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The Neuroscience of Bad Habits and Why It’s Not About Will Power

Why are bad habits so hard to break? What if the bumper sticker “Just Say No!” actually works against us? If willpower were the answer to breaking bad habits then we  decisionswouldn’t have drug addiction or obesity. There’s something going on in our brains where we literally lose the ability for self-control, but all hope isn’t lost.

Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls the phrase “Just Say No!” “magical thinking.”

It appears that dopamine is one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure center of the brain. At the most basic level, it regulates motivation — it sends signals to receptors in the brain saying, “This feels good!”

Whether you’re a heroin addict and you see an association to heroin, you’re a caffeine addict and you see a cup of coffee, you’re a Smartphone addict and you see another person pick up their phone, or if you’re hungry and you see some good-looking food, your brain rushes with dopamine and that is now caught on brain-scanning machines.

The fascinating thing is that Volkow has found that  the images alone affect the rise of dopamine in our brains. So if we pass a McDonald’s and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling will unconsciously drive the motivation to go in and get a Big Mac. It’s a conditioned response. The same goes for anything including most likely our relationships to our phones.

A blue button with the word Change on it

What can we do?

It makes sense why more and more addiction centers are integrating mindfulness into their curriculum. Mindfulness practice has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex and cool down the amygdala. This gives us the ability to widen the space between stimulus and response where choice lies and access possibilities and opportunities we didn’t know were there before. This is crucial when it comes to our addictive behaviors to take a step back, “think through the drink” and recognize the various options that lie before us.

We can learn to step into the pause, notice the sensation of the urge that’s there and as the late Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. said, “surf the urge” as it peaks, crests and falls back down like a wave in the ocean.

One place to start is to just get curious about the pull you feel to whatever you think you’re compulsive with. An easy one besides some of the arguably more destructive habits (drugs, alcohol) is our phones.

Today, be on the lookout for what cues you to check your app. Do you see someone else doing it? Are you waiting somewhere and there’s something uncomfortable about waiting? Is it a certain time of day or place?

Training your brain to recognize this cue can help you get some space from it to ask, “What do I really want to pay attention to right now? What matters?” As we get better at recognizing that space between stimulus and response and making the choices that run alongside our values, like riding a bike, it will start to come more naturally.

Just because our brains have been altered by our compulsive behaviors, doesn’t mean we’re destined to fall into the same habits. With the right skills, community and support we can learn how to break out of routine and into a life worth living.

By Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. 
 
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5 Simple Sanskrit Words To Live By

by Gabrielle Harris   April 17, 2015

Whatever your practices or beliefs may be, we all need reminders to help you lead a good life. Sanskrit is a language of vibration, meaning the energy is held in the words. By now we’re all familiar with OM, the sound of the universe, and Namaste, meaning the light in me honors the light in you. But there a few more lesser known Sanskrit words that can also help steer us toward our best selves.

We can instill the meaning of these words into our hearts and into our practice by repeating them to ourselves as mantras. Here are five simple Sanskrit words to live your life by:

1. Santosha: Contentment

“When all your desires are distilled
You will cast two votes
To love more and to be happy.” -Hafiz

Santosha is the practice of finding contentment or happiness, regardless of the external circumstances. Our habitual thought patterns often tell us what we don’t have is what we need, in order to bring us joy. However it is not long before we settle into dissatisfaction and begin to quickly search for something else to take its place.

That new watch gets scratched, the new lover has some faults, or the new job isn’t quite what you expected. So we want out of this moment and into the next — always searching and never truly happy or content.

Santosha is a the practice of remembering that what you have now is precious and transitory. Use this word daily to cultivate some gratitude to just who and what you already have.

2. Upeksha: Equanimity

“You are the sky, everything else is the weather.” -Pema Chodron

One definition of equanimity means to stand in the middle. The Buddha taught that we are constantly being pulled in different directions, either toward the things or people we desire, or away from the things or people we are averse to.

These emotions are our weather and the sky is our equanimity. To practice equanimity we must cultivate mindfulness, an awareness of when we are becoming the weather so that we are less jerked around by transitory thoughts. Use this word when you feel yourself being pulled into a riptide of thoughts that are not serving you.

love happiness

3. Sraddha: Faith

We may not always know how our path is unfolding, so at times we might feel uncertain or stuck in life. Often we are unsure of where to go and how to make the right choice. Sometimes we may even sense a lack of purpose and not recognize our true calling. We might feel lost.

Sraddha is the inner, intuitive belief that you are walking steadily towards your life’s goals. It takes us away from our limited perception of reality to a more universal vision. Remember this word when you need to find courage to believe that everything about your journey is unfolding exactly as it should.

4. Bhavana: To cultivate

“Your mind is not a cage, it is a garden. And it requires cultivating.” -Libba Bray

This earthy word reminds us that for any plant to grow well, the health of the soil is most important. So we must look to nourish and nurture the soil (our minds) to provide an environment that will benefit us spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

To cultivate you must pull out the weeds, the most persistent, deeply ingrained ways of being and thinking, and plant the behaviors or ways of being that you want to bring into your life. That’s when you can begin to sow love, kindness, joy, happiness, humility, gratitude and peace.

5. Satya: Truth and honesty

“To believe in something and not live it is dishonest.”-Gandhi

The beauty in this word lies in the effect it can have on our lives. If we live in accordance with our truth, then our life will be freer of suffering. If everything that we think, say, feel and act on is leading us toward our higher path, then this the practice of Satya.

To know what your “truth” is, you will need to sit quietly with yourself and ask in honesty: In what way is my moral compass pointing? What is the purpose for my existence? Then, you try to live in accordance with the answer.

Cut out the lies you may tell yourself and stop listening to what other people say or do or think of you. Stand tall and strong in your belief of how to live a good life. That’s when you’ll notice that gossip and comparison stops. You will also stop seeking answers. If you are truthful about your shortcomings and where you have messed up, it will only help you grow.

It is when we look at all the parts of ourselves without judgment, that we are comfortable with our whole. We drop all the guilt and shame. We acknowledge that who we are right now and in any given moment is perfectly OK.


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Here’s Why Believing People Can Change Is So Important in Life

How a growth mindset affects stress levels and health.

Adolescents who believe people can change cope better with the challenges of attending high school, a new study finds.

In contrast, those who believed that people’s personalities are fixed and unchangeable fared worse, suffering higher levels of stress and poorer physical health.

The study’s authors were inspired by the idea that the high school years are a defining period in life:

“Iconic films such as The Breakfast Club or Back to the Future depict teens as indelibly marked as “losers,” “jocks,” or “bullies”—labels that are thought to haunt them or buoy them throughout high school and into adulthood.” (Yeager et al., 2014)

To see if high schoolers believe this, they recruited 158 ninth-grade students at a California high school.

At the start of the academic year they measured the extent to which they thought people can change.

Then, at the end of the academic year, they were surveyed to measure their global stress levels and see if they were physically healthy.

What they found was that those who more strongly endorsed the idea that people can change also reported:

  • less stress,
  • lower anxiety,
  • feeling better about themselves,
  • and they were also in better physical health.

How to develop a growth mindset

So, if people who believe they can change and grow do better, can people’s views about whether they can change also be enhanced?

The researchers designed an experiment to do just that to another group of adolescents at a similar school.

Some of the students were introduced to the idea that people’s personalities are not fixed and that it is possible to grow and change.

change-is-the-essence-of-life-be-willing-to-surrender-what-you-are

At the start of the academic year they were told that:

“…people have the potential to change and that therefore (a) if you are excluded or victimized, it is not due to a fixed, personal deficiency on your part, and (b) people who exclude or victimize you are not fixed, bad people but instead have complicated motivations that are subject to change.”

After this session, this was never mentioned again and the students were followed up at the end of the academic year.

The results showed that, in comparison to the control group, those who’d been encouraged to believe in a growth mindset did better both psychologically and physically over the year.

The authors explain the results:

“…our research shows that adolescents can learn to tell themselves a different story, a story in which people have the potential to change.
And when they do, they show better adjustment across the board: lower stress, better health, and higher grades.” (Yeager et al., 2014)

Here is what one student said who’d been encouraged to think of personality as something that can change:

“When we were starting the school year I went [to] where my friends hang out.
Then they just looked at me and kept on talking . . . I felt really left out especially because we were all really good friends in middle school . . .
[Although] it may seem like your life is crashing down, and that nothing will ever get better, it is not the end of the world.
Your life will not be like this forever. . . . People can change. It’s only your first day of school.” (Yeager et al., 2014)

Believe in change

Research has already shown that people’s personalities can change.

Not only that, but people can change their beliefs about whether people can change.

And that may be the most important thing of all.

source: PsyBlog


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5 Practices To Help You Become The Person You Were Meant To Be

The journey of becoming who we were born to be never ends. It’s limitless, eternal.
We don’t arrive — we grow. And to grow requires presence and practice.

So let’s talk about practice.

No matter how hard we work, the aim and purpose of practice is not to be done with it, but to immerse ourselves so completely in life by any means that we, for the moment, are life itself living. Excellence, if we achieve it, is a welcome byproduct of complete immersion. But the reward for practice is a thoroughness of being.

Given the pulls to be cruel or kind, to be clever or sincere, to hoard or give away, we can explore several practices that, if personalized, can help us turn our burden back into wonder.

The practice of uncertainty is patience.

That is, the only way to move through uncertainty, the only way to listen for what it has to say, is by being patient. The speech of uncertainty is slow. When we move too fast, the lessons are unintelligible.

The practice of opportunity is trust, which means following our heart.

Opportunity always presents itself as an opening that seems a bit smaller than we think we can fit through. Following our heart means trusting that we will fit through the opening we are given.

sunset

 

The practice of courage is doing small things with love.

This was Mother Teresa’s anthem. We begin to dismantle what is overwhelming by beginning the journey of involvement one hand at a time, one kindness at a time, one utterance of truth at a time. From the outside, things that require courage seem impossible, but once we begin, we’re no longer on the outside. This lets us see more.

The practice of connection is holding and listening.

We are born with these two capacities that never let us down, though we may forget how to inhabit them. When we feel disconnected, any act of holding or listening will return us to the larger world.

And the practice of expression is how the heart breathes.

Only by allowing what we feel, think and experience to move through us can we be animated enough to sense what matters, and so join with it. This is imperative because the life of expression is the tuning fork by which we find our way to the sacred.

Whether we’re asleep or awake depends on the practices we enliven. Whether we’re cruel or kind depends on how we say to life and all its obstacles and possibilities.

The endless practice of being human involves learning how to strengthen our heart by exercising it in the world, and how to refine who we are through caring, building, holding and repairing. No one can do this for us, though no one can do it alone. The way cells need blood and blood needs tissue, we need each other to be fully alive.

by Mark Nepo, author of
THE ENDLESS PRACTICE: BECOMING WHO YOU WERE BORN TO BE
published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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10 Intentions To Set For Your Most Authentic Life

BY CHANDRESH BHARDWAJ     JANUARY 11, 2015

Intentions are the fuel to manifesting your goals and visions. An intention will help create more clarity in your life, especially when the seed is planted right before you start your meditation.

Setting an intention is like drawing a map of where you wish to go — it becomes the driving force of your higher consciousness. Without an intention there is no map, and you’re just driving down a road with no destination in mind.

That said, an intention cannot be forced. It’s a seed that you have to sow and then let reap on its own. You can’t set an intention that you don’t believe in. If it’s done forcefully, the purpose of the intention is ruined.

Here are 10 clear intentions to consider, as you move toward your goals and dreams:

  • I intend to manifest happiness naturally.
  • I intend to respond first, and then react.
  • I intend to witness Divinity in everyone.
  • I intend to lead by example.
  • I intend to be open to success and abundance.
  • I intend to stop taking things personally.
  • I intend to forgive others, and myself.
  • I intend to love unconditionally.
  • I intend to make meditation a more important part of my lifestyle.
  • I intend to make someone smile every day.

If you have another intention in mind that isn’t listed above, go for it! Just remember to keep these three important points in mind as you set your intention:

1. Keep it positive.

Make sure your intention has a positive tone. If your intention is to de-stress, then say something like, “My intention is to invite peace and calm within myself during today’s meditation.” Try to avoid saying something like, “My intention is to fight this stupid stress.”

Your chosen intention should always be positive, uplifting, and always in the present tense. You want to refrain from using any negative words.

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2. Make sure it can evolve.

Our minds are very clever … when something new comes along, the mind is intrigued. But as time passes, the mind gets bored! Think about when you walk into a fragrant room — you can sense the smell immediately, but after a few minutes it’s not as potent.

The same thing can happen with your intentions. If you stick with the same intention week after week, your mind will stop responding to it. The best way to resolve this is to make sure your intention or goal can easily be adjusted.

If your intention on your first day is to invite peace and calm in, after few days you may change that intention to, “My intention is to enjoy the peace I create in myself.” Please be advised however, that you shouldn’t drastically alter your intentions or goals too frequently. The goal is polish and enhance.

3. Aim for the short term.

It’s more practical to set an intention for the short term rather than the long term. You can still think of the big picture — just divide your long-term intention into few shorter ones instead. This will help you achieve a grandiose goal in shorter, more powerful segments.

If your intention is to become more specialized in your profession, then first figure out the steps involved with advancing in your specific field. Your first step may be to get good grades on your prerequisite exams. Then, the next goal may be landing a lucrative internship, and so on. After successfully manifesting your short-term intentions, you will ultimately reach the actual goal that you had been nurturing in the first place.

Then, once your intention is set, be sure to use it in your meditation. Start your meditation with a few deep breaths and observe the stillness within. Afterward, bring your awareness to your heart and set your intention.

Observe the movement of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Continue to let go of all of your grudges and emotions. Watch your thoughts as they come and go, but don’t assign any value to them. Before you finish, take a few moments to be grateful for the intention you have set. Stick to the same intention for a few days before moving on to the next one.