New Habits: The Power of Intention


I am from a generation and culture for which orthodontia is the norm. This meant that as a child, I had some kind of metal apparatus in my mouth for more years than not (actually even past childhood)… One of the main culprits was my tongue and its apparently unhelpful intrusion into my speaking patterns. The orthodontist described that I would have to train my tongue to rest at the roof of my mouth rather than against my teeth, its favorite place to hang out when not busy creating a subtle lisping in my speech.

At first I could not imagine being able to change the natural resting place of one of the strongest and most useful parts of my body. The orthodontist threatened that spikes along the back of my teeth might be needed if I could not make the change myself. Rather than risk the social trauma that might have resulted from my teenage mouth’s spiky surprise, I decided to see what I could do to change my tongue.

Perhaps this was one of my first encounters with the power of my body’s ability to change a deeply ingrained habit. After months of intentionally checking to see where my tongue was lying (just for a moment), and then adjusting its position, this pattern became routine. After a while, as soon as my tongue touched the back of my teeth, it was cued to move on back.

After this experience, I am convinced that simply noticing when a physical, cognitive or behavioral action occurs and then deciding how to respond to what is present in that moment of awareness can provoke lasting physiological change. And, the abundant research on structural neuroplasticity supports my anecdotal enthusiasm.

What this all suggests is that practicing mindfulness is a habit like any other. Training yourself to check in and notice what is happening in a particular moment does not become routine overnight. It requires consistent and gentle intention over an extended period of time. Some days will feel easier than others. Some days it will feel impossible to switch out of autopilot. But the feeling of satisfaction that results from deciding to cultivate a desired behavior and nurturing it into a habit is incomparable.

(Image courtesy of adamr / )

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