One of my favorite yoga class openings I ever started with was based on a video I watched of Wayne Dyer. In this video, he talked of a women named Portia Nelson who was a poet based in Seattle. She was telling him of a time when she was at a conference and was asked to write out the chapters of her life on 5 index cards. She wrote,

Chapter One: “I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

Chapter Three: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter Four: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five: I walk down another street.”

― Portia Nelson, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

In my opening, I shared how we can take her analogy of walking down streets and falling into holes, and apply it to our own lives. The street is the recurring pattern; situations in our lives that seem to repeat. It can be bad habits, forgetfulness, or always being late. Or it can manifest in an emotional way, with emotional eating, not sticking to a healthy diet, or not getting enough exercise. In the brain, we call these “streets” neural pathways. In the poem, when Portia writes, “I walked down the same street”, I believe she is referring to the recurring patterns in her life. I interpret the holes to be the events that explode from following that same pattern too long. Or maybe the holes are the moments that make you wake up and realize you are on the wrong path? As Oprah would say, your “aha” moment.

Falling in the hole is easy to do. It’s feeling frustrated when life is hard, instead of seeing the growth. In marriage, it’s having the same fight over and over. Hitting the snooze button 5 times, until you roll out of bed and crawl to the coffee pot… instead of making that 6 am workout class. Fill in the blank, to your situation, there is always a street and there is always a hole to fall in. When I first heard this poem, I immediately thought of the patterns in my own life, and if the I was on the right street. What was my recurring pattern, was I on the right path, or was I about to fall in another hole. I wondered if I would reach some kind of enlightenment if I was could just get on another street.

Lately, I am on chapter three. I still fall in often. My eyes are open, I see the hole and still fall in… it’s just a habit. It takes a great deal of effort to change our ways, and pick new streets to walk down. How do you stop falling into the same ways, when you are so busy? Distracted with deadlines, playdates, dentist appointments, grocery lists…. and on and on. We are constantly thinking and thinking. And it’s not always spent thinking about how to avoid the big hole in the street.

Some mornings I fall in the hole ten times by 8 am.

I hit snooze more than I should, on my phone right away, checking work emails, racing to the coffee pot instead of my lemon water, decide today is not the day to start my celery juice, ignore my husband, and rush my son to get ready for school so that we don’t miss the bus. I rush putting the socks on his feet because I don’t want to be late. I am habituated to feel rushed in the mornings, I have a life long pattern of dreading the mornings…  I walk this same street and fall in this same hole every morning.

But what I need to do is slow down and appreciate his little toes at this moment. Screw being late, I need to enjoy his tiny feet in my hands because I’ll miss them when he doesn’t need my help getting ready. I know I will miss these crazy mornings, so how can I learn to enjoy them while I have them. 

For me, the best way to avoid falling into these holes is to BREATHE. I feel the stress coming on, perhaps I see the proverbial hole ahead… so instead of getting caught up in the hustle and falling in- I breathe. I breathe through it and immediately am able to choose how I want to react here at this moment. Slowly down, bringing my full awareness into this moment so that I can consciously walk around the hole- and not fall in. In that breath, I can create a moment of mindfulness that gives me the space I need to change how I react. I believe in the last chapter of the poem, when she chooses another street Portia meant – shes choose another response. She created a new habit.

I believe our tendencies are to react the same way to the same situations because our brains track our recurring patterns. And these tracked patterns become like grooves in the brain, that get deeper and deeper until it’s a habit. Your brain starts to learn the way you react to things, and the more they recur, the more the brains response to your stresses is automatic. We have over 50,000 thoughts a day, imagine all the patterns and all the grooves.

An article in the Huff Post on How Neuroplasticity Can Help You Get Rid Of Your Bad Habits, explains

“These shortcuts become hardwired because they become stronger neural pathways. And I’m not just talking about the big [habits] like smoking or overeating, but every single habit, and that can be something like hitting the snooze button on your alarm every morning.

Any time that occurs, you are creating a habit. Our brains have been conditioned to salivate the emotions they expect us to feel based on our historical patterns. The more stressed out we feel when we are running late, the more running late will stress us out. The deeper the neural pathway grooves gets, the more likely the brain will create a shortcut.

That habit will become more automatic, just like breathing, or blinking- until its like unconscious choice our brains make for us.

But by changing the neural pathways, we are changing the streets we walk down. I believe the answer is slowing down, finding moments of mindfulness, and using your breath to help you. Breathing thus can change your habits over time.

This morning I caught myself putting his socks on, and I slowed down. I put them on with a new awareness and kissed his feet. I consciously took the moment in and appreciated it. I’m trying to create a new pathway by using mindfulness in order to avoid falling in the hole again. Because no matter how stressed out or frustrated I ever feel, there is always a positive way I can react.

So what pathways would you want to change? Any shortcuts that you’d want to delete?

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