Meditate to Cultivate Healthy Habits of Mind

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By: Dhi Good

The meditation journey is all about getting to know one’s mind – learning how it works and observing the tendencies we have. Most people know and accept that we have behavioral habits, but fewer consider that we also have habits of mind that are worthy of our benevolent attention. More about benevolent attention in a bit, but first, habits.

Habits are not necessarily bad. In many cases they serve us well. Thank goodness we don’t have to sort out how to ride a bike every time we jump on a 2-wheeler. We just get on and start pedaling. Adopting habits saves us time and the wear and tear of considering each and every decision about what we’re going to do next. It can be helpful to have a pattern so we don’t get stuck deciding what to do next. And when circumstances force us out of habitual patterns, we tend to get cranky if not outright upset.

Similarly, we have certain go-to patterns of handling the ever-changing circumstances of life. They govern how we handle mental and emotional challenges, opportunities, setbacks, relationships and more. For many or most of us, these habits of mind are so deeply ingrained we rarely notice or examine them.

Often our patterns are set at a very young age. For example, if as a child you craved more attention than your parents could give, you may decide that acting out works well to meet your needs. Or if you got positive feedback from a good report card, you may decide that only A+ grades are acceptable, setting off a pattern of seeking perfection in all activities. While acting out or perfectionism may work well for a young child, for an adult these habits of mind can be risky or destructive.

The well-known “marshmallow experiment” conducted by Stanford researcher Walter Mischel with 4-year-olds in the 60’s provides a good example of a habit of mind — delayed gratification or self-control — that can be observed and cultivated. In the experiment, the children were offered a marshmallow, or, if they could wait a bit, two marshmallows. The study found that 10 years later, the children who could wait for a bigger reward were “were more academically and socially competent than their peers and more able to cope with frustration and resist temptation.”

Habits of mind are powerful tendencies that can keep us either moving toward happiness and success (however we may define it) or stuck in negative patterns that don’t serve us well. The key, then, is to be aware of our own particular habits of mind so that we can choose whether to follow them or not. That’s where meditation and our benevolent attention come in.

Mindfulness gets a lot of press these days, but in truth, meditation involves working with both mindfulness and awareness. In shamatha or “peaceful abiding” meditation, we learn to sit still and just be. The breath is often a focal point, and we apply mindfulness to place attention on the breath. Of course mind activity is still happening. We practice noticing thoughts, using awareness to notice when we get lost in thought. Then we have a choice:  continue following thought or return to meditating by mindfully focusing attention on the breath.

Most people find that mind activity is constantly in flux, that thoughts come and go. With practice, we may find that we have a choice about whether to follow, or even believe, our thoughts. The action of noticing thoughts strengthens awareness. It’s an act of meta-cognition. Guess what? Meta-cognition is a beneficial habit of mind! Cultivating the habit of thinking about our thinking allows us to take charge of our mental processes. The Institute for Habits of Mind points out that “metacognitive capacity distinguishes us from all other living things, [giving you the ability] to plan and execute a strategy, to monitor your own steps, and reflect and evaluate how it went.” Research in modern neuroscience supports what meditators and yogis have known for centuries:  thinking about thinking helps us understand the nature of mind, and helps us live better lives.

Costa and Kallick (2000) identified 16 skills, or habits of mind, that serve humans well in navigating life’s challenges. “They are problem solving, life-related skills that promote strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity and craftsmanship.” In life and work, I have found the 16 habits of mind to be a useful framework for contemplating how the mind works, and deciding which habits to release and which to cultivate. With intention and effort, anyone can develop healthy habits of mind.

By the way, contemplating habits of mind is not something to do on the meditation cushion. In meditation we are simply using a technique to observe or “make friends” with the mind. This is the benevolent attention I mentioned early on. By benevolent I mean curious and appreciative. Please don’t use meditation practice as a way to measure, improve or attack yourself. Take the attitude that you are making a new friend — noticing and appreciating your friend and how they are in the world, without criticizing.

Once you make friends with your mind, through a consistent meditation practice, you will eventually begin to have insights about the mind and its habitual tendencies. This is called vipassana or insight meditation, and is considered a natural development on the meditation path.

The point is not necessarily to uproot all of our habits of mind. Even if that were possible it would likely lead to chaos! The idea is to see a habit clearly in order to understand it and how it affects oneself and others. Then we can decide if the habit serves us well or not. Meditation affords us the opportunity to notice habitual patterns.

When we consciously adopt healthy habits of mind, we show up in the world differently. One thing we begin to notice is how the ego is constantly on the lookout for threats. The ego asks, “What’s in it for me?” and “Does this make me look good or bad?” Wisdom teachings allude to how cultivating compassion for others increases happiness. Therefore, cultivating the habit of thinking of others could be considered upaya or skillful means. The lojong slogans from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism re another skillful means to notice egoic tendencies and cultivate compassion for others.

Unhealthy habits of mind can keep us from being awake to the full range of experiences that are available to us. If we live life on automatic, scarcely examining our assumptions or how we show up in the world, we may miss out on life’s rewards.  Habitual thinking may limit our perceptions, our ability to break out of our comfort zones, even our ability to be authentic with others. So cultivate mindfulness and awareness through regular meditation. You’ll strengthen your ability to be present, then you can choose how you interact with the world.

Join Dhi for her upcoming programs at SMC


About the Author:  Dhi Good

Dhi Good is a senior teacher in Shambhala, who studied Zen intensively for 10 years. In addition to Shambhala path programs, she teaches mindfulness at work for non-meditators. She earned a masters in Future Studies from University of Houston, and is co-author of Trendbenders: Building Healthy and Vital Communities (2002). Dhi lives in Denver and works as Director of Business Development for DMC.

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