You’ve probably heard “awareness is half the battle” when it comes to changing behavior. That’s because so many of the behaviors, thoughts, and emotional responses we want to change are done on autopilot or without awareness. For example, you reflexively light up a cigarette with your morning coffee, or grab a beer before you sit down to watch a game. Or, you immediately interpret an unreturned text message as rejection.
If we had real-time awareness of these unwanted behaviors and mental habits, we would have a better chance of changing them. In Buddhism, the moment of awareness before we automatically do, think, or feel something is called a gap moment. The gap is an opportunity to change our karma which can be thought of simply as the default patterns in our behavior, thinking, and emotional responding. By cultivating an awareness of gap moments, we can liberate ourselves from these default patterns that cause distress and suffering.
So, how can you increase the likelihood of catching gap moments? First, monitor the behaviors you are trying to decrease or eliminate. Simply monitoring them can lead to a decrease in their frequency. This is known as “behavioral reactivity.” Record not just instances of actually engaging in these behaviors, eg, how many drinks you had, but also the urges you had to engage in them. With awareness of urges, there is a window of opportunity not to act on them. You can choose to ride them out. Second, develop a regular mindfulness practice. Basically, every time you meditate you are training in awareness. With practice, we develop a stable, nonjudgmental, and undivided awareness that creates perspective or distance from our thoughts, feelings and sensations. We can observe them as temporary phenomena without getting caught up in them or reacting. With this awareness, there the is freedom to change.
So, if you’re continuing to do things you want to stop or change, practice cultivating awareness. You may just find it easier to break free from the patterns in thinking, behavior and emotional responding that are causing you distress.
Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.