Over the last year, I have learned that three practices help me to get unstuck: opening my mind and heart to God, being of service to others, and becoming more self-aware of the thoughts, emotions, and stories that drive me. Lately, I have been pondering about the third practice. In particular, I have been examining how I can change the habitual patterns of thinking that I have become addicted to. These patterns of thinking cascade into my emotional responses to life, and my perceptions about the things that happen around me.
There are a number of things that get me stuck. Chief among them are my beliefs: the meanings that I give the experiences of my lives. I remember an experience I had while I was in first grade. For homework, I was building a house with paper-mâché. While I was working on it, my mom walked in and told me, ‘Let me show you a way to make it more even.’ Then, she went on to show me how to make it geometrically perfect. The meaning I gave that experience is that to do something right is to strive for as much perfection as possible. In time, that belief started to shape other experiences I was having. I approached those experiences with the goal of striving for perfection. Since the brain is a goal-achieving machine, that is what I started to notice and to strive for.
We all get caught in similar loops. If we are not aware of the loop, there is really no way out of it. With every new experience, we are just going to continue to focus on that which reinforces the belief systems that were established, and the meaning we gave experiences early on. We ignore everything else. In a way, we become trapped or stuck by our own thoughts and belief systems. Those meanings are wired into the neural networks of our brains. The neural networks light up when we feel like we do not have enough time, or we struggle with our body image, or we think we are not good enough or smart enough. Because we focus on this, new experiences tend to reinforce our belief systems.
Years of spiritual direction and therapy have inspired me to get unstuck. But I did not know where or how to start. For a while, I have struggled with mindfulness practices solely concerned with self-awareness. These practices have made me more self-aware about my limiting beliefs and images of God. Yet, though I am more self-aware, I have not learned what to do about the patterns of thinking that are causing the anger, disappointment, stress, anxiety – what is holding me back. In the last few months, inspired by couples therapy and my internship at The Abbey, I have begun the quest to try to go beyond self-awareness to begin to change the way I think. Do not get me wrong. I still believe in the importance of spiritual rituals and mindfulness practices that help us to grow in self-awareness and to grow in intimacy with God. I am an advocate for tools and tactics to look inward to identify thoughts, emotions, and the stories we tell ourselves. Self-awareness is crucial. I also want to learn how to leverage self-awareness to get out of limiting beliefs and images of God.
I know this much is true: what we believe dictates our thoughts on a moment by moment basis. For example, someone may believe that it is hard for them to form new friendships. That person is going to be anxious about meeting new people, or tends to create stories about how other people see them. Again, what we believe dictates how we think – and also how we feel and how we show up in the world. We cannot grow an apple from an orange tree. What we think, we then experience as an emotion. That emotion then dictates what actions we do or do not take. They are always aligned. Our beliefs dictate our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. In turn, our actions dictate the way you show up in the world.
This leads me to ponder, ‘If my beliefs dictate the way I love, serve, pray, and relate to others, how do I learn to change the beliefs that lead me to live and love meagerly?’ My way to break out of this is to pay attention to the meanings that I am giving my experiences. I have started to use practices like meditation, imaginative contemplation, and Lectio Divina not only as practices to grow in self-awareness, but, most important, as practices that prepare my mind and heart to examine the meaning I give to the events and experiences of my life. Ruminating on the Word of God and meditating help me to understand the meanings I give to things. Sometimes, these meanings are empowering. Often, they are not. These beliefs are just thoughts with emotions tied to them that I have taught myself to believe are true. These are the meanings that cause me to feel good or bad, joyful or sad. The process of paying attention to the meanings I give to things helps me to change how I feel or to accept how I feel. And these emotions – or simply the capacity to accept these emotions, changes the quality of my life. I am still early in this journey of becoming conscious of the meanings I am constantly creating. Yet, I am already experiencing the healing of memories, growing in my ability to listen more compassionately, and deepening my desire to serve the world more creatively.
What are some of your self-limiting beliefs? What helps you to get unstuck?