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It is easy to walk up or down stairs
safely. It takes only a r udimentary level
of attention, but not less than that!
When I was hurrying up or down stairs, I
tended to be out of balance, falling for ward
on the next step, counting on my split-
second responses to keep me upright.
When I was relaxed and balanced, on
the other hand, I used entirely different
muscles in my legs and abdomen, and the
movement felt smooth and comfortable.
It was very different from a hurried,
scrambling kind of way of stair-walking.
Because I knew that change had to
be embedded at this kind of automatic
"muscle memory" level, I decided I would
try to walk in this relaxed fashion every
time I came to a f light of stairs.
Of course, I often failed. I would forget
my good intentions until halfway down
the stairs. When I forgot, I got annoyed.
Because I got annoyed often enough, I
started to remember.
It took about a month before
I was remembering more often
than forgetting, and about a year,
or approximately a thousand flights of
stairs, to fully establish the pattern. It's
not that I'm a slow learner. It really does
take that long to overrule a habit and
embed a new routine.
Persistence is the key -- doing the
same thing again and again and again.
Each time we repeat a new task, the
hippocampus, which is that part of the
brain that consolidates memor y, leaps
into action. Circuits of electricity flow
between those parts of the brain that
plan and coordinate movement, and those
parts of the body that enact the movement.
The hippocampus knits this complex
activity together into a unified template
and stops it fading into oblivion, as it
normally would. It takes the hippocampus
about a year of repetition to fix a new
action as a long-term skill or habit. Any
less and the changes may not last.
Positive thinking promises the Earth
but it has obvious shortcomings. It
rarely produces results that live up to
expectations. The problem is that
thoughts are nowhere near as powerful
as we assume them to be. They are more
like wishes than orders, and whatever
we aspire to is likely to change in the
There is no mystery about how
positive change occurs. Our brains work
according to the adage "actions speak
louder than words". This means that
lasting change doesn't come from
imagining our goal. It comes from
repeated activity towards that goal and
the enthusiasm necessary to see it
'To learn a new behaviour, dormant genes in
the DNA of individual cells are woken from their
slumber by a demand from the environment.'
Eric Harrison has been running the
Per th Meditation Centre since 1987.
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