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Starting Over

If you want to make lasting change in your life, practice starting over.

By Phillip Moffitt

Commit to Change. You may find it hard to believe that you haven't already developed skill at starting over. Although you may understand the concept (and no doubt you have "started over" thousands of times in your life), that doesn't mean you've brought mindfulness and intention to it so that it has become a practice. Unless you have, you will be thrown off balance by life's inevitable rough waters as you navigate to transform yourself.

If you believe you are already skilled in starting over, try keeping your mind on your breath for 30 minutes. Observe whether you are able to simply come back to it without any comment or other distraction and really give it your full attention, not once or twice, but repeatedly for the entire 30 minutes. Almost no one can do this without training, and what this exercise reveals is that your mind is stubbornly independent and that your ego lacks a "just start over" attitude.

Initially, I taught starting over as a daily life practice only on a one-on-one basis to students attending meditation retreats. A silent retreat, with its long hours of sitting in meditation, is the ideal situation for practicing starting over and for realizing that the mind can be retrained. After seeing how powerful a tool it was for helping people transform, I began recommending the practice to students in my weekly meditation class.

For one 45-year-old man whose chronic health problem would manifest suddenly and unexpectedly, starting over involved responding to whatever the conditions of his life were each day. After years of being rendered helpless by his disease and losing his zest for life, he discovered that he could have a rich inner and outer life by focusing on "right now," despite the turbulence of his circumstances.

Another student, a bright 42-year-old woman whose career had been derailed because of a series of traumatic emotional challenges and who felt shut off from peers at work, learned how to regroup several times each day by acknowledging her feelings of alienation and inadequacy and simply starting over in that moment. She found that if she spent any time indulging in the stories generated by her feelings, they only got worse. I advised her to make immediate contact with others in the office whenever she felt alienated and to do it as a practice, without caring how she felt doing it. And when she started feeling incompetent, I suggested that she select some small task and do it at once. Within a year of practicing starting over, she reported that although she still experienced feelings of alienation and inadequacy, they no longer controlled her life.

Similarly, a 29-year-old woman who had a history of anorexia in her youth and still suffered from feeling that she was too big, learned that she could stop a chain of destructive eating behaviors by noticing when certain feelings of anxiety and unspecified dread arose. Through a starting-over practice, she came to realize that whenever those feelings arose, it meant she had been "shot by the arrow" and that it was time to practice mindfulness and compassion toward herself and to quit all self-criticism. She learned that if she just started over by moving her attention to any of a series of tasks she found stimulating, then the feelings would usually not dominate and she would not spiral out of control. Her situation was particularly difficult because she was convinced she could never change unless she understood why she was the way she was. It was only because she lacked alternatives that she finally responded to my suggestion that she make starting over a practice.

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