Unlearning Hidden Habits – Guest Post

Here is a bit of a ‘change of pace’ in terms of posts on Jade and I hope you will find it of interest. Diane Sellers, the author did a presentation online recently talking about her work with children who have speech difficulties. Below are her notes for that talk kindly edited for publication. I find it absolutely facinating in itself in terms of helping children to make their speech clear and fluent. Then there are the paralels she draws between her professonal work and her long time meditation practice with the order I’m associated with.

I want to focus on an area of my work as a speech and language therapist and draw some parallels with my experience of the unfolding process of learning meditation.
I work with children who are not able to use the full range of body movements that most of us take for granted. Some of these children have profound disabilities, affecting all aspects of function, including walking, talking, sitting, eating, drinking and swallowing. Others have more subtle limitations to movement, affecting speech and facial expressions. In this article, I want to focus on speech, in particular, where movements do not develop as expected. As part of the process of learning new movements for speech, there is sometimes a need to unlearn habits developed in infancy and early childhood. These habits are often “hidden” from the child, outside of their awareness or conscious knowledge. I wanted to use this process of unlearning hidden movement habits used to develop speech, in order to reflect on some of my experiences of unlearning hidden habits of meditation and Buddhist practice.
Speech is developed in early infancy and childhood when we have limited awareness of what we are doing. We combine information from our senses to learn new movements of our lips, tongue, soft palate, cheeks, jaw, throat, breathing linked to individual sounds, and combinations of sounds to create words that have meaning. We create these habits effortlessly for the most part through play, a variety of sensory feedback mechanisms which integrate a whole mix of factors into skilled meaningful movement. Speech is the outward manifestation of our thoughts, ideas and feelings that we use to communicate with others. Many of us have virtually no awareness of the habitual movements that we make when speaking; we may be more aware of them when speaking front of others where muscle / mental tension interferes with usually effortless habits. Dental anaesthetic can also remove a vital part of the sensory feedback process for skilled movements of the mouth.
Some children lay down some habitual movement patterns in early childhood which limit the development of clear speech later in life. In spite of the children’s best efforts and the best efforts of their parents, therapists, teachers and friends, it is impossible for them to learn the required movement patterns for intelligible or typically used speech. They are faced with the need to embrace these slightly limited movement patterns and adapt as they move into adulthood. Slightly lispy or unusual speech patterns do not need to impact on someone’s life. However, unintelligible speech will. The impossibility of saying sounds like /k/ or /g/ when your name is Katie Galvin is problematic; if you cannot make the movements to say /ch, j, sh, s/ many people will struggle to get your message. Children become increasingly self-conscious, withdrawn or frustrated or completely give up on the possibility of positive change. It can generate complicated layers of muscle tension and new habits which get pulled through with effort required to speak and “do” speech therapy.
I am fortunate to work with a team who can support the unlearning of these hidden habits in order to free the child to develop new speech movement patterns and new habits. It is called the Dental Palatal Training therapy clinic. We use specially designed acrylic braces for each individual to support this learning, a bit like the ones some of us wore when we were children to straighten misaligned teeth. On the plate are specific ridges, bumps and channels to prompt new speech movements through exploration. We do not use them to move teeth. The plates are only used to introduce novel sensory stimuli in the roof of the mouth which the tongue will explore using movement, without much conscious thought by the child.
Here is an example of one of these palatal training therapy devices:

Dental Palatal Training Therapy
There is a particular sequence of events that we use to bring about change to speech movements for the most part by unlearning hidden habits. Step 1: The child and family consult with someone who knows what tongue, lip and soft palate movements you need to make in order to produce the desired speech sounds. The speech and language therapist works with an orthodontist, special care dentistry nurse and dental technician to produce a bespoke brace for each child.
Step 2: The new palatal training appliance is designed to introduce a new kinaesthetic feedback mechanism that disrupts business as usual; it alters the sensations in the mouth to produce new tongue movements; these movements are the ones required to produce the speech sounds that the child finds impossible to make with deliberate conscious effort.
Step3: We recommend routine use of the training appliance to disrupt “business as usual”; each child has a slightly different programme but they build up wear time to at least 1 hour a day, and sometimes more.
Step 4: The instruction is not to “do” anything in particular other than wear it and play with the new sensations in the mouth using the tongue. Often if the child is asked to target the desired speech sound, deliberate habitual action leads to production of exactly the same habits as before with no progress. We are aiming for effortless effort, unlearning of old movement habits, without conscious intellectual control.
Step 5: Slowly new speech patterns emerge with daily wear of the training appliance; it can be challenging for some children to remember how they used to make the old sound; some children do not even notice that new movements for speech sounds have become established.
Step 6: Sometimes children object to the process of focussing on speech, taking impressions, and engaging with a team of new people. The body / mind process of fight, flight or freeze may be triggered for some children. We work slowly with children and their different mental / physical states in order to take dental impressions, introduce daily wearing of the training appliance and comply with new routines.
Step 7: It is helpful if children want to change their speech habits themselves, although young children are often willing to go in the direction their parents point them. Young people are in charge of the decisions made about treatment. We emphasise that we do not need to understand why particular habits have evolved. Instead, we focus on figuring out a way to move forward.
Meditation and Buddhist Practice
In reflecting upon the process of learning to meditate, I am aware that there are parallels with the process of learning new movements for speech. In order to move with effortless effort, we sometimes have to unlearn hidden body/mind habits that limit us.
Step 1: For many of us, the first step is to talk with someone you trust who is experienced and can offer meditation instruction and guidance of Buddhist teachings.
Step 2: Meditation is both a new feedback mechanism for body/mind and a disruption to business as usual. Meditation invites us to notice body/mind and cultivate stillness to support ever-deepening awareness. There is a movement of attention within.
Step 3: Routine daily use of meditation is recommended, alongside development of understanding and practice of Preceptual truth, with other teachings.
Step 4: There is an invitation to move away from “doing”. We are invited to use our body/mind in new ways: new body postures, hand shapes (mudras), bowing, words, chanting, ceremony and offerings. We are introduced to new sensations / kinaesthetic feedback throughout the body/mind – with the direction: “neither trying to think nor trying not to think; just sitting, with no deliberate thought, is the important aspect of serene reflection meditation”. We begin a process of unlearning old habits of body/mind.
Step 5: My experience is that new ways of being emerge with the practice and it is challenging to remember how we used to be. In some ways this is an irrelevant question although it may be commented on by those who know us well. I have experienced relief and a lightness of being at times when old habits fall away.
Step 6: One of the obvious differences between the clinic setting and Buddhist meditation practice is that as adults we are self-propelling. We make decisions based on personal preferences, conventions, social habits and the feeling of being compelled towards what seems to be a better way. As adults, we can set our life paths and we can become impervious to feedback especially if it challenges our Buddhist Practice. Fight or flight responses are part of human nature. I am learning to notice these habitual reflex patterns when stressed. Frustrated and angry responses might arise when I feel challenged although the challenge can be met with strongly worded arguments to support my viewpoint if I choose to do so. I recognise the feeling of the need to take flight, retreat or withdraw when the going gets tough.
Step 7: In our self-propelling state, we can sometimes continue with hidden habits in our Buddhist training that can limit our experiences. Life has a habit of crashing into these limitations, challenging us to find sufficiency.
Part of Buddhist Practice is taking refuge with others, whether you feel like it or not. Over the years, I have come to profoundly value this aspect of training. Reading the words written by others can also be helpful to shed light on some of the hidden body/mind habits that we carry with us. I came across a book called “Unlearning Meditation” by Jason Siff that supported me to free myself from some of my expectations about meditation. In some ways, these expectations are the expression given to mental habits that can get in the way. His writing is gentle and playful and he names some of the frequent mental habits of meditators that really sounded a loud gong for me. I am going to place some brief signposts of particular mental habits that I needed to let go of in order to find greater ease.
Unsurprisingly, but unrecognised by me, I brought Judeo-Christian habits from school/family/cultural background to Buddhist practice. Some of these habits for me have included:
• Doing the “right” thing and following the rules
• Dutiful daily practice
• Making offerings to an externalised divinity
• Delaying gratification for some imagined reward for when I am worthy enough
• Guilt that I was not doing enough or that I was experiencing anger, resentments, stuckness in practice, including falling asleep every time I sat down to meditate.
Other mental habits include societal and psychological dimensions such as:
• Group mind – unwillingness to challenge what everyone else was doing, being compliant, obedient and invisible
• Pursuing a quest of self-improvement in order to realise enlightenment
Many things have supported me to unlearn and let go of some of these habits: Buddhist meditation, taking refuge with my contact monk no matter what I have to bring, making Preceptual Truth central in my life, making use of body/mind feedback mechanisms and training with rather than in spite of those connections. There is a body/mind wisdom that I am discovering which is described in some of the profoundly simple truths of Buddhism.
It is interesting to notice the differences in my mind when I read particular words or teachings. When I first read the words on the back of my lay minister’s small kesa, I was aware of a striving mind, a need to do so much more before I could realise this.
Now, I am moved by the profound simplicity of what they point to:

Trust the Eternal, give up everything
For the jewel is in your open palm

Diane Sellers
Lay Minister OBC
3rd October 2020

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4 thoughts on “Unlearning Hidden Habits – Guest Post”

  1. Thank you Rev Mugo for posting this and to Diane for the article. I found it very interesting, the fact that wearing such a device in your mouth for short periods every day could alter perhaps long term habits of speech .
    Developing a regular habit of “just sitting “ can alter perhaps long term habits of behaviour and thought. Even if it feels like nothing is happening and you question why you do this practice.
    As one gets older you become more entrenched in habits of moving and walking. Recently with the help of a friend I have been attempting to get a bit fitter and it was pointed out to me that my shoulders are very often raised with ? tension and rounded when sitting in a sort of hunched position. At first I was in denial about this but once my attention had been drawn to it I had to admit it was so. Now frequently during the day I am readjusting this posture and slowly but surely I feel it making a difference as to how I stand , walk and even approach people. Bringing my attention back to the now and altering habitual posture is also helping me to be really here in the present moment.

    1. Thank you, Adrienne. In the last two decades I’ve changed my shape radically. I too would have described myself as ‘hunched’, or shoulders curled around towards the front. I have some suggestions….

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