The Habit of Thought

habit-of-thoughtMost people believe that there are good and bad habits. In the last few years, I have been focusing on getting rid of bad habits and establishing ‘healthy’ ones. I have also been interested in awareness, mindfulness, and presence. Habits tend to make us mechanical, and one wonders if there is such a thing as a good habit?

At times, I wish that I had a distinct habit such as smoking or biting my nails – clearly noticeable by others and obvious – so that I could work at understanding the mechanism and attempt dropping it. Unfortunately, it would seem that I am not addicted to any substances such as coffee, tea, alcohol or even sugar. I am not claiming to be free of habits, but I would like to identify a conspicuous habit that I could focus on and tackle.

Some years back, my eldest son observed that I always seemed to start talking as soon as there was a silence. I have to admit that I am very talkative – even verging on being a compulsive talker and I wonder if that would be the right candidate?

Interestingly, I am about to embark on an experiment that is the perfect opportunity to tackle it head-on. I am on my way to Nashik in Western India where I will go on a 10-Day Vipassana Meditation retreat. It is the first time that I will be quiet for longer than a few hours! It will undoubtedly challenge my talking habit.

The real intention of the retreat, though is to go into a more deep-seated habit still: the habit of thought. Could it be the habit that ends them all?

Photo credit: Vincentiu Solomon

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All we need is…

All we need

All we need is desire!

Really? Surely not. Isn’t desire both the creator and destroyer of love? What is desire anyway? Either latent or active, some suggest that it is the unwavering spark of life. Others claim that it is the voice of the ego and therefore it should be tamed or even gotten rid of.  Whatever it is, we have all experienced it and understanding it, I believe, is key to our well-being.

It is very difficult to look at a desire, actually and factually, for it tends to be emotionally loaded and when active it tends to take over our discerning faculties. Commonly, we focus on the object of desire, not its source or how it manifests itself. A desire often feels like an urge or an itch that needs to be acted upon. The usual reaction is to either be led by the desire or to judge it, to condemn it or to repress it. Both approaches are reactions which don’t help us understand the nature of desire, but I wonder if it is possible to watch it and to pause. This is where mindfulness becomes very useful.

While practicing, I have observed that I had two types of impulses linked to desire. One which is triggered by the real world and my senses and one which is triggered by memory. Without labelling them as good or bad, I have noticed that the former opened doors while the latter tended to close them.

Let me take an example. Imagine that you find yourself in front of a waterfall, it is beautiful and inviting – you have the desire to go under it and to experience its strength and the pool that it has created. This desire may help you to overcome your initial apprehension and to go out of your comfort zone and experience something new. There may be another desire, which is to re-live the sensation and pleasure that you might have experienced under another waterfall. In this second instance, your desire may prevent you from fully enjoying the present situation.

Understanding the nature of desire is complex, but the more one looks at it without judgement the easier it is to stop turning it into a problem. In fact, desires offer opportunities to understand ourselves and many desires are guided by love. Our thoughts and possessive nature can also create desires but with the right attention, one can detect them.

Maybe, all we need is awareness!


Photo: Jeffery Workman

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The same, yet not the same


At times, I feel like everything is constantly changing and that there is unlimited potential. At other times, I can’t help noticing the same old patterns, and the daily routine feels like Groundhog Day. Although on the surface things appear to be moving, at the core there seems to be a psychological stagnation and the following question keeps coming to me: why don’t I change?

On the physical and developmental level, it is clear that during the formative years – I did change. From the baby born in the south of France, to the 7 year old boy who walked to school in the streets of Paris, from the 14 year old teen who went to an international school in England to the 21 year old college student who grew a beard and shaved his head – there certainly was a chain of transformations. All along, though, I assumed that I was the same person.

When I became an adult, the process slowed down – my conditioning became more rooted and I noticed that I tended to seek security. I did not really feel the years go by and in my head, I still believed that I was young. My image in the mirror altered, habits formed, and I became mentally less supple. Career changes and parenthood were challenging and made their marks. More responsibilities and busyness kept me from watching and questioning the process. I kept on learning and accumulating, but rarely did I have the energy to unlearn and to let go.

Now in my late forties, I experience a great desire to shake things – not only in myself but also in the world. I want to make a difference. Many people would call this midlife crisis – I prefer to call it midlife renaissance: an opportunity to reinvent myself. I want to learn new skills, I yearn to meet new people and start new projects. But if I am honest, I am quite attached to my conditioned self and I know that changing things on the outside is very limited. So I have a renewed interest in self-knowledge and challenging my conditioning.

Our cells get continuously replaced, our neurones make new connections and we learn new things all the time, in nature everything is in constant flux, materially speaking our world is ever changing and innovations are transforming our lives at an unprecedented rate. Yet psychologically, it would seem that humans have not really evolved. So why don’t we change? What stops us?

It is probably beyond the scope of this blog post to go into it thoroughly, but I have observed a fragmentation in myself and in everything I do. I am not sure if it is real, but it sure feels that way. Seemingly there is a division between what I think and what I do, between idea and reality. Leo Babauta calls it the mind movie and I find it a very useful metaphor. What is also evident is that within the mind movie there are contradictions and conflicting desires. I want to stay the same and I want to change.

In the last six months, I have been observing the process more closely and find it fascinating. I have introduced mindfulness and have actively applied some changes in the way I do things. I try to meet my fears and have managed to become less judgmental. Our conditioning, although apparently quite ingrained, is not fixed. It is very persistent and builds an identity, but it can be dismantled by observation. In the same way, we can declutter our house, we can declutter our minds. We can let go of most of our past hurts, opinions, and ideals. Although memories are useful, they can cloud our thinking. Are we not more than the total sum of our experiences?

Over the last ten years, I have met many people who have told me that apart from my grey hair, I have not changed. If they were to see me now, they would probably say the same thing. They have not witnessed the many Groundhog days I have been through and all the different things that I am attempting to do. No, there has been no breakthrough, but things are moving. I am the same, yet not the same.

This post was originally written a year and a half ago, is it the same now?


Self-portrait, Barcelona.

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Be the breath


The first act of mindfulness is breathing and unfortunately, most of us lose it at a very young age. As adults, we breathe but usually poorly. So, I invite you to start a learning journey towards skilful breathing once again. There are many exercises that you can learn, but as always it is good to start small and simple. Here is one to begin with:

Sit with your back straight and gently seal your lips. Start to notice your breath. Is it full? Are you using every part of your lungs? Is your tummy moving? Breath smoothly, soundlessly and without pause between the inhalation and exhalation.

Exhale for 6 seconds and inhale for just 3 seconds.

Keep breathing and, if you wish, add a little visualisation. Imagine that with every out breath a little parcel of negativity escapes your body. Let go of muscle tension, mental boundaries, emotional limitations, and release whatever is holding you back.

Continue for about 3 minutes, then gently stretch before getting up.

Go on, do it now… you have nothing to loose.

Breathing is something most of us take for granted, yet our breath is much more than getting oxygen to our blood. It shapes how we are. There are countless moments during the day when we get stressed, irritated or tired. Stopping for three minutes and focusing on breathing is a great way to become more conscious of what is happening. The more we do it the more natural it becomes.

Be the breath and your awareness will expand.


Photo: Anton Repponen

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No control


Many of us are conditioned to think that being in control is a good thing. I am starting to question whether it is the case. When we look closely, we are very rarely in control, and the attempt to gain more control usually creates friction and frustration. What happens we let go of the idea of control?

We can plan, influence and manage projects and to some extent, this gives us a sense of control. But if we look more deeply we cannot really ever have control over situations, other people or even ourselves. We can easily control material things, but as soon as it involves the living, it becomes much more complicated. We may get better at predicting situations; we may learn how to manipulate others, and we may fool ourselves thinking that we are in control of our feelings, but the truth of the matter is that almost everything turns out differently from what we had imagined.

Striving for control is like chasing a butterfly. It is very hard to catch one when it is moving and as soon as it is still the slightest movement of air will make it fly again. Taking a picture of it or catching it with a net and pinning it on a cork board is an option, but we then have lost the magic. The day wrote the first draft of this post, I was trying to take a photograph of a butterfly and the more I tried the further it flew away. I put the camera down and decided to watch it instead. I got fascinated by the dance and then as if it got a gist of the change it came very close and landed on my hand.

Most of us spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to control everything, from our thoughts to our relationships. When we let go of the desire to control, and become more at peace with the complexity and impermanence of things, we create space for different human qualities to emerge. Trust that things are going to be OK, an openness to listen to our intuitions, a freshness to meet the world as it is, the freedom that comes with having no plans, the mindfulness that comes from not being preoccupied and the intelligence and flexibility of meeting change.

The need to control events and people is very ingrained in us, but control is mostly an illusion. The idea of control is constantly challenged by the ever-changing reality of the inner and outer world. When we let go of the desire to control, we become more in touch with the flow and can meet change more readily.

Let go of trying to capture and the butterfly may land in your hand.


One sentence journal – day 20: “Preparing my class instead of my morning routine, I set on a wrong foot; the afternoon was varied and exerting – putting me in a good yogic mood.”

Photo: Loic Lopez

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Selfless moments


Consciously or unconsciously, we think about ourselves almost all of the time, and this is tiring. We are continuously preoccupied with thoughts, and this is tedious. We know this because sometimes we have short respites and feel very present to the moment. We may be in nature or engrossed in an activity and lose our sense of self. Is it at all possible to create or reproduce these selfless moments?

For many years, my ego has battled with my ego. I have tried to still my mind, and the whole exercise of finding inner silence has been frustrating. I have sat quietly under trees, spent time alone in nature, swam in cold lakes, stood under waterfalls… always with my internal ‘walkman’ on. The chatter would slow down, and my thinking would become clearer, my heart would feel more opened, but stillness would escape me. It made me wonder whether I was wired differently from all those who claimed that they experienced true silence.

Then, I heard about mindfulness and sensory awareness and things changed. The bar was lowered, I no longer was aiming for something I had never experienced. Mindfulness, the way I understand it, is to be as present as possible to the moment. Sensory awareness is paying attention to the senses first one by one and then together. One does not have to do anything special but breathe, listen, watch, and feel. There are some exercises and practices, but I feel that it is important to start simple and not being an expert on the matter I would rather leave it at that for now.

Mindfulness is something we can do every day at all sorts of different times and locations: when we brush our teeth, when we walk, when we wait for a bus, when we eat, when we wash the dishes, when we exercise, etc. At times this awareness comes naturally, we are so taken by an activity or the environment we find ourselves in, that we lose our sense of self. These moments may be fleeting, but the more we become aware of them, the more they surprise us. We can invite them but we cannot control them.

Life would probably be very different if we spent less time protecting our images and worrying less about what people thought of us. We may be very attached to our habits of thinking and don’t fully realise that it is responsible for a lot of suffering. Experiencing moments of inner peace and oneness can open a door to another way of being. We don’t have to banish the ego, simply become more skilful at experiencing the world around us with all our senses. It is different to understand those selfless moments, for there is no active other to witness it. The only thing that can be felt is the residue of that internal quietness that resembles the rush of being by a waterfall.


One sentence journal – day 18: “I am so grateful to have persevered with this challenge; writing has never been easy for me but it is starting to become more natural.”

This is the last post of a 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Loic Lopez


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Truly grateful


Culturally, we are so result-oriented that we often forget to enjoy the journey. We work so we can play, we exercise so we can be healthy, we cook so we can eat. There is nothing wrong with planning, having objectives, and looking forward to something, unless it spoils the present moment. One way to become more alert and alive is to develop gratitude.

Last year while in Bali, we went on a small boat to look for dolphins. The moment we spent with them – witnessing them jump out of the water and swim effortlessly – was magical. But I was also grateful for the whole experience on the boat. It was not about how close we could get to the dolphins, or how much time we spent with them. Swimming in the calm sea, looking at the clouds, relating with the local boatman, enjoying each other’s company as a family. Gratitude does not necessarily need to be pointed at anything; it can be for something intangible. In fact, it would seem that gratefulness for the whole is more potent than being grateful for one thing.

We don’t have to be grateful only when good things happen to us. When we are struggling, we can become grateful for the learning process that we are going through. When we are bored, we can start looking around at our surroundings or internally and feel grateful. When we want to be finished with a task, we can pause and feel grateful – and approach the activity with a renewed attention.

Being grateful stops us taking things for granted. As I am writing these lines, there are two house flies trapped on a higher pane of my study window.  For some reasons, at the moment, this window has become a sort of fly factory. Every hour more of them appear as they hatch from their winter hibernating place. A bit like newborn lambs wobbly on their legs, it is fascinating to see them take their first flight. They do not take to the air with the same assurance as what we are normally used to seeing. I have stopped writing to look at them. It is warm, and they are quickly maturing and desperately trying to go towards the light. I opened the window to let them free and felt the Spring air on my face. I become aware of the birds singing and the sound of motorbikes in the distance.

The day seems more magical now that I have been brought to my senses. I could be annoyed at my fly infestation, but I am grateful that it has given me the opportunity to pause and to practice mindfulness. It also reminds me of a new acquaintance of mine who notices the wonder and the awe in small things. She is an inspiring lady approaching her eighties, and I appreciate her genuine gratefulness for being alive. It shows on her wrinkled face and radiates from her whole being. (Please note that apart from her  palpable humanity, my new friend bears little resemblance to the Mexican woman in the photo).

Gratefulness is an attitude; like a muscle, it can be exercised. It needs to be felt genuinely, though. It cannot be faked. To be truly grateful is not to be looking at the bright side, it is about noticing the brightness whenever and wherever we are – even in the darkest moments.


One sentence journal – day 14:
“My body is stiff, my breath is slow, and my mind is clear; it must have something to do with Ashtanga coming into my life.”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Ismael Nieto

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Are urges ever urgent?


An urge is like an itch; scratching may relieve it. Most often, it makes it worse.

On the whole, we have incredible instincts and going with the flow with our body’s intuition makes total sense. When you are thirsty, drink. When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, sleep. When you need the bathroom, well, you get the picture. However, things are not always that simple; many habits power up urges and most often we are more than aware of this but feel powerless. We reach for that chocolate,  bite our nails, pick at a scab,  procrastinate. I recently observed that the hardest habits to tackle are those that are linked or triggered by some instincts. This is where another faculty is called for.

Time-management experts advise their client to watch out for those tasks that are urgent and non-important. When something pops up as urgent, the trick is to pause and to ask the question “Is it vital?” If it isn’t, consider if it is important at all. Finally, what are the consequences of not acting upon it? This is the theory. In practice, it is very easy to get caught off guard. Imagine that you are working on an important project, and your phone starts ringing. You will probably get an urge to pick it up. Your ‘chimp’ brain perceives the ringtone as an alarm – needing an immediate response. It is nearly compulsive. The ability to pause between stimulus and response is what some people believe distinguishes us from most other animals.

An interesting exercise is to become very mindful when an urge comes and slow the time down so to speak. Let the phone ring for five seconds say. Watching the process can sometimes stop the chimp in its track.

Many urges lead to undesirable compulsive behaviours. So getting to recognise and understand them is a really valuable exercise. Urges are much harder to control as long as there are seen as urgencies. Mindfulness slows down the process and can allow us to dismantle them. 


One sentence journal – day 4:
“Being granted space and time should be a luxury, I am both grateful for having had it and disappointed with what I did with it ”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Jonathan Pielmayer

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Struggling mindfully


In some ways, mindfulness is the most powerful tool we have, yet, it is not easy to be mindful when we struggle. Most often when we are not in a right place, we want to escape. Instead, can we watch what is happening with our full attention? As it has become the lens of my exploration, I would like to explore the struggle I face when I write.

For some reasons, writing has always been a battleground for me. At times, I totally shy away from it, at others, I pursue it like a one-way love affair. Four years ago, I embarked on the project to write a novel and what a struggle it has been! Now, I am committed to this blog for at least the next three weeks. The idea here is to create a new opportunity to change my relation to writing. Yesterday was a struggle and today I feel a bitter taste in my mouth. Instead of finding new tricks to entice me to fill the page, I want to meet the struggle in the eye – to come face to face with it.

Mindfulness is our full potential. We may experience it at times but on the whole, we are too preoccupied with a multitude of concerns and thoughts that we forget to be aware of the present moment. It is relatively easy to be mindful when one is Sitting quietly or walking in nature; it is much harder when one is involved in a complex activity that relies on the mind, and that may bring out emotions.

I am sitting at the desk, and the thoughts come to me: I have already taken too much time mulling over this. There are a lot of distractions outside. I would rather relate to people in the real world. I am not sure who I am writing to. Too many ideas come to my head, and I cannot seem to be able to reconcile them. How do I know the truth of what I am writing?  I wish I could find a formula that would make the process of writing this blog more effortless. How authentic am I?Perception looks so fragmented when one stops to observe it. It feels uncomfortable to meet the circular movement of the mind. The sun is shining outside, and the lushness of the vegetation outside my window is inviting me to go out.

Back at the desk. A feeling of gratefulness is descending on me. I breathe. The air is clear. I scan the body; my posture is straighter. Watching the thoughts has created calm, or was it the shades of the copper beaches that did it? Am I starting to enjoy the activity? I understand that there will be urges for me to want to run away, to escape as soon as it becomes unpleasant. I can choose to let go of them. When the struggle comes, the challenge is not to chase it, not to feed it, but to let it be. Look at it with kindness. Is it a genuine fear? Is it a ghost of the past?

Mindfulness is effortless. It dissolves the false and lets us meet reality. The truth may be uncomfortable and even unpleasant. One day we may have little to share, the next too much. Our writing may feel pompous or contrived. The critic will often come uninvited. We can tell him to come back during the rewriting stage or while proof-reading. The struggle is worse when we let it take over. The struggle may never disappear, but if we meet it, mindfully, it may bring some insightful learning. We cannot mindfully struggle, but can we struggle mindfully?


Photo: Loic Lopez

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.

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This is day two of a writing challenge triggered by the work of Chelsea & Scott Dinsmore. The aim of this blog is to inspire change and to document a necessary transition, both individual and collective, towards a better, healthier world. The scope is holistic in nature, yet it comprises four specific fields of action, namely: Earth, Health, Wealth, and Self-knowledge.

Today, I am going to focus on wellbeing or more specifically on exercise and mindfulness. It is hard to help others and to be the change we want to see in the world if we are not well within ourselves. The topic of health is vast and usually tends to become more in important in people’s life when one is unfit or unwell, but it is well established that prevention is better than cure. Regardless of the state of our current health, it is vital that we spend a little time and attention to improving it. One of the most effective ways to do that is to establish a mindful habit of daily exercise and calm. And this where the XY-Zen project comes in.

Seeing the importance of encouraging more people to improve their health, a friend and I are devising a simple programme that can easily be adopted by almost anyone regardless of how busy their life might be. We have called it XY-Zen. I will not go into much detail here as it is still early days, but here is our intention with the project:

“Our mission is to help busy people adopt the healthy and minful habit of exercising and relaxing regularly,  through a carefully designed online programme and app. Each exercise is introduced slowly and gradually so it is effortless for our users to look after their mind and body from the comfort of their home. Using social accountability, our programmes are simple, fun and customisable to provide measurable results and greater well-being.”

I have been practicing a simple flow of exercise and breathing for the past sixteen years and more recently took up simple sitting meditation. It has been good for me and I really feel that more people could benefit from adopting a healthy routine for both the body and the mind. It is clear that there are many existing programmes already available out there but much too often they are time-consuming, or difficult to practice and  keep up. One of the unexpected consequences of starting this project has been a renewed interest in yoga, pranayama, and mindfulness. I have been spending the last four and a half months exploring different types of exercises and relaxation methods and feel super healthy! It has also become clearer that it was not going to be easy but I feel that it is still worthwhile pursuit.

If you are interested or would like to give us some feedback, feel free to either send us an email (xyzenstaff{at} or visit us on our XY-Zen Community Page

Do you have a daily exercise/relaxation sequence that you practice? If not, what is stopping you? We would love to hear your comments.


Photo Credit: Patrick Hendry

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