. And finally, and this is perhaps the most useful contribution of the author’s approach, engaging in what he calls ‘habit alignment’, identifying the regular, measurable parts of your day that, when performed will lead you to your goal. What I believe he is describing is process whereby, once having identified the above elements of the goal itself, we essentially let go of that ‘target’ – not forgetting about it – but equally resisting the urge to chronically measure the size of the gap between our present position and our desired destination. Instead to put our energy into daily routines, a practice if you will, that, when engaged regularly will produce, almost as a side effect, our goal. (Consider how undermining and emotionally charged the act of climbing on the scales to ‘measure our success’ might be; when the habit structure is that of tracking and shaping food intake when attempting to reach a weight goal.) Running a race of significant distance or in a shorter time is far more constructively approached by focusing on the daily regimen of proper hydration, supportive diet, appropriate sleep, regular exercise periods with a particular focus or intent, receiving the helpful guidance of a coach or trainer – than calculating the difference between a goal and present capability. Trusting the preparatory process (the ‘alignment of habits’) is a far more sustainable practice. Participating in the regimen for its own sake – than for what it may (or may not) produce down the road.

The habit alignment phase suggests picking three to five ‘core’ habits that support and relate to the goal; identifying minimum criteria for the daily practice of each; writing down the contributory importance of each; and then tracking attainment.

Applications for this approach abound – one of the most intriguing for me is cultivation of a mindfulness practice. The goal: regular daily meditation. Instead of simply stating this laudible (albeit vague and poor defined) objective, then crossing my fingers (or legs in a lotus more likely) and hoping that things maintain, how much more useful to apply Grunburg’s little formula to the supportive habit structure that attaches to this goal. Why is it important to me? How does it relate to the triadic dimensions of my life? What are the habits, the behaviours, I need to incorporate into my day to support the goal? What are the intermediate goals? Where do I find a community that supports this goal? What do I track?

And so back to the Mayflower and its sage advice: a lifetime process, focusing on something you value (at nine years of age, donuts certainly filled that bill!), that has ‘substance’ (not the ‘hole’, the ‘negative goal’), in a supportive community (brother, sister, whomever!). Not bad for a little shop at the corner of Mohawk and Main.

*Two of the founding principals of Esalen, an alternate teaching community in California, Michael Murphy and George Leonard, explore very similar territory in their book, The Life We Are Given (Establishing an Integrated, Transformative, Practice): beginning with written affirmations, establishing time lines, defining a daily ‘Kata’ (a 40-minute routine that incorporates a balancing and centering activity, a yoga series, a period of visulaizaiton, and a 10-minute meditation; within a context of – think body, mind, spirit – mindfulness of both diet and physical exercise), and engaging in a community of like-interested individuals on a weekly basis.

The Rhythm

The dog just kept barking. Not a distressed or desperate or frustrated bark — those of us with intimate knowledge of all the nuances of canine communication are able to make such fine distinctions. Just a WOOF woof, WOOF woof . . . nearly musical in its cadence and accent. Aware that I’d planned on riffing on dealing with distractions while meditating, I’d almost welcomed the unplanned teaching point as we worked our way through our 25′ sit. As the bell sounded to signal the sit’s finish, I polled our group members as to their response to our four-legged participant’s contribution. “I found it irritating and intrusive; thought about slipping outside and putting a bark collar on it!” “Noticed it — but then it just seemed to fade.” “Constructed a complete scenario around it: selecting the dog food, filling the bowl, presenting it to our friend. . . then launched off on some other related thoughts — quite a little trip!” “Found it had a regular ‘beat’, almost rhythmic, like a metronome”. “Did it really go on for 25 minutes?” In short, as varied a range of responses, my own included, as there were folks in the circle.

Striking as well was the relationship between the ‘tone’ of reaction and the degree to which the distraction persisted in the consciousness of the meditator. Along with a sense of intrusiveness, irritation, a need to ‘fix’, or banish the sound, came the ‘hooks’ that buried themselves in the awareness of the sitter; alternately, building the ‘bridge’ to the next thought. The distraction had, in some sense taken on a life of its own, becoming the focus of the sit; developing its own texture and dimensionality, becoming progressively ‘bigger’.

Reliably, for others, experiencing the cycle of barks as a rhythm, allowing versus resisting, developing an ‘interested observer’ posture — even briefly — enabled the meditator to hear the sound as it recurred, to apply a (perhaps wordless) label to the distraction, then return to the breath. As the pattern repeated — as it certainly did — the sound became decreasingly intrusive, to the point where, although it continued to be heard, its potency diminished to the point where its impact was little more than the sound a ticking clock, traffic sounds, birds chirping — part of the surround and little more.

Bhante Gunaratana, in Mindfulness in Plain English, offers some succinct thoughts on tactics for addressing distractions (of all types, not just dog barks). He suggests allowing ones awareness to briefly migrate to the intrusion; then identify the ‘what it is’, the ‘how strong, intense it is’, and finally the ‘how long it’s been present’. He contends that this ‘objectifying’ of the intrusion facilitates one’s ability to observe it, rather than participating in it, sufficiently distancing one from the emotional valence that might form almost instantly along with the attachment (resentment) or avoidance (anticipating the next yelp — and perhaps actually ‘holding one’s breath while waiting!) that will develop; or to have it operate as a launching pad for the thought sequence that might pull one progressively further away from the breath.

And then there’s the rhythm itself, the ‘flow’ of the sit. At the root of a mindfulness practice is the cycle, the regular pattern of the breath. And equally, the ebb and flow of having one’s awareness ‘float away from the dock’, feeling the ‘rope’ connecting us to the breath become ‘taut’ (as a distraction takes brief hold of our consciousness), gently tugging at our awareness and reminding us to return to the anchoring breath. Our response to this rhythm — just as it seemed to be in dealing with the distraction of the barking — is critical to the integrity of the sit. There are myriad ways in which we can oppose the cycle, disrupting the pattern of ‘naming’ (the intrusion) and ‘returning’ (to the breath), and thereby empowering the interruption — be it thought, sound, or sensation. We can resist the distraction, judging it (as bad or undesirable in some fashion). We can ‘do our best’ (ironically, becoming ‘our worst’ in terms of the sit) to push it out of our consciousness, empowering it all the more. We can engage it, holding hands with it and toddling off down the path of associative thoughts. We can berate ourselves for yet another disrupted sit.

The ‘rhythmic’ option accepts the distraction (be it drowsiness, boredom, restlessness, self-doubt, etc.), welcoming it as yet another wave breaking on the beach — to be noticed (not resisted or becoming enamoured of) as a unique event; then allowed to recede, only to be followed by another. . . and another as the sit proceeds. The pattern, the cycling puts us closer in touch with our anchor, the breath. And each repetition deepens our intimacy with and capacity for utilizing this valuable tool of mindfulness through the rest of the day. The reality that we will be pulled from our centre; and our task, perhaps our only task, is to ground ourselves (noticing the desire, the aversion) and to gently return to our ‘dock’.