Overcoming Habitual Patterns

When I had my son, I would spend hours watching him stare at the wonderous world around him, everything so brand new. Every sound was a momentous experience, every taste an explosion. He could sit outside in his little baby rocker and stare at the sky, feel the breeze, and listen to the birds without a need for any additions or distractions. The world was enough for him-no past, no future, not even the concept of a present moment. Just the rich pure sensations of the Now. I loved to watch him because it helped me get a whiff of my own essential nature, one that is completely content with being immersed in the world of my sense perceptions and knows the true magic of the world. 

My son is four years old now and I’ve begun to see how materialism and the seemingly inevitable insanity of the world has slowly crept in to who he is becoming. By materialism, I mean his increased interest in things and concepts, especially products like toys, rather than the sublime world of nature. He begs for more time on his tablet, the cartoons he watches are somehow all linked to products so he constantly wants to buy this figure or that toy. His sense of connection with the natural world and his ability to just BE is fading as the hurried world of consumerism takes over. 

This journey has been the same for most of us. We are born with incredible sensitivity and vulnerability that puts us in touch with a magical world and the vastness of being completely present. But as we grow up we have to adapt to a world in which that vulnerability is not always safe, a world that is fueled by fear and anxiety. We slowly grow more accustomed to a world in which the hardness of our personality and the thickness of our habitual patterns becomes more familiar to us than the freshness of the present moment. We take on defense mechanisms without even knowing it. 

The journey of leadership is largely about reintegrating this sensitivity and capacity for being present with what is.  But in order to do that we must first take a look at the habitual patterns that keep us from being present and showing up for our lives. These habitual patterns started forming at a very young age, so it means a fearless journey of undoing of our familiar protective ways of being.

A habitual pattern is anything we do over and over, a habit of mind and body, without being aware that we’re doing it. It’s comfortable and familiar. These habitual patterns are like memorized behaviors, thoughts and emotional reactions-like a subconscious computer program running behind the scenes of our conscious awareness. We may have a pattern of rushing through our lives, always in a state of anxiety, based on the false belief that if we don’t accomplish everything on our to-do list we are worthless. 

Addictions of all kinds also fall into the arena of habitual patterns: addiction to drugs and alcohol, addiction to the internet and gaming, addiction to shopping and even addiction to so called healthy things like yoga and exercise. What makes a habitual pattern so harmful over time is that we feel like we have to do it in order to be OK, it’s sort of like a baby with their pacifier, we believe if we give it up our world might fall apart. Using my son as reference again, he is becoming more and more habitualized to watching his cartoons and playing games whenever there is open time in his schedule, he actually shows signs of withdrawal (anger/depression) when he can’t have it. 

The world of our habitual patterns, called cocoon in the teachings of Shambhala, is a thick dark comfort zone we’ve made for ourselves and we actually mistake it for our world, so giving it up feels like a sort of death. We built the cocoon as a totally natural process of shielding ourselves from a world that doesn’t always feel safe and predictable-the cocoon is familiar and predictable. There is no need to feel shameful about the cocoon, it’s a natural response to a world gone mad. But its walls are also made up of the dark threads of our own personal patterns which keep us stuck so we can’t break free and live into a fuller potential. In terms of neurobiology, the walls of our cocoon are made up of neural pathways that have determined our genetic response and habits of being. 

The good news is that we can actually break free of the cocoon and create new neural pathways for patterns which serve our higher potential and waking up. The first thing we need to do is realize that we’re in a cocoon. It’s like we all of a sudden we realize how stuffy it is and decide to open the window. Once the light from the window comes in we can begin to see where we are and a deep desire to get out come over us.

 Unfortunately it’s not a one off thing that’s as simple as opening the door of the cocoon and walking away. This would be a form of spiritual materialism because we think we can just change overnight and disregard our stuck places. This is the downfall of the plant medicines that have become so popular among spiritual seekers, such as ayahuasca. People have these amazing experiences where they get a huge glimpse not only of how they’re stuck but also their potential to break free. But the real work comes from actually making a relationship with one’s cocoon and habitual patterns. We need to examine all the threads and with kindness and mindfulness and realize that we no longer need them. We need to unmake the cocoon not as a huge laborious effort, but rather as a journey of understanding ourselves. It’s like making friends with the inner child that built the cocoon in the first place, marveling at her mess, and then working with her, as a loving parent, to clean it up. 

When we do this important spiritual work as leaders, we are creating spaces where others feel permission to be more authentic. We are doing the important work of showing up in a way that is non-habitual but rather fresh and in tune with a larger present moment. This larger present moment has the hallmarks of being like that child who is completely immersed in their sense perceptions, but with the maturity and wisdom of having made a relationship with our own personal cocoon. 

It’s a work in progress. I think many spiritual seekers have this fantasy they can just get rid of their cocoons and the habitual patterns that make it up. But the truth is, the undoing and unthreading of cocoon is a result of patience and kindness. Each time we catch ourselves doing the unhealthy pattern that for so long felt utterly familiar, we can make a new choice and lean into the raw and unfamiliar world of space beyond the cocoon.  In this way, we become the authentic leaders the world needs. 

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