Everyone is familiar with the resolution madness that occurs with what I heard recently called the “Caucasian New Year”. November and December are the biggest months for retail, but I bet for gyms it’s January and February. I can barely stand to be at the gym this time of year. I don’t think it’s the crowd I detest, but the energy. I really don’t have anything against the push to create exercise habits. Exercise is a “keystone habit“, a habit that, over time, winds up being a transformation agent, trickling into many other areas of life. I am in favor of anything that has the possibility to make humans happier and therefore possibly kinder.
Understanding habit formation is good for getting started when that is the biggest hurdle. There are times when I wish I could get clients to exercise or eat healthier because I know the possibility of change in other areas increases with it. I do think that habit has a downside, though. It encourages us to sleepwalk. Habit is a pretty mechanical thing, but not always that easily manipulated. And I think the reason we go after a change or try to instill a habit matters a great deal.
In my experience, behavioral change programs can be a surface change, or an act of violence toward self. That means the change is for reasons associated with rejection of self, such as: looking better/thinner/fitter, engaging in competition with self or others, eating more, blowing off steam, or taking the edge off emotions. Efforts to get rid of some part of ourselves we don’t like (which is why folks who lose a lot of weight without investigating the underlying emotional issue tend to gain it back) are like being at war with ourselves. Occasionally a habit leads to new insight or a more authentic reason for the habit, and yet, exercising for a general increase in health doesn’t seem to have the same motivational spark for most, even though, in the big picture, it seems like it should be the driving factor,doesn’t it?
I am quite familiar with resolutions for change that come from egoic identity – for example, running too much, for all kinds of reasons – feelings of power or accomplishment, the endorphin afterglow, controlling weight. It eventually landed me at the orthopedic surgeon’s office with knee pain and months of therapy. Lots of other intentions I have had for change were about “becoming a better person”, but more deeply examined, would have been exposed as being about trying to become something more acceptable to me, rather than becoming more fully and radiantly me.
Behavioral change is an interesting animal, and you can find out more about it in Charles Duhigg‘s book The Power of Habit, which makes an alluring argument for conscious construction of habits, using the latest brain science. Habits can be a great source of momentum for maintaining physical and mental health.
But change achieved in this way also seems to be largely a top-down processing effort. That means it’s sort of a willpower game, mind over matter, mind trying to make the body obey. There is actually another way, though it isn’t widely acknowledged. The other way is “bottom-up” processing. The nervous system highway that connects the brain to the body (see Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory) has 10 to 20% of road traveling from top to bottom (head to gut), and 80-90% traveling from bottom to top (gut to head).
Willpower feels like a struggle because it IS! It’s incredibly inefficient. Most of the information is traveling from the viscera – stuff in the trunk of your body (your “body-mind”) – and then your brain-mind explains it to you. The trouble comes when you try to make a change with your brain-mind, and your body-mind disagrees. The disagree message gets through 80% better than the brain-mind message! Example: imagine trying to convince yourself you aren’t starving, or sleepy, or need to pee, or aren’t angry when you really are. Making sense?
So, you might wonder, “how can I change using more efficient “bottom-up” methods”? How can I get my head and my gut to agree? What would that even look like?
There are at least two ways I know of.
The first way is with the shift that comes from discovering your true identity. When you discover you are not anything or anyone that you thought, it is eventually followed by a period of loss and or feeling lost or unmotivated. Routines and habits can be really helpful for getting through this time when old motivations fall away, and on the other side of that shedding is an energy that moves toward authentic action, not driven by egoic identification (which is just energy with two basic movements: grasping, or aversion). You can achieve this by self-inquiry, or with a guide, that is led by the question, “who or what am I?”
The second way is by releasing traumatic stress that is “held” or remembered by the body, to free up authentic expression. The best method I know for achieving this is through Somatic Experiencing (SE) work. There is an effortlessness to the movement toward health and life that seems to occur as a result of SE work. I’ve experienced this organic movement in myself, and witnessed it repeatedly with clients.
So just to illustrate, here’s what exercise looks like for me now: I am drawn to move in certain ways, from someplace inside that seeks health. I run about 3 miles, 2-3x per week, and I walk about ten times during, since I don’t have the need to prove anything by an uninterrupted slog. I train with weights 1-2 times per week depending on what my body tells me it needs. The rest of the days, I walk, do qi quong, do yard work or housework, tennis, or whatever calls to me. I can tell my body wants to move everyday, someway, but it doesn’t have to look a certain way anymore. No more overtraining, no hours-long workouts, no more injuries, less struggle or shame about the inevitable interruptions due to work or travel or illness. The result: I am fitter, healthier, and less neurotically preoccupied with my workout routine, with fewer and smaller lapses in activity. It just seems to happen, and I don’t have much of a routine, aside from the running route and list of exercises to choose from at the gym.
It was quite interesting to observe the shift in myself from egoic pursuit to the more recent health/life driven motivation. For awhile there was “no reason” to exercise. I often relied on going through the motions, or “just doing something” to get through this period, because I knew deep down it was good for me, even though I wasn’t “interested” anymore. I was amazed that I could keep doing something positive like exercise even though the ego motivation was not there. It was a great way to get to see the energetic charge that moves toward life, regardless of mood or preference, and to discover I could trust it. From there I discovered there was enjoyment in the simple sensation of moving and exertion, not just for an end reward.
Can you imagine what it might be like to move through life from this place? The mind cannot tell you how to get there if you haven’t experienced it. It’s a place of great freedom. There’s a force inside you that knows what your body needs to eat, how much it should sleep, work, and play. It’s a completely organic movement accessed by stripping away all of the layers of crap that you thought were you, but are not you. How can you do that? Start meditating to see through your patterns, contemplate your true identity or find a teacher to help with both or either of those, or go to a somatic therapist to unload the past from your body.
It’s your choice: New Year’s resolutions that add more layers to cover your true identity, or one big resolution to strip away all that is not you, so all the world may more clearly see the light that is you. Willpower, vs. the power of the stillness. I think you can feel which one has the greatest potential, even if your mind cannot imagine it yet. Others have traveled the path and are there to help you find it, too.
My New Year’s Hope for each of you is that you find exactly what you need in order to connect more fully with your radiantly True Self.
In addition to those listed in the linked services above, I also can provide Somatic Experiencing sessions as a psychotherapist, meditation coaching, and free guided direct inquiry into the nature of being. Contact me for more info.