How to Unravel Habitual Patterns with Mindful Awareness

By Larry Payne, Georg Feuerstein, Sherri Baptiste, Doug Swenson, Stephan Bodian, LaReine Chabut, Therese Iknoian

As you explore your emotions, you may gradually discover that they’re not as overpowering or as endless as you feared. With mindful awareness, most emotions flow through your body and gradually release. For example, as you gently investigate your anger or fear, it may intensify at first, then break and disperse like a wave on the beach.

But certain persistent emotions and physical contractions, along with the thoughts and images that accompany and fuel them, seem to keep returning no matter how many times you notice and name them. These are the stories and habitual patterns that run deep in the body‐mind like the roots from which recurring thoughts and feelings spring.

In your meditations, you may keep replaying a story from your past (including all the accompanying emotions and mind‐states) in which you suffer some abuse or injustice. Perhaps you see yourself as a failure and fantasize obsessively about an imaginary future in which you’re somehow happier and more successful. Or you may worry repeatedly about your job or relationship because you believe you can’t trust people or because the world’s not a safe place.

In his book A Path with Heart, Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls these habitual patterns insistent visitors and suggests that they keep returning in your meditation (and your life!) because they’re stuck or unfinished in some way. When you give them the loving attention and deeper investigation they require, you may at first discover that they’re more complex and deeply rooted than you had imagined. But with persistent exploration, they gradually unravel and reveal the hidden energy and wisdom they contain.

In fact, the more you undo your patterns, the more you release the physical and energetic contractions that lie at their heart, and the freer, more spacious, more expansive — and, yes, healthier! — you become.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the primary techniques for unraveling habitual patterns. Experiment with them on your own, and if you find them helpful, feel free to incorporate them into your meditation.

  • Name your “tunes”: When a particular tune (habitual pattern) recurs, you can simply notice and name it without getting embroiled once again in the same painful pattern. This approach is another version of naming your experience.

  • Expand your awareness: By welcoming the full range of thoughts, images, and feelings, you create an inner spaciousness in which the pattern can gradually unfold and release. Perhaps you keep feeling tense in your lower belly, and you don’t know why.

    If you expand your awareness, you may discover that beneath the surface lies fear about the future, and under the fear lies a layer of hurt. When you include thoughts and ideas as well, you may find that, deep down, you believe you’re inadequate. So you’re afraid you can’t cope, and you feel hurt when people criticize you.

  • Feel your feelings: Patterns often persist until the underlying feelings are thoroughly felt. That’s right, felt — not merely acknowledged or named! Many people keep their feelings at arm’s length or confuse them with thoughts or ideas. Other people get completely entangled in their feelings. As you expand your awareness, ask yourself, “What feelings haven’t I felt yet?”

  • Notice your resistance and attachment: If a particular story or challenging emotion keeps replaying in your mind, explore your relationship to it. For example, ask, “How do I feel about this particular pattern or story? Do I have a vested interest in holding on to it? If so, what do I get out of it? What am I afraid may happen if I let it go? Am I judging it as undesirable and struggling to get rid of it? If so, what don’t I like about it?”

    When you can relax and gently open to accept the pattern with awareness, you may find that the pattern, which felt so tight and entrenched, relaxes as well.

  • Find the wisdom: Sometimes recurring stories or patterns have wisdom to impart, and they won’t stop nagging until you listen. If you keep having the same uncomfortable or difficult feeling during meditation and it doesn’t shift or change with awareness, you may want to “give it a voice” and ask it to speak to you as though it were a close friend. Ask, “What are you trying to tell me? What do I need to hear?”

    You may discover that a tender, vulnerable part of yourself needs caring, nurturing attention. Other times, you may hear the voice of responsibility reminding you to tend to some important commitment.

  • Get to the heart of the matter: Like the great Tibetan meditator Milarepa, sometimes you need to stick your head into the demon’s mouth before it disappears for good. In other words, you may need to explore the energetic contraction that lies at the heart of your pattern.

    To explore the energetic contraction at the heart of your pattern, you can gently direct your awareness into the very center of the contraction and describe in detail what you find there.

    When you’re dealing with exceptionally painful, deep‐seated contractions, you may want to consult a qualified professional.

  • Infuse the stuck place with being: After you’ve meditated for a while and received some glimpses of your own inherent wholeness and completeness (your being), you may want to try the following shortcut. Set aside the thoughts and ideas that accompany your pattern and simply be aware of the physical and energetic contraction.

    Now shift your attention to your wholeness and completeness, which you may experience as a calm, relaxed energy in your body; a deeply loving feeling in your heart; a sense of expansiveness or space; or some other feeling unique to you. Imagine your wholeness and completeness gradually spreading, penetrating, and infusing the contraction with pure being. Continue this exercise as the contraction releases and dissolves into being.