Don’t remove darkness—bring in light2 min read

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Breaking bad habits, and learning how to resist temptation, is an important aspect of the path of self-transformation and self-mastery.

Whether you are trying to break the habit of consuming a given substance, gossiping, complaining, eating junk food, watching junk videos, indulging in negative emotions, excessive gaming, or whatever it is, the process is always the same: it’s about learning how to overcome a powerful impulse. Often we fail, act against our better knowledge, and do something we know is not good for our long-term goals.

How do we stop that? How do we overcome impulses? Is it by perfecting willpower and self-control? That is a possible path, but there is an easier and gentler approach: focusing on being who you want to be, rather than not being who you don’t want to be.

Let me unpack that.

There is a tendency to want to focus on the bad, on the darkness, on the weakness, and try to fix it. Even if we succeed at that, all our effort was only useful for removing a negativity, and bringing us back to “normality”.

What if, instead, we could fix the instant gratification problem simply by focusing on what is actually positive, constructive, and inspiring? What if temptations are overcome simply as a byproduct of effectively focusing on what matters?

That is the role of the Aspiration and Awareness pillars in Mindful Self-Discipline.

In the book The Psychology of Desire we learn that temptations for instant gratification compete with other cognitive tasks for a slot in our working memory. This means that if you are consumed thinking about your aspirations, goals, and values, there will be no space to be tempted by activities and substances that don’t really add value to your life.

The keyword here is consumed. It’s not enough to simply remember them as a sentence in your head. You need to be emotionally connected to why your aspirations matter to you, and all the positive feelings they can bring into your life. Add to that what the authors called “vivid imagery” of you taking action on your goals, and your awareness will be so engaged with a bigger reward that the smaller reward, albeit immediate, will pale by comparison.

The best way to break bad habits is to be fully committed to your aspirations, day after day. Constantly redirect your attention to a higher ideal, and the breadcrumbs of happiness that instant gratification promises you will feel like a wast of time. Fill your mind with light, and there will be no place for darkness.

Exercise

What is one temptation you’re struggling with lately?

Next time it visits you, try this: close your eyes for a minute, and vividly imagine yourself taking action toward one of your aspirations, and experiencing success. Feel the feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that you experience. Let it fill your mind, and then take a baby step toward that ideal.

Going Deeper

Go through the Black and White exercise in the Workbook so that your aspirations have a greater weight in your decision making, and overcoming negative impulses is easier. Try also the POWER Visualization meditation, part of the Mindful Self-Discipline app, and train your mind to reconnect to your goals and values in times of temptation.

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