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How to Change Your Behavior for Good

Essential questions to challenge your beliefs.

"In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true either is true or becomes true within certain limits, to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are beliefs to be transcended." –John C. Lilly, M.D.

With change and transition as a special interest of mine, I’m intrigued when someone boldly states that all you have to do in order to change is just do it. I’m certainly a believer that action is an essential piece in making change, but as most of you have probably found out by now, it’s not so easy. It’s not that people don’t want to change (some don’t) but doing anything differently than you’ve ever done it before or thinking in a new way is actually quite a complex issue. And that’s what I’ve found to be lacking in many strategies designed to help you change your behavior.

I happened across the work of John C, Lilly, M.D. several years ago. Lilly was a physician, neurophysiologist, and pioneer of states of consciousness. A researcher with the National Institutes of Health and the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, Lilly authored books exploring the depths of our consciousness. It’s not surprising to see the direction his life and work took considering the question that he had asked himself from the time he was a young man, “How can the mind render itself sufficiently objective to study itself?”

Beyond his brilliant cutting-edge research and his “living on the edge” life, perhaps he is best known for his work Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer. With all the recent references to the mind as a complex computer, it was Lilly, in fact, who coined the word biocomputer.

Very simplistically, to Lilly’s way of thinking, all humans who reach adulthood are programmed biocomputers. However, we all have the capacity to “self-program” the biocomputer and therefore, create new programs and revise old programs. Since our reality is a creation of our beliefs, feelings, and thoughts, when we allow ourselves to open to the unknown, we release ourselves from what we already think, feel, and believe. When there is a field of “emptiness” where we are able to see space rather than barrier, new possibilities can emerge; we are free to go beyond our limiting beliefs.

We need to think about beliefs that are imposed and that leave no room for an alternative perspective or point of view. Think about all of the things you were overtly or covertly instructed to avoid; how much of your behavior was modified, or even extinguished. (Of course, some conditioning is necessary for the purposes of survival and socialization.) The messaging could run as deep as an absolute prohibition carrying severe punishment, real or imagined if not obeyed, to a milder form, such as disapproval or pressure to comply and conform, which, nonetheless, is very limiting.

Lilly constructed a series of ordered questions meant to challenge held beliefs, and to effectively change them. You ask yourself the questions and you answer the questions, much as you would do with a therapist. Think of this exercise as a way to “self-dialogue”.

So, try this exercise. Choose any issue, attitude, behavior, or even bad habit that you want to address and ask these questions.

  • What are my goals when I engage in this behavior/way of thinking, feeling, believing, or acting? In other words, what am I getting out of doing it?
  • By what means can I stop this behavior? What do I need to do in order to stop thinking, acting, behaving this way?
  • What is my relationship with other people and the way I utilize that relationship that allows me to continue this behavior, or to stop this behavior? This is a point often not considered. People that we hang out with may hold the same attitudes or beliefs and there may be pressure from the group not to change.
  • Am I capable of stopping this behavior? In other words, how do I know I can stop?
  • What is my orientation, when I engage in this behavior, or when I stop this behavior? Where is this behavior leading me in either case?
  • What do I have to eliminate in order to stop this behavior? What behavior(s) and /or people do I need to let go in order to stop doing what I’m doing?
  • What do I have to assimilate to stop this behavior? What must I absorb/adopt to change this conditioned behavior?
  • What must I do to bring my impulses in line with stopping this behavior? How do I extinguish the impulses/desire that perpetuates the behavior? When the impulse arises can I delay gratification? Can I substitute another thought or action in place of the impulse?
  • What are my needs when I engage in this behavior and when I stop this behavior? Do I really need this behavior or just want or like having it? What habitual activities that support this behavior must be eliminated?
  • What are the other possibilities in relationship to this behavior? What positive behaviors can potentially replace old negative patterns of behavior?
  • What is the form this behavior takes? Describe detail by detail how this behavior is carried out on an ongoing basis. Is this behavior really important to your being? (If this is hard using an issue of your own choosing to work with, then use the example of smoking and the desire and goal to quit. Step by step think about all of the activities centered around smoking, not just smoking itself—people you hang out with that smoke, leaving the office for smoking breaks, hours thinking about cigarettes, anxiety about running out of cigarettes, and on and on.)
  • What is the substance of this behavior? What does this negative, limiting (and sometimes potentially dangerous) behavior/attitude/belief really have to do with who I am?

Lilly addressed inner realities by constructing a model that included the old reality as well as the new one. In essence, this critical but honest questioning of one’s motivation and behavior creates a new program; one that exposes the negative side of the behavior, lifts limitations, creates new possibilities, and changes behavior for the good.

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