When it comes to changing habits, be a shark

Greenland Shark
Photo Credit Nick Caloyianis WWF Canada

Have you ever tried to change a habit?

It’s easy to get discouraged and give up when things don’t change as quickly as we’d like.

When I’ve been trying to change habits that I don’t like, sometimes for weeks, I can still feel stuck. This is something I hear so often from my clients struggling with substance abuse and I recognize this same frustration in myself.

I remember when I began to practice meditation daily. It was hard to discipline myself to sit every day, and for a long time I didn’t notice much happening (other than sore knees). And then one day, after about three months, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t as irritable as I used to be. Things that used to bother me didn’t affect me as strongly as they once did.

So, we can change habits and be healthier, and it takes time, practice, and persistence. Of course, we can develop this patience with general mindfulness and a meditation practice. And it helps to have an overall vision that is bigger than those individual habits, like a spiritual practice and a community focused on growth.

Maybe sharks can give us a hint at what is needed

The other day, I read a story about researchers doing blood work analysis on Great White Sharks. My first thought was, “How do you get a Great White Shark to give you a blood sample?” This was unanswered and yet I continued reading, learning an interesting fact. The sharks’ systems had high levels of toxic heavy metals in them, such as mercury and arsenic. These levels would kill any other animal, but seemed to have no adverse health effects on the sharks.

The researchers weren’t sure how the sharks were able to survive the toxins, and concluded that somehow their bodies had evolved to protect them. How did sharks develop this ability, then? Over time.

As I read on, I thought to myself “That’s a long time!”

As amazing as this was, it was the time periods in the article that really blew me away.

According to the article, sharks:

  • have been around for over 400 million years.
  • have been around longer than trees!
  • survived the meteor impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and 90% of all life
  • are one of the most successful forms of life on the planet
  • by comparison to modern humans’ 60,000 years, they have been here 7000 times longer.

My point? Sharks have had a long, long, long time to learn how to adapt and evolve and adjust to difficult circumstances.

Recognition: Life is just hard sometimes, even without killer meteors

In my meditation practice, by being patient and persistent I had slowly developed a resistance to the toxic stress of my daily life, just like the sharks developed a resistance to the toxic metals in the oceans.

In our lives, there are lots of challenges and struggles. The Buddha said in the first of his Noble Truths that life is struggle. Just by being alive, in other words, we will experience unhappiness, pain, and discontent. We’re going to get sick, we’re going to have hurts.

Our habits help us cope with the hurt – at first

And one way we adapt to the hurts is to develop habits and patterns to cope. These habits may have been useful once, but often they can become unhelpful for us. For example, when a glass of wine that used to help me feel less anxious at parties turns into an alcohol problem to manage all my anxiety.

Fortunately, we have the ability to learn and grow – to change bad habits and find new ways of coping

However, this usually doesn’t happen quickly. Changing habits, learning new ways of being, evolving to meet the challenges of our world takes patience, practice, and persistence.

“Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

We’re just not used to being so patient, and as our world gets faster and faster, it has become easy to think that anything we want should happen immediately, with the click of a mouse, or by downloading an app.

Here are three thoughts for when you’re feeling discouraged

1. If it’s worth changing, it’s worth putting in the time and effort
We don’t develop bad habits overnight, and we’re not going to change them overnight. Persevere for a decent amount of time and you’ll see results.

2. Find tools or strategies that are proven to help
Mindfulness practice is a great tool. By learning to focus and calm our mind, we eventually see how our habits arose and how they continue. This creates space around the impulse to act in a habitual way, allowing us room to choose and try new ways of being.

3. Remember the sharks did it
They didn’t do it in a week, though. Give yourself a break, and be patient.

So can we learn to be more like sharks as we change the habits in our lives? I’d say yes, and with more mindfulness and meditation we can speed up the process greatly.

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