Habits are pretty hard to kick out, aren’t they? Or so it seems. Portia Nelson has expressed it with beautiful eloquence in An autobiography in five short chapters:
Chapter one: I walk down the street. There is a hole in the sidewalk. It is a very deep hole. I fall in. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter two: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in… again. I can’t believe I am in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter three: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in… it is a habit, but my eyes are open.
I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
Chapter four: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter five: I walk down another street.
“I understand.” You draw a deep breath when you read Portia’s parable. When we are into a habit that’s harmful for our wellbeing, we often don’t even know we are in a hole! And, with repetition, that hole becomes a comfort zone. I’m so comfortable in my self-pity, for example, that when a well-wisher tries to help me climb out, I bark: “You don’t understand what I’m going through! You are so insensitive!” What I’m really saying through my agitation is: “Be gentle and empathise with me. For your judgement — that I need to be pulled out — treads on my pain.” What all of us need to hear is a sincere “I understand.” It may not take away our physical pain, but it does reduce our mental suffering. The words “I understand” from another person sets off a self-healing mechanism in our mind and body. When we feel supported and nurtured, we heal ourselves. We need a healer — doctor, friend, teacher, spouse, sibling — full of this generous elixir called ‘understanding’ to be with us because it is tough going it alone.
We can make that leap to a better, healthier life using our own mental muscle of conviction and giving the brain daily reminders.
The power of conviction. This understanding brings us to a point where we can make that leap to a better, healthier life using our own mental muscle of conviction. If I am convinced that smoking de-stresses me despite knowing it’s a health hazard, I am practically powerless to quit smoking. So I need to change the conviction. How? The brain needs daily reminders. The brain communicates with the entire body through hormones and neurotransmitters. So when the brain receives instances daily through Youtube, for example, of people who have quit and their lungs are thanking them, a part of you begins to live through their healing experiences… . Your conviction to quit grows subtly, silently, surely, until one day you quit! Will bows gracefully to Conviction.
Strengthening the will. Yet, we may say, “My willpower is weak.” We joke, “I can give up sweets any time. I’ve done it several times!” The fact is: willpower is a mental muscle. The less we exercise it, the more we weaken it. And when we look at the other areas in our life, we see how we pushed ourselves to finish a project despite being exhausted, how we drag ourselves out of bed in the wee hours to get things done before rushing off to work. Each time we’ve done this, we’ve strengthened our willpower. Similarly, take this decision to quit sweets as seriously, sincerely, with the same determination. “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” said actress Audrey Hepburn. Plant a garden patch filled with “No” on one side, and an entire field of “Yes” on the other; to exercise regularly, eat healthy food, nourish the mind with healing thoughts, nurture good relationships, and so on. As you grow confident, so will your health.
The fact is that everyone wants to take on new habits. They even know the purpose: I don’t want to be a burden on my children. I want to lose weight. I want to be healthier. Yet, however well-intentioned, however wise the purpose, it still doesn’t seem to stick. Remember that every purpose needs a process and an outcome. For example, if you run a marathon and are the sole runner to come in last to touch the finish line, you are still cheered as a winner. You still feel like a winner. You appreciate the process you have gone through. You have, in some subtle way, discovered a new, more determined, better version of yourself in the process.
So is it with adopting a new, healthy habit. On a diet-plan you may not have lost as many kilos as you wanted but it’s important to recognise your efforts, to cheer your progress and be inspired by other people’s compliments. Never demean your efforts. Rather, exalt them. Continually celebrate your efforts, your inner strengthening and progress. If despite all your efforts, you fail to achieve the result, be highly aware that you have transformed, grown and achieved inner triumphs. Suppose you decide to conduct your own workshop; you will learn everything possible about your subject, financing, marketing, etc. But then, even if your workshop never takes off, you have still acquired and absorbed new knowledge and useful skills. You may not be the sun that blazes into fame and fortune, but you can be the star that shines consistently in all that you do. Remember, effort is never wasted.
Find friends-in-fitness. This is very important. If you have a group that has exercised together, dieted together and become friends, stay with it. The shared common goals of losing weight, of eating low-fat foods, of thinking positively, of leaving old paths and treading new healing ones, all of this together, is priceless. There’s something powerful about belonging, familiarity, supporting one another by sharing health tips and laughter and empathy, there’s beauty and strength and dignity in inclusion. As Anne Frank put it with such poignant simplicity: “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”
Ultimately, this is what I’ve learnt in my life dedicated to fitness and writing: Gratitude keeps you glowing. Exercise keeps you strong. Your imperfections keep you human. Failures help keep your sense of proportion. Success keeps you motivated. And good habits? They keep you going!
The writers are authors of Fitness for Life and Simply Spiritual – You Are Naturally Divine and teachers of the Fitness for Life programme.