A nutritionist told me the other day that the biggest problem for the millions of overweight Americans was not the "bad" food they were eating. It wasn't the cookies, chips, ice cream and junk food's fault, she said. Rather, the culprit as she explained it was our unconscious behavior and the way it impacts our choices. Importantly, she added that research has shown that this mindlessness is operative in the actions of most individuals at least 80 percent of the time.
So, are all of us who are lining up at the drive by fast food window or loading our shopping carts with sugary and fatty gunk basically in a virtual sleepwalk through life? If so, what is it going to take to wake us up?
This food issue is really the tip of the iceberg and one of the easiest to get a handle on when it comes to the epidemic of mindlessness. We believe it is safer "not to go there," not to ask ourselves the "why" questions. Whether it is food, drugs, sex, gambling or something as seemingly innocuous as keeping the television or music droning on all day to fill up the silent void, these behaviors all exist in our lives for good reasons. Like all living creatures, we are wired to avoid the causes of pain in the same way we know not to put our fingers into a burning fire. Instead most of us put ourselves in a state of numbed distraction, or worse, in a never-ending cascade of mini-dramas and gossip that consume all of our time and energy. And we wonder why we are exhausted all the time, why all of our relationships suck and how we're really not that content with our lives.
This pattern of behavior of "I know I shouldn't do this but I can't help myself" come from programs that usually date back to early childhood. They are often set in place by reactions to trauma that we can't remember or chose to quickly forget for self-preservation right after they happened. These events can be as seemingly unimportant as being yelled at for spilling our milk from the highchair or, at the other end of the spectrum, violent assaults of both physical and/or verbal nature.
What can we truly do to turn this situation around that has been running (and ruining) our lives for years if not decades? The first step is to be honest with ourselves and be courageous and willing to observe and notice those parts of our lives we know to be dysfunctional -- and do so with love and forgiveness and not blame or self-criticism. We also have to be patient and know that the transformation we are seeking may take a long time and a considerable effort. What we will have to go through will require that we become warrior-like in our spirit. It will take courage, strength and fortitude to sustain us because some of the days will be difficult and painful,. But refreshingly, that pain often proves to be not as bad as we might have feared (and that had originally put us into that place of lifelong avoidance). There is light at the end of the tunnel that becomes brighter the further we travel. Our work will be rewarded and the positive growth noticed quickly, as our spirit begins to feel progressively lighter. Each tiny step forward renews our strength and motivation to proceed to the next challenge.
Perhaps the most serious adversary at this point in the dialogue is "Yes, I Know, But." Our minds have done a fabulous job so far at preserving the status quo, so why expect it to behave otherwise. We will find all sorts of ways to deflect and avoid. "Oh, I know what you mean. I'm already doing that. It's great. (Now shut up and leave me alone!)" Or, "Thank you very much, but bugger off and don't waste your breath."
But if the conversation gets beyond the filters, we might say, "Yes, I'd like to live more mindfully, but truth be told, nothing seems to work. It's too overwhelming. I'm not even sure if I'm capable. And I don't know where or how to get started."
Being able to say that from our heart is actually the mandatory first step. It sets an intention with powerful implications. Things begin to unfold with surprisingly little forceful effort. We become open to receiving help and guidance and reawaken the intuitive trust to help us make the right choices. Little coincidental experiences begin to happen to you in greater frequency. You may start noticing simple details around you that you had remarkably failed to notice before. Things that you feared are suddenly not such the big monsters they once were. Interactions with people become easier and we become more attuned to the resource of loving energy we have to share with another. A momentary interaction with a stranger and a smile exchanged suddenly has meaning and purpose.
The challenge still remains -- how do we get started? How do we stop the babble and get into action?
This exercise may sound ridiculous at first because it is so simple. Over twenty years ago, a friend gave me an audiotape of a lecture by a psychologist named Robert Lorenz. He addressed this issue of getting off the dime and starting the process of living more consciously and with a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment. He knew it needed to be a no-brainer, something that everyone could easily do, a process that would speak for itself. From the way he described it on the tape, it was an experience that needed little explanation, nor did he dictate any kind of expectation of the results. His four-word recommendation was this: Clean out your closet.
Try it. Do it with mindfulness -- not as a boring piece of housework but as a loving act towards yourself. You may discover that more than your closet will become uncluttered. Just notice how you feel during and afterwards. And get ready for what's to come.
Follow Joel Brokaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dharmaranch