Every so often, someone will say to me, "I've been reading self-help books for years – but I'm not experiencing much improvement in my life. Everything is about the same as it's always been. How do I get things to change?"
I find that the answer often comes down to practice. Small practice steps, taken every day, can lead to significant changes over time. Without daily practice, there is usually little change that takes place.
In this article, I'll share a simple practice that can help to increase a sense of peace and inspiration. I invite you to actively experiment with this approach, and see what you find.
The "how" of this practice is a set of three steps represented by the letters H-O-W.
Here are the steps, which I'll discuss below:
Let's begin with honesty.
One of the most common blocks to change is a psychological dynamic called "denial."
Denial is a mental trick in which the mind hides its own activity from its awareness.
This often takes the form of an incessant focus on externals — the sports scores, the stock market, the shopping lists. The mind distracts itself from what it is thinking and feeling.
In more intense forms, denial can become mixed with substance use and other addictive behaviors. The mind attempts to drown out and push away its distress. This ends up preventing any change or healing from taking place.
Honesty corrects this psychological defense.
In the practice of honesty, you acknowledge — without resistance — the activity of your mind.
You ask yourself, "What thoughts and feelings are occurring right now?" You take an open look.
You might, for example, find things like:
"My mind is generating some worries about my job."
"I'm experiencing a sense of regret about that party."
"I'm currently holding on to a grievance about my neighbor."
"There are a bunch of self-critical thoughts about my appearance."
Very few people practice this level of honesty on a consistent basis. You can probably imagine why: It's humbling to admit what is going on within our minds. It's far more comfortable to throw our focus somewhere else, and fuzz it all out.
The problem is that as long as we remain unaware of our mind's activity, we remain unable (and unmotivated) to change it.
In the honesty step, you shift away from the focus on externals for a few moments, and take an inner inventory.
You simply ask yourself:
"What am I thinking?
And what am I feeling?"
If you do this honestly, you have completed the first step in the practice.
There's a second block to change that is equally common: blame.
The next step in the H-O-W practice — "Ownership" — corrects this block.
Ownership, as I'm using the term, means that we take responsibility for our mind's activity. We "own" our thoughts and feelings. We acknowledge that they are ours.
Once the denial defense has been removed, the mind will often flip to blame.
It will say something like:
"OK, fine — I admit that I'm generating a lot of painful thoughts and feelings. But they are not my fault! My thoughts and feelings are that guy's fault! And hers, too! And that situation over there! Those people and situations are the problem!"
And then the mind will argue that we need to focus not on changing it, but on changing other people, along with an endless list of things that may be outside of our control.
Usually these external change attempts are filled with a great deal of conflict, frustration, stress, and ultimately failure — all of which simply adds to the problem.
In the "ownership" step, we stop blaming. We say instead:
"My own mind is generating these worries, not my job."
"My mind is choosing to focus on regrets about the party."
"I am choosing to hold on to this grievance about my neighbor."
"These are my own self-critical thoughts, and I don't have to hold onto them."
This step is a giant lever that allows us to make significant inner changes.
The mind may try to resist this attitude of ownership. It may say: "No, no, no! It's his fault, and hers. I can't change these thoughts unless those people change!"
We calmly reply by saying, "Actually, these are my own thoughts and feelings. I am generating them in this moment, and for a moment I can open to something else."
This is a powerful step that restores a sense of agency. We can't force change in others, against their will. But we can begin to change the activity of our own minds in any given moment.
Reversing the denial defense with honesty, and the blame defense with ownership, prepares the way for a shift.
Having honestly identified an inner block to peace, and taken ownership of that block, you can now engage in what I call the "great exchange."
This is the most important step. It rests on the simple practice of Willingness — the "W" in the H-O-W practice.
At this step, you simply say:
"I am willing to release this (thought/feeling).
And I am willing to receive a sense of peace instead."
Then you can practice resting for a few moments in that state of willingness.
Truly allow yourself to rest while you do this. Rest in a place of willingness to let the old thoughts flow past your awareness like leaves on a stream.
Rest in willingness to have whatever was happening before be replaced by a moment of increased peace. Focus on your willingness to exchange the old thoughts for peace.
If you find it helpful, you can simply repeat, calmly:
"I am willing to release this thought and receive a sense of peace.
I am willing to release.
I am willing to receive.
I am willing."
The goal in this H-O-W practice is to access a moment of increased peace. Even just a single moment of slightly increased peace is progress.
If the mind immediately regenerates the old worry, or grievance, or other block — well, that's perfectly normal. You can simply return to honestly naming it, taking ownership of it, and expressing your willingness to allow it to be replaced with a moment of peace.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, practice is key. You might try pausing at the top of every hour to run through these steps. A minute, even less, is sufficient.
A quick practice might look like this:
"There's a worry about my taxes." (Honesty)
"That's simply a thought that my mind is generating." (Ownership)
"I'm willing to release that for a moment, and allow a greater sense of peace flow in." (Willingness)
That's it. String together a few dozen of these H-O-W practices every day, and you will begin to form a new habit — a habit that can begin to run in the background, all throughout the day.
Let me wrap up with a few brief Q&As that I sometimes receive on this topic.
Q: I tend to get stuck in guilt when I see what's going on in my mind. Like, I feel guilty for having so many worries and resentments. How do you prevent that?
A: This is very common. In fact, a typical sequence is for the mind to shift from denial, then to blame, and then to self-blame (or guilt).
This self-blame may take the form of thoughts like, "I should be more spiritually advanced!" Or, "I've been in therapy for years — I should have less worries!" Or, "Why am I always so insecure!" Or some other form of self-criticism and self-pressure.
Thankfully, you can handle this block to peace just the same as any other. You can say, "My mind is engaging in self-blame. This is simply a thought — my own thought. I am willing to release it for a moment, and receive a sense of peace."
Self-blame is a desperate attempt of the mind to hold onto its old way of thinking. It is frequently the last form of resistance to fall.
You can be honest about it, take ownership of it as simply a thought in the mind, and rest calmly in a place of willingness to release it and receive a moment of peace. Practice that over and over, and you will likely begin to find the dynamic shifting.
Q: I believe that the more you focus on something, the stronger it becomes. Why would you recommend focusing on negativity in the mind?
A: In this practice, the "honesty" step is simply an awareness-check. It can be done in a matter of a few seconds.
You don't need to focus for any significant length of time on your inner blocks. You're simply taking an honest look around, much as you'd take an honest look at a cluttered closet before a spring cleaning.
The real focal point of the practice should be on the willingness to release-and-receive. Ultimately, this will shift to an experience of the great inflow of peace, joy, and other facets of your inner light.
The previous steps simply help to create an opening.
Q: Peace is fine. But what about when you have to take action, or solve a problem?
A: Peace is a facet of your inner light. But there are many other facets as well, including a sense of inspiration and energy.
As you access a sense of peace, you are moving into a new consciousness that will allow you to more easily take constructive steps toward improving your life, and the lives of those around you.
Your peaceful mind — your wise mind — will give you increased access to inspired solutions that benefit everyone. The peace will clear the way for wise and practical action.