“There’s no clear evidence that willpower even works,” says Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the Brown University School of Public Health and the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love. Shouldn’t we be able to choose “the right thing, the heathy thing, the good thing”? Apparently not. If that were the case millions of people would be able to stop smoking, quit drugs, lose 10 pounds. Habits are hard to change.
Lent is often a time of “giving up” something that is pleasurable; some people see it as an opportunity to change a habit. Funny thing is, the human brain is hard wired to seek pleasure. It’s a survival technique that is deep in our evolution. The primary pleasure for what we call “pre-historic people” was food.
When we eat, see, touch, hear, smell something that our brain initially likes, it sends out dopamine to confirm, “This is good.” Even when we decide later that perhaps a pack of cigarettes or a plate of cookies or two hours on Facebook isn’t really serving us, the connection in the brain is made. The thought of “quitting” creates a sense of loss which is decidedly unpleasant for humans.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Oh, that Paul lived 2000 years later and had the benefit of neuroscience. So, is there any hope for us who want to live into a new way? Yes! And it requires we reframe our guilt and shame.
The Christian faith has been held hostage for far too long by theological notions rooted in guilt and shame, so we need to park those at the door of our inner home for awhile and let them play outside, away from our hearts. There are many strategies that work. Here is a link to a recent article from Prevention magazine. https://www.prevention.com/health/mental-health/a30855669/how-to-break-bad-habits/
One of those strategies is to simply stop and ask, “Hm, why am I doing this? Is there something beneath this urge, perceived need, etc.?” Most habits are mindless; we just do them out of habit. Pausing mindfully, even prayerfully interrupts a pattern and gives our brain a chance to begin forming a new neural pathway. Without shame or judgment, be curious about this impulse, this behavior: Even to ask of it, “What is it you really need?” Pausing to ask our soul or even God, “What is the need underneath this perceived need?”
There is a hymn called, “It is well with my soul”. Creating a new habit is one way we can nurture our soul, build its resilience, and sing, “It is well with my soul”.