On making meaningful changes.
Habits have been my nemesis since forever. (Building the good ones, that is.)
We are inundated with ways in which to self-improve our lives, our health, our diet, our mind, our productivity, our practice, our relationships, our accounting, our time, etc. Just about everything is in need of an up-level.
For me, “improvement” is both a calling and a burden. It’s a desire for understanding the ways in which we can establish a lasting prosperity. But it’s accompanied by a heaping load of guilt and shame that I am not better at that yet.
Good habits always seemed to be something for someone else. I even looked for excuses to prove that I was not a good habit-former. (See the chapter on “Rebel” in Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies).
I would convince myself that:
My schedule is erratic.
My income is unpredictable.
My priorities are complicated.
I am confused about my direction.
It’s raining today.
I am a free spirit, don’t tell me what to do.
It’s in my natal chart.
I messed that up before, it won’t work again.
I suck at planning.
You get the idea. (I’m not proud.)
I began to notice that in my genuine attempts to improve the quality of my life, I was held hostage by emotional turmoil. It was like a hostile, subconscious takeover attempt of my limbic system: I always seem to be my own worst enemy.
Failure had become hard-wired into my habits. And even in my hungry attempts to self-improve, I kept bumping into an inability to fundamentally change.
Until two very interesting things flowered in my awareness. I think they are really helpful, and most definitely worth sharing. I hope they might help you, too.
Thing #1: The Top-Down Approach
Did you ever read Marie Kondo’s famous book? You know, the one about joy and being tidy. This book changed my life. Sort of.
The hype of the KonMari method left most of us focused a lot on the Stuff of our lives, its relative thrill factor, its crucial place in our space, and my favorite: the folding.
But there was another part of this book that most people bypassed for the lower-hanging, sock-liberation fruit. I utterly thumbed my nose at it. It’s the part at the beginning when she prods:
Before you begin, ask yourself: how do you want to live your life?
When I read this bit, my initial impression was: 🚨 WTF I CANNOT POSSIBLY CONSIDER THIS IDEA WAY TOO MUCH NOPE SERIOUSLY WHO ACTUALLY DOES THAT 🚨 and skipped ahead to the discarding bit (which, I might add, I followed to a T.)
Fast forward to this past Christmas, and my husband gifted me Marie’s recent design book, Kurashi at Home. As I innocently settled into my Christmas read, I encountering that befuddling question again:
How do you envision your life? No, really, I’m SERIOUS this time.
I took pause. I recognized the same question, and my same resistance (although perhaps less combative this time). I told myself I still didn’t know the answer, but promised that I would, at the very least, start to think about it.
What I was learning is that we are all, whether we see it or not, subject to a “top-down” approach.
Basically, the ways in which we shape and create our lives, and our experience of life, is through a sacred, intentional co-collaboration with the Divine, led by our higher purpose.
If you’ve been around here following my journey of the sacred voice and spiritual awakening, then this is not news! This is a concept that was already in practice for me in so many ways, most certainly in the way I teach and experience music.
The Divine is our source, and we are the co-creators. The key is to get out of the mire, and take the 10,000 foot view of things every once in a while. To project ourselves outside of the design, explore the greater span of purpose, and have some sketch of a simple, honest, drama-free plan.
To be bold enough to proclaim:
This is my intention. I may not have any idea how that will happen, but I am now in partnership with the Divine. Love is the new creative director. I will be led through seemingly impossible odds, but I will heed Her call no matter the circumstances.
And, ultimately, to learn to let go of our desire to control the outcomes as we surrender our efforts to the greater force of an actual, real Love, the truest (but sometimes baffling) stuff of the universe.
This is the ultimate Top-Down Approach. It means getting down to serious business. (Is there any other kind?)
I call it The Orientation. It’s akin to the Star of the tarot: the shining, true north of our lives which guides, shapes, and leads us to pursue that which defines our personal version of potential and prosperity.
If we dare to believe that something so important can, in fact, be shape-able.
Thing #2: My habenula made me do it
Love is constantly, almost thrillingly, shaping our lives. Her lessons are not always easy, but I know she is most certainly on our side.
This past spring has been incredibly trying. A grave family illness has led me to embark on a new health journey, and I am leaning even further into the question:
So how DO I actually envision my life? For real this time?
I was led to the book Live Younger Longer, a preventative care manual by Dr. Stephen Kopecki, a two-time cancer survivor and cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. (Credentials that not even my inner saboteur can argue with!)
He speaks of simple changes leading to massive shifts in your health longevity. Similar to James Clear in his seminal Atomic Habits, we learn that small changes build up to lasting and significant results.
But the fact that made the most impact had nothing to do with habits, health, or preventing illness. It had to do with failure.
There is something verrrry tricky about the way people attempt to adopt new habits. Our brains are so survival smart, they get sneaky and scrappy to keep us safe, even when it’s good for us!
Listen to this:
“There’s a tiny, primitive part of our brain called the habenula, which is present in most living animals. It’s like the “negative reward” or “failure” center of the brain and is known for its role in shaping behavior based on past failures and disappointments.”
After I picked my jaw up off of the floor, he goes on:
“How does this feature of our brains impact us now? If we try to make a change but fail, the habenula records that failure. The next time we try to repeat that activity, our habenulas deter us in subtle ways.” (Italics added for emphasis.)
The habenula is our sturdy, in-house failure program. And if I can have a moment to brag, mine is perfectly, delightfully, spectacularly, outstandingly, fabulously functioning.
But how can we walk around with all of these dreams in our heart, but a Santa-sized sack of past failures slung over our shoulder, overly-dramatized by a zealous subconscious primitive deterrent system “adjusting” our behavior anytime we want to make a positive change in our lives? Sheesh!
And so, when faced with knowledge, understanding, and a desire for truth, I took matters into my own hands. No habenula of mine (despite its fabulousness) was going to break my self-improvement stride.
I took the time and space to heal. I allowed these memories of failure, no matter whether painful (avoid rejection at all costs) or practical (use oven mitt, duh), to be acknowledged for their usefulness. And then I let them go.
I release the current grip of my failures on my actions, inhibiting my desires, and withholding my light in the world. Help me to rebuild a shimmering, sacred future inspired and led by Love.
Change is, indeed, a process.
It is wild to know that our becoming is in some oddly perfect step with our unbecoming. And I remain astounded to recognize the kind of grace that is available, and the peace that is unleashed, when we just let it all freaking unfold.
For me, the greatest creative pursuit is the thing that is right under our nose. It’s our everyday life. Our life span.
The question that begs to be asked is…
How do you envision that life for yourself?
Settle upon your Star. Determine your direction.
And be sure to start at the top if you want to make the most progress.
(And don’t let your habenula talk you out of it!)