The Spirituality of Behavior Change — Dying to Your Current Concept of “Me”

I’m attracted to simple, specific, and concrete methods of behavior change (such as BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program.) Yet there’s a profound shift that occurs whenever we change even the smallest behavior. It happens at a level that’s invisible, tough to measure and — some might say — spiritual.

I’m reminded of this whenever I pick up In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life by Robert Kegan, professor of adult learning and professional development at Harvard University.

Kegan sees the roots of behavior change in epistemology — what we “know” about ourselves.

More specifically, change calls on us to redefine subject (“me”) and object (everything other than “me”).

When I grow attached to a certain behavior — even if it’s something like smoking or overeating or watching TV for hours every day — it becomes “me.” I can identify with it so strongly that it becomes non-negotiable. To change the behavior would mean a kind of death — the loss of something that’s familiar. The loss of my current identity. The loss of ”me.”

Change only becomes possible when I make a break with the past and release that kind of attachment. All of a sudden, a behavior is no longer “me.” I can step back from it, observe it, reflect on it, let it go, and let something new take its place.

This is the sacred ground of change — the inward and invisible transformation that underlies the outward, visible, new behavior.

I’ll quote Kegan directly on this point (boldface added by me):

”Subject” refers to those elements of our knowing or organizing that we are identified with, tied to, fused with, or embedded in. We have objects; we are subject. We cannot be responsible for, in control of, or reflect on that which is subject.

“Object” refers to those elements of our knowing or organizing that we can reflect on, handle, look at, be responsible for, relate to each other, take control of, internalize, assimilate, or otherwise operate upon…. it is distinct enough from us that we can do something with it.

… what we take as subject and what we take as object are not necessarily fixed for us. They are not permanent. They can change. In fact, transforming our epistemologies, liberating ourselves from that in which we are embedded, making what was subject into object so that we can “have it” rather than “be had” by it — this is the most powerful way I know to conceptualize the growth of the mind…. as faithful to the self-psychology of the West as to the “wisdom literature” of the East. The roshis and lamas speak to the growth of the mind in terms of our developing capacity to relate to what we were formerly attached to.”

That is one big, beautiful idea.

Creating Effective Exercises With Sentence Completion

Sentence completion is an under-used tool for helping readers gain insight and change behavior. The trick is to structure these exercises for impact.

Start with an incomplete sentence (stem) that begs for completion. Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden — who’s written a lot about sentence completion — offers examples such as these:

  • To me, self-responsibility means…
  • When I look at what I do to impress people…
  • Sometimes I keep myself passive when I…
  • Sometimes I make myself helpless when I…
  • If I want to grow in independence, I will need to…
  • It is slowly and reluctantly dawning on me that…

When done well, sentence completion encourages people to bypass their internal censors and express pre-conscious thoughts and feelings. In addition, sentence completion can guide readers to go beyond vague intentions, planning for specific and concrete new behaviors.

To help readers get the most from sentence completion, suggest that they:

  • Copy the stems to a personal journal (paper-based or digital) to build a written record of their responses.
  • Write at least five endings for each stem.
  • Write down anything that comes to mind as long as the response completes the sentence in a grammatical way.
  • Write quickly without stopping to edit or rewrite.
  • Focus on a small block of stems each week, completing the same sentences each day.
  • Review their sentence completions on the weekend, look for themes and major insights, and consolidate them.
  • Follow up on the weekly review with this stem from Branden: If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I….

You can also use sentence completion in guiding readers to create implementation intentions. These are statements that pair an environmental cue with a specific planned behavior. For example:

When I get my paycheck, I will deposit 10 percent of it in my savings account.

The syntax for these sentences is:

When… I will….

Another option is creating sentences with the syntax of Tiny Habits. This is a strategy for behavior change based on the brilliant work of BJ Fogg at Stanford University. A Tiny Habit links an existing habit with a “baby step” — a new behavior that takes 30 seconds or less and requires no willpower whatsoever. For example:

After I walk in the door from work, I will hug my wife.

Here the syntax is:

After I… I will….

Branden describes daily sentence completion as “a kind of psychological discipline, a spiritual practice, even, that over time achieves insight, integration, and spontaneous behavior change.” That’s a big claim, and it’s worth testing.

To learn more about sentence completion, check out:
– Sentence Completion I: Instructions For Sentence Completion Programs by Nathaniel Branden
– Sentence Completion II: Instructions For Sentence Completion Programs by Nathaniel Branden
– The Art of Self-Discovery by Nathaniel Branden
– How to Use “Sentence Stems” to Solve Problems and Achieve Your Goals by Rich Schefren

Writing Instructions That Lead to Action

In 2005 I attended the Landmark Forum, where I was instructed to:

  • Define transformation as the genesis of a new realm of possibility — not just one possibility.
  • Access transformation via a conversation that creates a new future for yourself right now.
  • Create possibilities that draw you forward and lead to action.

I was inspired by the Forum (and posted about the experience here and here). Yet with a decade of perspective, I scratch my head and wonder what it means to “access transformation” on a daily basis.

There’s a difference between inspiration and instructions.

Inspiration can be useful. It can even trigger profound behavior change. But for readers of who are hurried and hassled, inspiration is often fleeting.

Think in terms of next actions

As an alternative, I turn to the concept of next actions as defined in the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. Next actions are physical and visible behaviors. They describe specific and concrete ways to move your legs, arms, and mouth.

Access transformation is inspiration.

Take three mindful breaths is a next action.

Stay active is inspiration.

Do two pushups is a next action.

Next actions are the core of good instructions. They give readers something to actually do while waiting for inspiration to strike.

Following are ways to present next actions to readers.

Write effective lists

Completing a project often involves more than one action. When that’s true, present your next actions in a list. If you want readers to perform those actions in a specific order, then write a numbered list. If order does not matter, then write a bulleted list.

In addition, divide big projects into a series of sub-projects, each with its own list of actions.

Begin each list item with an active verb. Pack an apple in your lunch is more clear and direct than An apple should be packed in your lunch. The latter is an example of passive voice, which obscures who should take action.

For more on lists, see Instructions: How to Write Guides for Busy, Grouchy People.

Offer scripts

We can often help readers by suggesting specific things for them to to say. One master of the script is Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Following is an example from Ramit’s instructions for asking a credit card company to cancel a late fee:

You: Hi, I noticed I missed a payment, and I wanted to confirm that this won’t affect my credit score.

Credit Card rep: Let me check on that. No, the late fee will be applied, but it won’t affect your credit score….

You: Thank you! I’m really happy to hear that. Now, about that fee … I understand I was late, but I’d like to have it waived.

Test instructions with real people

Whenever possible, give a draft of your book manuscript to potential readers and ask them to actually carry out your instructions. Observe what they do. Also ask them to talk about any confusions. I’ve found this to be humbling — and revealing.

If you’re pressed for time or don’t have access to readers, then simply read your lists of instructions and ask: Could I actually see myself doing this? If the answer is no, then you have inspiration to create better instructions.

Here’s a Tip — Avoid Tips

The self-help genre often sinks to tip-dispensing.

Want to make more money? Hundreds of bloggers will give you quick tips for that.

Want to boost your productivity? Tip-based books for that abound.

Want to attract a lover? Tips for that are all over the Web.

Tips satisfy our desire for easy wins and quick results. But what about the long-term?

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Annie Murphy Paul writes in The Tyranny of Tips. “Sometimes a tip — the right bit of information at the right time — is a lifesaver.” More often, however, tips “skim lightly across the surface of our attention and then disappear.”

A teacher once asked William Zinsser — author of On Writing Well — to give students some writing tips.

Zinsser’s reply: “I don’t do tips”:

Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package — a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

Joe Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, applies this perspective to the task of raising children. In Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, he writes:

These days, so many of the parenting tips are based on superficial matters. The conversations are about finding the right activities, having enough activities, staying cool as parents, learning to talk on your child’s level, and the like…. I emphasize that parents need to invest in their family culture and maintain it over time, much like they would invest over the long-term in a savings account or a college fund. Only then will the resources be available in a family’s time of need.

Molding character often calls for the slow, steady acquisition of skills and insights. And this — unlike dispensing tips — is the work of a lifetime.

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — How Modern Authors Distort an Ancient Teaching

In our current enthusiasm for mindfulness, we can easily forget that this practice is grounded in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Self-help authors distort this teaching when they ignore its historical context and try to mix mindfulness with New Age ideas.

Following are two examples. Neither of these ideas have anything to do with mindfulness.


Reincarnation is based on the belief that:

  • We have an essence — a permanent identity, soul, or self.
  • This essence moves from body to body over the course of many lifetimes.

The Buddha explicitly denied both points. He taught that the elements of our experience — including thoughts and feelings — are constantly changing. And by definition, anything that changes constantly cannot have a permanent identity. Anything that is impermanent cannot remain “itself.”

This means that there is no soul to pass from body to body. There is nothing to reincarnate.

This point is worth exploring in detail, and there’s no way that I can do it justice here. To learn more, check out Joe Goldstein’s talk on impermanence. Then listen to Gil Fronsdal on “no-self”.

Living with “intention”

Many self-help authors tell us to focus on setting goals and achieving them. Not happy? No problem. Just do two things:

  • Determine what you want.
  • Change your thinking behavior to “manifest” or “attract” what you want.

The result is “abundance.”

According to the Four Noble Truths, all this is delusion. In fact, living with this kind of intention is a prescription for suffering (dukkha).

The enlightened person lives without any intention except freedom from dukkha. Though most of us will find this teaching counter-intuitive, it is perfectly consistent with the Four Noble Truths.

Consider this: Setting a goal in order to become happy means identifying yourself as fundamentally incomplete and separate from something that will complete you.

This, however, is an illusion. When you’re mindful of your present moment experience, all you see is just one never-ending, ever-changing stream of sensation. At that level, nothing is separate. There is no “self.” There is no “other.” There is just an unbroken Whole.

This also means that there is nothing “out there” to “get” that will “make” you happy. As the poet Basho reminds us, “No amount of sitting will turn you into a Buddha.”

The practice of mindfulness reveals that you already are a Buddha. When you see yourself as part of the Whole, you act appropriately in the moment without self-centered intention. Wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously.

To make our happiness depend on achieving goals is to impose conditions: I’ll be happy when and if I get [fill in the blank with something that you want].

In contrast, mindfulness reveals fulfillment without conditions — an unshakable serenity, now.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Fourth Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth is that we can live in a way that ends craving. This way of life is called the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right view is understanding the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right intention is a strong resolve to awaken — the kind of intention you’d have if your hair were on fire and you wanted to put it out.
  3. Right speech is avoiding deception, rudeness, crude conversation, and speaking ill of others.
  4. Right action flows naturally when we release craving and selfish intention.
  5. Right livelihood is making a living in ways that do not harm other people.
  6. Right effort in meditation avoids the extremes of laziness and exhaustion by following a “middle path” — being relaxed and alert at the same time.
  7. Right concentration is the ability to focus attention during meditation.
  8. Right mindfulness is to using attention see impermanence at work in the present moment.

Please note a few things:

  • The Eightfold Path is not a journey to future destination. To practice the path is to be liberated now.
  • Each step in the path begins with the word right. However, this word is not used in the sense of right versus wrong. Right in this context means effective and in tune with reality.
  • Though we list the elements of the Eightfold Path as separate steps, they are not separate in practice. To take any step is to practice the whole path.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Third Noble Truth

The Third Noble Truth is that when craving ends, dukkha ends.

When we see and accept the impermanent nature of all things, we are liberated. We see that it’s pointless to grasp at any experience with the hope of making it permanent. We understand the futility of clinging to anything that constantly changes.

Third Noble Truth reminds us that Buddhism is not a religion in any traditional sense. Buddhism is not based on belief in God — or belief in anything else, for that matter.

The Buddha saw beliefs of any kind as a form of craving — holding on to fixed ideas about fluid realities. Beliefs generate disagreement that can harden into conflict and violence.

The Buddha was not interested in theology or grand intellectual schemes.

He was interested only in one thing: The end of dukkha.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Second Noble Truth

The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a source — our tendency to grasp at pleasure and repress pain.

The Buddha called referred to this tendency as tanha, which we can translate as craving.

To understand craving is to make a life-changing discovery: Dukkha does not result from painful circumstances in life or the behavior of other people. Rather, dukkha arises with craving.

Also, craving is an “inside” job. It is something that we add to our experience. Craving is something that we do.

The Buddha talked in detail about how craving arises. He pointed to five basic stages in the process (which he called the five aggregates):

  1. Matter is physical form. This includes the human body. However, craving is not ultimately about mind, not matter. The other four aggregates are all aspects of mind.
  2. Perception is pure awareness of our moment-to-moment experience without any effort to describe it or change it.
  3. Sensation is pure feeling rather than complex emotions. Sensations exist on a simple continuum — from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant.
  4. Conception is the realm of thinking and language. Conception separates perceptions and sensations into distinct categories: Self versus other. Past versus present versus future. And much, much more. However, distinctions exist only in thinking. At the level of pure perception, there is just one unbroken stream of experience. Nothing is separate from anything else.
  5. Intention is the realm of motivation. Once we separate experience into separate things, we compulsively move toward the things we like and move away from the things we dislike. This hardens into longing and loathing, greed and hatred — in short, craving.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to craving. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths explain.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The First Noble Truth

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that dukkha exists.

Unfortunately, the word dukkha is untranslatable. It is often rendered in English as suffering. But this misleading. Even sukkha — satisfaction, or pleasure — falls within the realm of dukkha if we relate to it in an unwholesome way.

We’ll better understand dukkha when we remember two things.

The deeper meaning of dukkha

Dukkha has layers. The most obvious is pain — physical and emotional. Yet there’s much more.

Dukkha also points to the fact that everything changes. Our experience is pure flux. Even the most intense pleasures fade away.

We ignore this fact, however. We try to make some experiences last forever and other experiences end forever. The result is that we are duped and constantly at odds with reality.

That’s dukkha in a deeper sense. It’s a profound dissatisfaction with a basic fact of our existence — impermanence.

Dukkha is not inevitable

You’ll often see the First Noble Truth rendered as “life is suffering.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The whole message of Buddhism is that dukkha is optional. We don’t have to suffer. We don’t have to struggle with change.

In fact, we can relate to impermanence in a way that liberates us.

The rest of the Noble Truths explain how.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Four Noble Truths

I’m astonished at the impact of Buddhism on Western culture. Psychologists and business leaders are churning out books that mention mindfulness. Twenty years ago, I would have never predicted this.

In all the hoopla we can forget that mindfulness — the precise and nonjudgmental awareness of our present-moment experience — is ancient. It comes directly from the Four Noble Truths taught two millennia ago by the Buddha.

When an idea such as mindfulness ignites so quickly and spreads so widely, we benefit by returning to its historical origins. Then we can check for current misunderstandings.

The biggest danger is that we’ll cherry-pick the ancient teachings that align with our desires for success, sex, and money — and ignore anything else. (See this for an example.)

Preventing this outcome is my reason for writing about the Four Noble Truths.

Please note that my understanding of the Four Noble Truths has been shaped by Steve Hagen, author of Buddhism Plain and Simple. I highly recommend this book.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s coming (I’ll add links as I post them):