“The Secret to Making Positive Life Changes” was written by Rod and originally posted on the Huffington Post website in June 2012.
Over the years, I’ve lectured to tens of thousands of people on the subject of improving their quality of life. One of the main points I make is that an essential element of having more of the life you want is dedicating at least some time each day to clearing and quieting your mind.
After describing the practical, physiological, emotional, mental, and of course, spiritual benefits of taking even just a few minutes a day to meditate or relax deeply, it’s clear that most people are genuinely inspired to do it. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of people ever act on their inspiration. But, these would-be meditators are not alone. The truth is that many of us don’t apply ourselves enough to achieve the positive life changes to which we aspire: the desire to lose weight, exercise regularly, get organized, work less, get more sleep, enrich our spiritual life, spend less time on the internet, stop smoking, or possibly, yes, have a regular meditation practice. Why? Why is it that we so often fail to successfully make the changes we really want? The simple answer is: pain. It’s all about pain.
More than three decades ago, when I was just starting to meditate, I found that I resisted it. Despite all the benefits it provided me, despite being aware of how much better my life was whenever I did it, I failed to do it consistently. Curious about how to overcome my resistance and convert my enthusiasm for it into a regular practice, I approached my teacher.
“What do you feel like when you don’t do it,” he asked.
“Not so great,” I said. “I feel less clear, less inspired, less confident, less comfortable.”
“Great,” he said. “Keep that at the forefront of your mind. The more mindful you are of the pain of not doing it, the less likely you are to not practice.” I remember thinking, “that’s it? ‘Recall the pain of not doing it,’ that’s the secret to practicing regularly?” It took time, but I would eventually learn that my teacher had asked me to apply the critical element that determines practically all human behavior––the desire to avoid pain. Our desire to avoid pain is why we find it difficult to start or sustain a new habit or achieve our goals.
Research shows that the pull or attraction for whatever we hope to do, have, or become is a far less powerful motivating force than our desire to avoid the inevitable pain we experience while we’re in the process of achieving the things to which we aspire. Thus, for instance, if we want (but fail) to change our diet, even if we really, really want to, it is because we associate more pain with making the necessary changes to our diet than the pain we experience with the way we are currently eating. In short, as long as you identify change as being more painful than not changing, odds are that you won’t change.
A classic example is addiction, where despite inflicting no small measure of suffering on him or herself, an addict won’t stop using drugs or alcohol as long as they relate more pain to stopping than to continuing to use. It’s also why so many addicts stop only after they hit their “bottom”––when at last it is clear to them that the pain of continuing is greater than the pain of stopping.
Conversely, if you do manage to stick with your intention and you do experience enough of the benefits of the new behavior, the balance tips in favor of the new positive behavior. Thus, once a habit has been established and you reap enough of its rewards, pleasure replaces pain as your main motivating factor.
My teacher’s advice helped me see, moreover, to decide that the discipline of a daily meditation practice was less painful than not doing it. With this at the forefront of my mind, it was not long before I stopped resisting. Now, more than thirty years later, I relish the time I spend in meditation. With little or no effort, I do it every day. My longing for the positive feelings meditation provides is all the motivation I need to keep doing it.
Now would be a good time to ask: “Is there something in your life that, for some time, you have aspired to change but with which you have failed to follow through?” “Have you struggled to initiate or sustain a worthwhile goal?” If you have found yourself back-pedaling or resuming behavior that you’ve pledged to stop, it is a sign that you associate more pain with changing than you do with not fulfilling your intention.
Each time I lead a seminar on The Four Desires, not long before it is over, I ask the participants to do one final exercise, in which they must identify the pain of not applying themselves to the amazing life course that they have charted for themselves during the course. This is my last opportunity to instill a sense of the critical role their own commitment and effort will play in influencing their success or failure in attaining their goals.
It’s vital that they leave the course expecting that sooner or later they will encounter resistance. Before they start this last exercise, I paint as clear a picture of the stakes as I can. This is more or less what I say:
“Take a moment to recall the last time you attended a funeral. Did it remind you of just how fragile and temporary life is? You probably left the service telling yourself that you will now start living with a sense of urgency. You committed yourself then and there, because some part of you knew that if you did anything less, you would be squandering the gift of life with which you have been blessed.
“There are two pains in life: the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. We each choose which of the two we will suffer.
“Please keep this in mind: the pain of not doing, not honoring your soul’s call, may well exceed all others. Dying without having done all you can to live your fullest life possible is the worst pain.
“The point is: Don’t postpone your happiness. The question to ask yourself is, how bad does it have to feel before you are motivated to act differently and effect real change in your life? You can decide today that the price of not changing is too high, and that you refuse to stay just as you are. It’s up to you.
This is the basis for a simple but powerful exercise that takes no more that ten minutes. In it you will acknowledge the consequences of not following through and doing what it is necessary to achieve that to which you aspire.
Simply take ten minutes to write about the consequences, the emotional, financial, physical and spiritual pain, of your desire not being fulfilled. Your assignment is to identify the cost of not taking the actions that would move you toward achieving the goal or the life you want. Write about the specific “negative” impact on you and on your life if you do not make the necessary changes, or if you fail to apply or fail to continue applying yourself. What are the ways you will suffer?
The key of the exercise is to acknowledge that the consequences/pain of not having what you want is more painful than the effort it will require to you having it. Contextualizing your situation this way (and in writing) will support your decision that this time will be different from all the other times when you wanted to take control of your life, but stopped short of doing it.
It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge that the difference between having or not having what you desire depends on whether or not you fully acknowledge the pain of not making the changes necessary to have what you want, but that does not change the fact that it invariably does.
Once you have completed this exercise, you possess an essential motivational tool to empower you to commit to achieving your goal indefinitely. It’s crucial to point out, however, that just because you’ve identified the consequences of not following through doesn’t necessarily mean that they will remain foremost in your mind when resistance comes up. When you recognize the symptoms of resistance, you may have to deliberately recall what you wrote about the consequences of giving in to it. It will be up to you to decide if and when you need to remind yourself of these consequences. On the other hand, if you find yourself implementing change, despite the presence of some resistance, it is a sure sign that you associate the pain of not fulfilling your desires as too great not to forge ahead and fulfill what you aspire to accomplish. Only then will you do everything in your power to ensure that your dreams are fulfilled.