This morning was my first day of Wholebeing Institute’s 30-Day Challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to commit to practicing a positive action for the next 30 days in a row to reinforce the neural connections needed to help sustain change. My intention for the next month is to write every day for 30 minutes. I do not have to like what I write, want to write, or even know what I’m going to write. This time is for, as Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way puts it, priming the pump.
The start of this challenge coincided with a few days of vacation on Cape Cod. Of course, I did not plan it this way, it just happened. I chose to write first thing this morning, before anyone else was awake. The house was quiet, so I snuck out to find WiFi.
As soon as I saw the sky, I changed my mind. The sun was rising. I could go to the beach instead and write as the sun started the day.
It feels like such an ancient ritual to start the day this way. With other like-minded early birds—some walking the beach, some sitting in their cars, and no one writing on their laptops except me—we see the perfect line where earth meets sky, split in two by the egg yolk sun. The rays of light make a path along the smooth ocean right to the beach, connecting and inviting me to move forward into the day. Have you ever noticed how that morning sun path on the water meets you wherever you are? It is saying, “This day, this particular path, has never been trodden. It is yours to do with what you want.”
The sun is so bright it’s hard to look at. I know soon it will disappear behind a cloud. I hear the waves crashing. I see the rose hips that just a month ago filled the air with my grandmother’s perfume. It is getting dimmer now, like an early dawn. The bright blue of the horizon sky is turning to a grey-black cloud as the weatherman promised. The sliver of sun is disappearing again, opposite from the rise. It’s gone now, and even the path is slipping away.
Why does starting something new—like committing to writing for 30 minutes each day—seem like such a chore before you actually start to do it? Once started, it seems so natural. The thought that came to me first thing this morning was that I didn’t want to get out of bed to write. It is vacation, after all, and I deserve time off. In the book You Are Not Your Brain, by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Rebecca L. Gladding, M.D., Schwartz calls these types of thoughts deceptive brain messages. These are messages your brain sends you that are merely habitual neural pathways. These habits of thought keep you rooted in certain behavior instead of the desired positive behavior you wish to cultivate.
I put it another way when teaching yoga: it’s a mistake to believe every unexamined thought that pops into our brain. The truth is – our brain pumps out habitual thoughts all the time … like the thought that we want an ice cream cone for dessert even when we’re full from dinner. Or like the thought that we would rather stay in bed (or clean the toilet) than go for a run. Or like the thought that we need to work all the time, harder and harder to get a job done and that there is no time to rest. These wrong thoughts make our existence a struggle. Instead of looking at the path that the sun makes for us each day, inviting us to skip, run, play, hop, and hope, these deceptive brain messages slow us down to a heavy-stepped, burden-filled trudge. No matter what neat little story the brain composes to keep you away from your intention, start doing it today anyway. Each step you take in that direction drops off more of the burden and weight of the deceptive brain messages like a backpacker lightening her load.
These thirty minutes flew by. I’ve written, I’ve watched, and now it’s time for me to walk on the beach before the rain starts. Little did I know that this act of writing would grant me the unanticipated blessing of being able to see this day in a new way.
Megan McDonough is CEO of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest. Click here for a course listing.