Consider this scenario: A car alarm goes off by your office, and you become distracted. As it continues, you become irritated, “Where is the owner of the car?”. Directing your attention back to work, the noise fades. The alarm didn’t stop. You stopped paying attention.
One moment you’re distracted, then the sound is gone. Has this happened to you?
When we encounter the same stimulus over time, we learn to no longer pay attention. This process is called habituating. It’s helpful for discerning information we choose worth our energy, but causes us to neglect our personal lives, and sabotages our fulfillment.
I know this was common for me. At some point in the past, I habituated real life.
This was most pronounced five years ago. I was a full-time student living with my parents. Everything felt monotonous. I was moving to California in six months, and the idea became an obsession. The scenery of Colorado no longer held my attention. I drove to work every day feeling lackluster, in a daze. I disliked home because of associations I’d made, and had difficulty letting go of resentment from past friendships. Colorado was part of a story I created in my mind. It was a story that I had become accustomed to, and oddly unaware of. I had habituated to my own storyline.
It’s clear the discontent I experienced was self-created. The story I carried, limited my ability to be content. I sought fulfillment externally, while the present moment became a means to an end—only necessary to get something else. It had been my default mode throughout life. The journey was discarded, especially if it wasn’t fun. Thinking about leaving Colorado was exciting—In California, I believed I’d find contentment.
While my attention was on California, I struggled to manage my emotions in the present. Chaos had free reign because I never entirely stopped myself to examine it. I was an anxious ball of thorns, counting down the days to moving. Looking back, I wonder, if I wanted fulfillment so badly, why did I put it off into the future?
My emotions continued unabated and unacknowledged after moving. The idea that switching locations would fill a sense of lack or resolve emotional issues was illusory. This illusion didn’t become apparent until I moved into a shared apartment. It felt like a war zone. They asked me to leave and find a new place. We blamed, accused, yelled and spewed insults. I felt embarrassed about the situation. This was a wake-up call for me. I couldn’t act indifferent any longer. The answer wasn’t a band-aid fix. No external circumstance would give me fulfillment. I needed to slow down and look carefully at how I had habituated both internally and externally.
It would’ve been naive to think business, as usual, would equate to the desired outcome. Thankfully, I recognized this. My rational mind finally surfaced. I asked myself, “How can I possibly find fulfillment, outside the here and now? If I continue to look, it will evade me.
After taking a psychology class that Fall semester, I learned about meditation and decided to try it out. Soon after, I was less reactive and more at ease with myself. I understood emotions hindered my ability to reason and prevented me from experiencing contentment. Having a little space between incessant mind chatter, I realized most of my life I’d lived on the surface layer. Meditation gave me the tool I needed to wake up from habituating. Gradually, I began learning self-compassion, while giving myself permission to feel and process emotions, rather than criticizing myself for having them. Through this process, I felt still for the first time and was content.
I recognize the difference between the person I am now, and then. I would’ve never turned my life around without meditation. About a year ago, I started using “Headspace,” which is single point meditation—the object of focus is on the breath and the rising and falling of the diaphragm. At the end of the session, I release my focus and allow the mind to drift off. Then after observing the mind without resistance, I bring attention back into my body. Even when I’m not meditating, I bring the practice into daily life. This has taken me four years to fully implement, and the effort has paid off. I don’t call myself an “enlightened” person, or suggest I have everything figured out. Instead, I have come to understand that hardships are opportunities for growth rather than obstacles–I no longer blind myself to these possibilities.
I used to believe circumstances “shouldn’t” be happening.
“Why am I stressed?”, “Why am I feeling rejected?”, “Why am I feeling anger?”
I didn’t want to feel any of it. The only way I knew how to deal with it, was to think more. I believed I’d find the answer in old habits and conditioning.
Today, I recognize whatever happening, is, and asking why doesn’t change anything. Looking at the past generally, doesn’t help to cut through patterns of habituation. I look for contrast. There’s always distortion between the actual experience, and my thoughts about it. Once I notice there’s a narrative, I stop and intentionally focus on my body. Bodily sensations are never as scary as I think. When in doubt, I come back to the moment and feel whatever wants to arise without resistance or judgment.
Being familiar with my tendency to habituate emotional storylines, helps me avoid getting entangled in them. Anytime I define myself in a negative light, I recognize this view as a distortion of reality. It has not been easy to come to this realization. I grew up attached to a sense of self—grasping on like a life vest. Yet, that identity was drowning the observer in me–the space that witnesses. It’s not the voice that criticizes, compares, judges evaluates, or fantasizes. It’s a calm and rational presence that I come back to whenever I recognize I’ve lost the present moment. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that “I” is not static but at my discretion. I choose how I define myself.
An inquisitive mind helps me stay grounded. When I identify with ego, I give emotions solidity, which they do not have. Questioning identity gives me a choice in how I react to a situation. In contrast to “why?”, which diverts attention away from myself, I ask:
“What am I feeling?”, “What assumptions am I making?”, “How am I personalizing this?”
When asked to leave my apartment, I had become my emotions. I didn’t see them as concepts. Here are questions I could’ve asked myself instead of reacting –
“Where is anger in my body?”, “What sensations can I label?”, “Is there heat, tension, or restlessness?” I look at emotions objectively, rather than being overrun by them.
If I’m fused continuously with emotions and thoughts, any circumstance I’m dependent on for fulfillment is short-lived, because it will change. Awareness allows me to recognize passing situations for what they are, rather than being attached to them.
A journey of personal growth has given me a new perspective on old stories I told myself. When I came home for Christmas this year, the scenery stole my attention. The mountains appeared in their glory, and I watched the snow fall—it was a beautiful sight. I could fully see again, without being clouded by the past.
I always have the choice which path I want to go down. No matter how difficult circumstances feel, I am responsible for giving them more weight than needed–they don’t last forever. Once I remember this, I choose to acknowledge emotions without getting involved. It seems contradictory that we’re often indifferent about what we tell ourselves, even if our self-talk lessens fulfillment. I used to be this way until I realized life is grander than our old perspectives would have us believe. All we need is a willingness to change. Personal stories like all thoughts are not real in an absolute sense, they come and go. What is always constant, is present awareness. Here and now is where I feel fulfillment, not in ideas from the past or future.