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Change habits with urge surfing

If you have ever tried to break a ‘bad’ habit you probably know just how hard that can be.  Whether it’s trying to reduce how much you are eating or drinking, giving up smoking or reducing how often you check your phone.  The urge that grips you can feel very powerful.  Instead of fighting the urge or giving into it why not try getting to know it?  This may seem like a strange thing to do but it can bring surprising results.

A useful practice to help you do this is called ‘urge surfing’.  During this practice you bring curiosity to how you experience your urges.  As you do this you start to notice how urges build in intensity till they reach a peak and then they subside.  So instead of falling into ‘bad’ habits, you can learn to surf your unwanted urges like waves until they disappear.

So let’s have a look at how we start building this capacity to surf our urges.  You will find it easier to start practising with something simple.  Throughout the day we have lots of useful urges such as needing to move, eat or scratch an itch.  It’s easier to start by practicing with one of these before trying to work with a stronger urge.   Always remember if you are finding the practice tricky simply stop and come back to your breath.

Urge surfing can be broken down into three steps:

NOTICE IT:  when you start to feel an urge arising pause and turn your attention to it.

FEEL IT:  Get up close and curious to the sensations as they arise in your body.  Allow yourself to feel them.  Is there one place or are there several places you feel the sensations?  If there are several places pick one to start with and then repeat the process with the other places.

EXPLORE IT:  As you feel the sensations in your body try asking yourself some of these questions:

Where are the sensations?  Where do they begin and end?  Do they have an edge?  A texture? Are they constant or do they come and go?  Do they move or stay in one place?  Do they have a shape or colour?  Are they tight or loose?  Can you describe the sensations e.g. tingling, warm, sharp?

As you explore the sensations of the urge does the urge get larger or smaller?  Does it fade or feel more intense?

To start with try this practice with everyday urges and follow them for 5 or 6 breaths.  Once you have mastered surfing these easier urges you can try turning towards one that’s a bit stronger.  Going step by step will help you to build your capacity to be with your more difficult urges.  Always remember to only go as far as feels comfortable for you.

By getting curious about your experience instead of trying to make it go away you create the opportunity for a different way of responding.  As Viktor Frankl said:

Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and freedom.


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