Written by Hitendra Wadhwa, Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School and Founder of The Institute for Personal Leadership. The article was originally published on March 13, 2017
On Dec 31, 2016, as large crowds celebrated the dropping of the ball in Times Square at the stroke of midnight, it made me wonder, as I always do on New Year’s Eve: Why do people get so excited at the dawn of a New Year? Isn’t it just another calendar-page-turn, like any of the other 364 days?
Perhaps one reason we celebrate New Year’s Eve is because a new year gives us the license to embrace new possibilities, to abandon parts of our old world–even to abandon parts of our old self. If you, like me, have some habits you aren’t proud of, then the new year provides fresh logic, hope and motivation to liberate yourself from such habits to help you get closer to the person you truly want to be.
Now that more than two months have passed since the ball fell at Time Square, how well have you been doing along your New Year resolution to conquer a bad habit? The sobering reality is that 88% of people fail to keep their resolutions. Here’s a technique to up your odds of success.
Let’s turn to neuroscience, a discipline that is shedding a powerful light today on human nature. So, what is a habit?
[A] habit is an automatic mechanism for performing actions without expending the mental and physical labor ordinarily involved in performing actions that are new to [you].
And how is a habit formed?
Repeated performance of an action creates a mental blueprint. Every action is performed mentally as well as physically, and repetition of a particular action and its accompanying thought-pattern causes the formation of subtle electrical pathways in the…brain, somewhat like the grooves in a phonograph record. After a time, when you put the needle of attention on those “grooves” of electrical pathways, it plays back the record of the original mental blueprint. Each time an action is repeated, these grooves of electrical pathways become deeper, until the slightest attention automatically “plays” those same action over and over again.
So then why is a habit so hard to break?
Each of your habits creates a specific ‘groove,’ or pathway, in the brain. These patterns make you behave in a certain way, often against your wish. Your life follows those grooves that you yourself have created in the brain. In that sense you are not a free person; you are more or less a victim of the habits you have formed.
Is that about all neuroscience can tell us–that it is hard to break a habit because our brain has the wrong pathways? Fortunately, there’s more to the story.
Neuroscience is now showing that in fact your brain can be re-sculpted. This is called “neuroplasticity.” You can, through repeated practice, dissolve the bad-habit pathways in your brain and thus free yourself from the habit. You could, for example, try to replace a bad habit with a good habit–going out for a brisk walk when you feel low in energy, rather than give in to your desire for a sugary snack or a smoke. After doing this again and again, presto–the old brain pathways dissolve with disuse, and new pathways are formed. You no longer feel the pull of the snack or the smoke. There is much power, and wisdom, in this approach.
But sometimes a bad habit is so hard to resist!
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to eliminate the hypnotic pull of a bad habit by literally commanding the brain pathways to dissolve? The more I observe the growing body of research on the power of meditation, the more I am convinced that science will reveal, in the decades to come, certain meditation techniques that can help you consciously re-sculpt your brain. But neither you nor I want to wait for science to get there. Can meditation provide a solution today?
When one realizes that the science of meditation is essentially playing catch-up to the ancient wisdom of meditation–the discipline of meditation is after all thousands of years old–one realizes that we can all drink directly from the same fountain of ancient wisdom that science has tapped into to access knowledge on meditation even if it is not yet validated in the labs of science.
So let’s turn to one modern-day expositor of the ancient wisdom of meditation, Yogananda, whose teachings helped ignite the creative flame in Steve Jobs and other notable 20th-century achievers. In fact, the italicized commentaries I have shared above on brain-pathways and habits–which I claimed were drawn from neuroscience–are from the writings and speeches of Yogananda. He posited this connection between habits and brain-pathways around a century ago–many decades before the modern-day discoveries in neuroscience.
But Yogananda didn’t just stop there. He provided a practical method to vanquish bad habits by re-sculpting the brain.
“[You] can completely erase the grooves of bad habits by meditation. Every time you meditate deeply…beneficial changes take place in the patterns of your brain…First, meditate upon the thought, “I and my Father are one,” trying to feel a great peace, and then a great joy in your heart. When that joy comes, say, “Father, Thou art with me. I command Thy power within me to cauterize my brain cells of wrong habits and past seed tendencies.”…Mentally affirm…: “I command my brain cells to change, to destroy the grooves of bad habits…”
If you cannot relate to the term “Father,” perhaps you’ll relate instead to this very quotable line from the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One: “I’m one with the Force. The Force is with me.” Notice it is near-identical to Yogananda’s “I and my Father are one…Father, Thou art with me.” Or you could replace “Father” with something you relate more with: Spirit, nature, or your own higher self.
How long does the process of uprooting a bad habit take? There really isn’t any consensus in the scientific community–some say 12 weeks, and some say a bad habit can never fully be tamed. Yogananda went a level deeper, pointing to the factor that most influences this time-to-success.
The time that elapses in the formation of a habit varies with individual nervous systems and brains and is chiefly determined by the quality of one’s attention.
So whatever you do to banish those bad-pathways, do it with attention. And work on strengthening your power of attention with time.
Could meditation be used in this way to intentionally change your brain and get rid of habits that have overstayed their welcome? Can you, with deep meditative attention, actually command your brain cells to change? In teaching meditation in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Yogananda was way ahead of his time, and by teaching this bad-habit-busting technique, he continues to be ahead of our time, too. Perhaps scientists will design an experiment over the next several years to validate the power of deep meditation to dissolve bad brain pathways.
Or perhaps, without waiting for scientists to play catch-up, you will venture forth into your own inner lab to deploy this brain-sculpting tool, by learning to meditate, deepening your attention, and then affirming the destruction of the pathways you want to dissolve..
Who would have thought that meditation might hold the key to debugging your life and upgrading yourself to a much more vibrant form of you, version 2017?
For more information about the Institute for Personal Leadership and the leadership development programs for individuals and organizations, visit www.personalleadership.com.
This article was originally published in Inc. magazine – click here for the original.