Mind­ful­ness man Martin Ste­pek on the con­cept of learned be­hav­iour

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Mind & Body - Martin Ste­pek is founder of Ten­forZen, of­fer­ing guided mind­ful­ness ses­sions in handy, 10 min­utes a day, au­dio cour­ses. Au­thor of four books, he is frequently asked to speak on mind­ful­ness, his re­mark­able fam­ily her­itage, and on busi­ness. See ten­forzen.co.

Some things we get from our par­ents via their genes. The im­age of your face, whether you are left or right-handed, maybe even your po­lit­i­cal ten­den­cies. Other things we learn through ex­pe­ri­ence. The lan­guage or lan­guages you speak. You weren’t ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed to speak English. If fate or chance had it other­wise you might be speak­ing and writ­ing Ger­man or Ja­pa­nese or any other lan­guage to­day.

We learn so many things through ab­sorb­ing our ex­pe­ri­ences that we don’t even no­tice that that’s all they are. Learned be­hav­iour. Learned choices of ac­tiv­i­ties. Learned ways of think­ing. Learned likes. Learned dis­likes. That’s just how the hu­man brain works. We have ex­pe­ri­ences, the brain col­lates them, and the re­sult is our traits and habits and ways we think.

You may be a per­son who flies off to Thai­land and saves chil­dren’s lives in a cave. That’s learned be­hav­iour. You weren’t born to want to do that, nor with the skills to do it suc­cess­fully.

You may be a per­son who goes on Orange, or Irish Repub­li­can, walks, or sup­ports them from the pave­ment. Al­ter­na­tively you may be a per­son who hates those who go on such walks or sup­ports them in any way. Note that, what­ever your view, you were not born to do that or to think in that way. You sim­ply ac­quired those views and those ac­tiv­i­ties through life ex­pe­ri­ences. Con­sider for just a mo­ment. Had you hap­pened to be adopted when a baby by par­ents who thought the op­po­site to the peo­ple who raised you – you might have the to­tal op­po­site view about the Catholic-Protes­tant di­vide in Scot­land to the one you cur­rently have.

Do think about this. It’s a tough thing to con­sider, but it is healthy to do it. It means that all of our opin­ions, ev­ery sin­gle one of them, is not a re­sult of our bril­liant rea­son­ing, or the “right view”, but rather past con­di­tion­ing by life it­self. Even our abil­ity to rea­son is it­self con­di­tioned by past ex­pe­ri­ences and our genes. The key ques­tion then arises. What is healthy be­hav­iour?

I don’t just mean the ob­vi­ous phys­i­cal health ac­tiv­i­ties, like be­ing care­ful about what you eat and drink, ex­er­cis­ing enough to keep your heart and lungs healthy, and do­ing enough to keep your mus­cles rel­a­tively strong. Most of us know that stuff, even if we don’t al­ways do it.

I mean be­hav­iour that re­sults in us hav­ing a happy and open-hearted state of mind, and be­hav­iour that doesn’t hurt and up­set oth­ers. In other words I think be­ing men­tally healthy is about be­ing happy, at peace, and not wish­ing harm on oth­ers. Un­der­stand this deeply. Then we start to see that so much of what we do ev­ery day is done mind­lessly, with no thought at all to whether this use of our time is healthy for us or for those around us. Let’s look at a per­sonal ex­am­ple. I watch the news in the morn­ing if I have time and I watch it again at six o’clock in the evening. At the evening view­ing I watch the BBC News fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by Re­port­ing Scot­land, so this takes up an hour of my time al­most ev­ery day.

What do I get out of this? A very small set of sto­ries about what’s hap­pen­ing around the world. The ma­jor­ity of it is about po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic mat­ters, and se­ri­ous crimes. If in­stead I de­cided just to scan the BBC news web­site on its world, UK, and Scot­tish pages I could get the gist of it all within 10 min­utes.

That would give me 50 min­utes ex­tra ev­ery sin­gle day.

I think watch­ing the news gives me noth­ing of value at all. You may dis­agree, but for the sake of this piece just bear with me for now. Healthy be­hav­iour is be­hav­iour that does me no harm, does no harm to oth­ers around me, and maybe does some good for both me and oth­ers.

Let’s imag­ine that in­stead of watch­ing an hour of the news I write an­other ar­ti­cle like this – ev­ery day – and share it with peo­ple. Firstly I ac­tu­ally en­joy writ­ing. And it makes me think about how I live my own life. It also hope­fully makes oth­ers think, which I would say is good be­hav­iour. It might even make one or two peo­ple change their own fixed be­hav­iours from un­healthy to health­ier, which is a good thing for them.

Or I might de­cide to go for a walk in the lo­cal park. Ev­ery day. That’s good for my phys­i­cal health, get­ting good mod­er­ate ex­er­cise, and strength­en­ing my legs, core and back a lit­tle. And it’s good for my men­tal health, get­ting fresh air and be­ing in na­ture.

The ideal di­rec­tion for all of us would be to gen­tly and in a kindly way as­sess all of our men­tal and phys­i­cal habits as they arise, note them all down, and de­cide that slowly but surely we will work on let­ting go of each of the ones we feel do not nur­ture our own well­be­ing or the well­be­ing of those around us.

This can take a life­time but the al­ter­na­tive is to stick with a bunch of ways of think­ing, re­act­ing and do­ing that we know hurts us and those around us. So any progress we make on any one or more of our con­di­tioned neg­a­tive habits is a good thing. More­over as each one di­min­ishes we re­place it with truly nur­tur­ing ways of think­ing, re­spond­ing and do­ing, so that our life gets bet­ter and bet­ter.

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