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Getting out of harmful habits with mindful life reflection

“at each moment we are at a fork in the road”-Dzogchen Ponlop


Many times in our life we can find ourselves caught up in what seems to be repeating behaviour, emotions or thoughts. There is often a sense that we have been here before with this thought or belief, and that this behaviour and the emotions and the beliefs that accompany them (or is it the other way around?) are not only unhelpful but often quite disabling. We realise that something in our minds has led this to happen, but we’re not really aware of this “happening” in any meaningful way. We are stuck in recurrent habits. Essentially, it’s as if we are prisoners of our own minds, which is a very strange way to be a human being.

How can we break free of our own disabling life patterns?

First, we have to get to know them more fully. Here’s how.

In 2007 Dzogchen Ponlop, one of the foremost Buddhist scholars, published his book Mind After Death. In the book he recommends the benefits of what he calls mindful life reflection.

At the end of each day we recall the events of the day, taking time to reflect on what we have done, what kind of thoughts and emotions we might have experienced that day. We then might include the events of yesterday and the day before, perhaps reviewing the whole week. This practice can build over time, and although we might begin with relatively short timeframes, we can increase to review our whole lives.

Here is my slightly adapted selection of mindful life reflective inquiry questions:

First sit for a while, perhaps five minutes. Bring your attention to your breath, allowing the inbreath to fill your lungs and the outbreath to reach down into your belly. Feel your way into your body, get a sense of your body in the (e.g.) chair, your feet on the floor, your back in the chair. You are attuning to the simple feeling of being. Notice how with each breath your shoulders rise and fall, your chest and belly expand and contacts. It’s as if your body is one. Breathe naturally. Let go of any striving and allow the following questions to drop into your mind like a pebble in a pond, noticing what thoughts and connections ripple out or bubble up:

  1. What were the major events that occurred today?
  2. What thoughts were tied in with these events?
  3. What emotions were tied in with these thoughts?
  4. Do you get a sense of how these thoughts and emotions were experienced in your body? Where?
  5. Are these thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations familiar?
  6. If they are familiar, can you track them back over time?

Six inquiry questions, which are linking events-thoughts-emotions-bodily sensations together to enable us to notice life patterns.

Life patterns are essentially signs that we might be repeating a cycle of difficulty that keeps us locked in disabled or afflicted thinking and feeling. The repeated pattern neon lights this. We might ask ourselves “does it have to be this way?” and lean into our experience further. Leaning into our experience, becoming familiar with our disabling thoughts and emotions is the first step to freeing ourselves from harmful and restrictive life patterns: we can’t change what we are not aware of.

Awareness is the key that creates the conditions to choose how we might respond to our restrictive life patterns differently and free ourselves from these restraints.

Try it!

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