To unlearn old beliefs that support erroneous choices and be- havior, you must first become aware of when your words and ac- tions are out of alignment. Examining these areas will point out when the choices you make aren’t going to promote what you say you want for your life. Once this awareness becomes part of your daily life, you’ll find yourself noticing when your actions aren’t directed at meeting your stated goals. For example, you may wake every morning saying, “I want to be healthier,” but if you stop for a 490-calorie café mocha on the way to work, you are work- ing against what you say you want for yourself. Another example would be if you hate your job—and you’re always trumpeting your longing for a job that will ignite your passion—but you do noth- ing about finding one.
We are also led astray by our hardwired behavior: the “fight- or-flight” reaction that arose early in human history. Even today, however, we often react without thinking about whether we want to fight or flee. Do you want to scream and yell at a partner when things don’t go your way? Should you run from a challenging situ- ation, or take the risk of failing to overcome it? You also need to unlearn your usual ways of handling stresses if they involve addic- tions that in the end do you harm.
I often ask my patients: “Are you in reaction?” Most do not grasp that they have a choice not to react. If they become aware of habitual errors, they can unlearn the same old impulsive reactions and instead respond thoughtfully.
To the aware person, spotting others in reaction is easy—say, when a fellow driver slips into road rage or someone in a coffee shop flies off the handle for a slight in service. During meltdown, passion rises and blindness descends.
While part of our temperament is genetic, much of what we call “temper”—the one we’re always losing—comes from where we have been and where we now find ourselves. While the genet- ics are more or less fixed, the underpinnings that urge us into ￼￼￼￼thoughtless behavior are pliable. We can remake them to meet our freshly awakened purpose. We can recover. Sometimes suffering comes from a real event. If we suddenly lose a loved one, we know deep pain that is real and fitting. Other suffering, though, is tied to unrealistic evaluations we’ve made in our past. If our friend cancels plans for the Fourth of July, it doesn’t mean the whole world has turned against us, suddenly realizing our unworthiness. There’s no reason to feel hopeless and suicidal.
To become self-aware, we must see which response to an in- jury is too much and which is just. Excessive emotional response points to a need to examine the grip of the ego—that human part of us that makes up what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body . Old issues, unresolved from our past, often live in the pain-body and set the stage for oversensitivity. We must follow the roots of these beliefs and move toward uncovering the points of attachment that tie us to suffering.
If, in your childhood environment, you were repeatedly called “stupid,” it’s unlikely that as an adult, you’ll think of yourself as smart. If classmates tease that you “suck at sports,” it will surely bore a hole into your psyche, forming an attachment point to that continuing belief. Over time, you write your inner script; you play that part and read those lines, errors and all. We need to unlearn what we’ve learned so that we may heal the body-of-pain in our ego and move toward balance.
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