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How Bad Habits Begin (and End)

“The Pause.” A concept that’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to practice.

Your first exposure to pausing was most likely on your VCR or walkman (assuming you were born earlier than the year 2000) and you probably associated it with “stop.” When you would hit the pause button, your movie or music would stop; when you hit it again, it would turn back on. And in between those two presses of the button, your device stayed on, yet you were able to step away for a moment and take care of something else. And when you were ready, you came back without any disruption of what you were watching or listening to.

Although the words pause and stop are often interchangeable, pausing has a softer implication when it comes to our own practice of the word. When we stop, we freeze, everything turns off, and we often seek something far away from the thing we turned off. But when we pause, we cease movement but continue to stay very awake and soft in our being. It’s in this awakeness that, just like your VCR, we can be totally still and also very much on. In fact, the experience of a true pause heightens our aliveness.

So, how do we get to the experience of pause. Well, we first have to acknowledge that something is moving. As humans, the movement tends to start in our minds with the notion or thought that we should do something. That something may be clean the house, do a workout, check Instagram to see who liked your post, or put a love note in your child’s lunchbox—no matter what it is, you had an impulse to do something, then you did it. When you do that thing, it rewards your brain with other thoughts, such as, “Look at how clean your house is! Doesn’t that feel good?” or “Way to get to the gym! Doesn’t that feel good?” Your brain rewards itself with a positive thought. And so begins the cycle of action and reward.

The cycle of thought, action, reward, thought, action, reward, is what keeps you in movement. As creatures of habit, we will repeat something over and over, trying to reap the same reward. For instance, if you feel fatigued and you have a cup of coffee that perks you up, the next time you feel fatigued you will reach for that cup of coffee in hopes that it will perk you up again. It worked once, won’t it work again? Maybe. But eventually it won’t work and you’ll continue to reach for more and more coffee seeking the same pleasant experience.

This habitual act of doing the same thing over and over in different areas of life is what puts us on the wheel of motion, continuously trying to seek pleasure. Many stay on the wheel their entire life, believing that what has worked before will eventually work again. This seeking of reward escalates without our knowing, until one day you find yourself down a path that provides no reward at all. When you see yourself here, it is the beginning of self-awareness—the ability to see yourself where you are.

Then comes the pause or the willingness to disrupt the cycle. In yoga, we practice pausing with meditation, breathing, or have glimpses of it within our physical asana. We step into the place of self-awareness, because it’s the only place that will step you out of the cycle. If you ask anyone that has tried these practices even once, they’ll tell you it’s very difficult or claim, “I couldn’t do it.” It’s difficult because the speed at which you are moving takes the same amount of effort (or more) to slow down and find that pause. Consider, it’s much more difficult to stop a race car than a moped—the faster something moves, the more effort and persistence is required to stop or slow the movement. It takes time and practice.

So, as you may be able to deduct, pausing is not as simple as it sounds. It requires courage and a willingness to do something different than you have been doing. You must trust that by changing the way you’ve always done something, there will be major benefit on the other side.

Take some time to become self-aware at where you are moving in circles or in a repetitive cycle of thought, action, reward. When you can see it, decide that the next time you find yourself there, you are going to pause. Don’t do anything with the pause except watch your emotions and reactions. Be prepared to feel unsteady and unfamiliar with what’s happening. When your mind becomes a little calmer, choose something different to disrupt the cycle. Over time, you will become a master disruptor and you will be on the path of only doing things that serve you and your highest self.

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