Just Stop: On Breaking the Spell of Bad Habits


Last summer, in the middle of a chaotic house filled with half-packed boxes, I racked my brain to come up with a life plan. I was moving out but didn’t know where to, while considering leaving my job, deciding to go back to school, and also trying to plan my wedding. I was in a big transition, and I wanted to have it all figured out now. I wanted control and certainty when there were none available. Trying to analyze my way into solutions, my thoughts wound tighter and tighter, like a thread around a spool. When I sat down to meditate, my efforts seemed to only wind the string tighter. 

In instances like this, meditation teachers will often say “just stop.” Stop seeking, stop trying so hard, just let go. While this statement is powerful, it can also become self-critical. It’s easy to take these words and use them against ourselves, to beat ourselves up for thoughts and emotions that run rampant as we sit down to meditate. “They make it seem so easy, how come I can’t stop worrying?” Then, we’re not only wound up in thought, but we feel there’s something wrong with us for it. 

But what if “just stopping” could be an act of love, an empowered act of surrender? What if it could be a powerful stand for that which we are deeply committed to, that which we know deep down is most important to us? Later that same day, I remembered that it can be. 

I took a break from moving to go with my friend Anna to an open house for our friend’s holistic health clinic. Inevitably, lounging around a clinic led to conversations about our health. At the top of the list for both Anna and I were stress and adrenal system concerns. 

Anna mentioned her habit of clenching her jaw as a response to stress. She had been stressed lately and was finding it to be so intense that it was hard to relax at night. It was affecting her whole body as the stress spread into her neck and shoulders.

“Oh, I used to do that,” I remarked. The statement surprised me, because I had forgotten I ever had that habit. “I clenched my jaw so intensely I had tension headaches all the time. I would notice myself doing it, and that just stressed me out more, and I’d clench down harder.”

“So what did you do?” she asked. 

“I just stopped.”

After saying this, I questioned myself. “Just stopped” seemed so easy, as though I had turned off a light switch. I paused and searched my memory for more information.

“I first realized how destructive it was when my dentist pointed out that it was affecting my teeth. So one day, I just decided—enough! I decided to stop. Every time I caught myself doing it, I would concentrate all of my awareness on my jaw. I would massage my face, breathe, and actively relax my jaw, along with my whole face and neck. I had to do this over and over and over throughout the day, every day, all day, for months. Many times I would discover I had been clenching my jaw for who knows how long. But eventually my commitment to my own well-being won out. I retrained myself.”  

I rarely clench my jaw at all now, and my tension headaches are gone. It wasn’t some magic formula, though. It came from my commitment to love—not from a place of beating myself up or telling myself I should be different. 

After the open house, I got back to packing moving boxes and obsessing on my thoughts. Reflecting on my conversation with Anna, suddenly those words popped into my head, this time in the encouraging voice of spiritual teacher ShantiMayi. “Just stop.”

Just stop.

I closed my eyes and, like relaxing a clenched jaw, I relaxed my awareness. I allowed my attention to drift from my struggling thoughts out to the sound of birds chirping. Every time my mind tried to grab ahold of something, I relaxed again, like a muscle relaxing. It began to rain outside, gently at first, caressing my ears with the sound and my skin with the cool breeze coming in through the window. Then it came more forcefully, overwhelming my senses with downpour, thunder, and lightning. I no longer needed to try to stop; I was being stopped. Like a fully relaxed face, my awareness just rested, receiving the sounds, giving me a much-needed rest from control.

It was out of this place that I remembered again, for the millionth time, to listen for deeper wisdom. The decisions I needed to make no longer seemed so daunting, and I moved forward into my day with a feeling of lightness, happy to re-remember that it is possible to just stop, right now. Over and over and over again. 

“A Cold Sunset” photo by Anemone Jones, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Emily Levang


Emily has a passion for news with both truth and heart. As co-founder of Invoke, Emily’s vision is to bring women’s voices together in the trials, triumphs, and bad-ass moments that make us powerful, vulnerable and creative. Emily is a certified Integral Coach, a leadership facilitator and earned a BA in Economics. Her yoga and meditation practices keep her grounded while she expresses her feminine grit and grace.


'Just Stop: On Breaking the Spell of Bad Habits' have 7 comments

  1. April 16, 2015 @ 1:24 am Dominique Youkhehpaz

    I love this, Emily! I thought of Shantimayi immediately in reading this…Just stop is a powerful mantra, and a potent reminder. Thank you for your beautiful, inspiring words <3


  2. Emily Levang

    April 21, 2015 @ 10:59 am Emily Levang

    Thank you Dominique! <3


  3. April 21, 2015 @ 11:50 am Cara

    As often happens, this article appeared at just the right time. Thank you for sharing your story.


    • Emily Levang

      April 21, 2015 @ 12:09 pm Emily Levang

      Hi Cara, I’m glad to hear that! Thank you for reading.


  4. April 21, 2015 @ 8:44 pm Nathan

    Emily, your ‘just stop’ comment rang so true for me. I used to hunch my shoulders. A teacher I trusted told me to just stop, and stand up. She said it would hurt for a while. For four days, all I did was not hunch my shoulders. It hurt like hell. Then I had a big structural and emotional breakthrough. Since then I have used the principle of one-pointed intensity as you have described it here many times. You probably know this principle also nicely fits to current theories of neuroplasticity, in which intense focus on change causes our brains to remap very quickly and dramatically.


    • Emily Levang

      April 22, 2015 @ 4:47 pm Emily Levang

      Awesome, Nathan I love this example! Four days straight is badass! Yes this does fit nicely with neuroplasticity. Your comment also causes me to reflect that making one major change like this builds our trust that we can do it again with other things. I feel like that trust builds on itself exponentially. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it’s like some part of me has learned I am ultimately responsible and can do it.


  5. April 23, 2015 @ 6:38 am Omar

    Really nice article Emily!!!
    We are taking responsability of hearting ourselves, and then we decided “Just stop”. So powerful!!!
    Thank you for the reminder, I send you a solar hug!!!


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