Mindfulness for Behavior Change — Insights from Shinzen Young

profile picNo one has explored the connection between mindfulness and behavior change more thoroughly than Shinzen Young. His interest in meditation led him from graduate studies in Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin to ordination as a monk in the Shingon tradition of Japanese Vajrayana. Shinzen thus blends academic rigor with direct experience.

One pillar of Shinzen’s teaching is that genuine spirituality involves objective behavior change as well as insight and tranquillity. He openly discusses how mindfulness helped to free him from marijuana addiction and “pathological” procrastination. What matters most, he says, are the following principles.

Deconstruct urges for harmful behaviors

Think about people who struggle with compulsive behaviors: The alcoholic who craves another drink. The binge eater who craves another bag of potato chips. The gambler who’s deeply into debt and still goes to the casino every day. What they all share is a powerful urge to act in self-defeating ways.

Mindfulness offers a way to deal directly with those urges. The trick, says Shinzen, is to “divide and conquer.” We can learn to see even the most powerful urge as a combination of smaller forces. When we observe each of those forces separately, we often find that the urge decreases. We can feel compelled to do something without acting on that compulsion.

There are two primary forces to watch for:

  • Thoughts, including mental images of past pleasures from compulsive behaviors and self-talk (rationalization) about why it’s okay to act on the urge right now.
  • Physical sensations, such as the unpleasant feelings of drug withdrawal and the pleasant feelings that accompany mental fantasies.

Shinzen teaches many methods for deconstructing our experience in this way as path to freedom from compulsions. This, he says, is how his decade-long marijuana addiction disappeared after a 10-day meditation retreat.

Make yourself accountable

Mindfulness can be powerful in dealing with urges, but sometimes it’s not enough for long-term behavior change. In order to overcome his habit of procrastination, for example, Shizen combined meditation with psychotherapy.

They key principle here is to ally with something outside ourselves — perhaps a friend, therapist, sponsor, or Twelve Step group. Here we find people to give us manageable assignments for behavior change and hold us accountable for getting them done.

To learn more, see Shinzen’s post on Positive Behavior Change. It will lead you to many more resources.