Habitus is a term that encompasses our general predispositions and the cultural factors that maintain our sense of self. The term habitus was made famous by the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu who used it to describe the factors that create, maintain and guide our sense of self. Our sense of self is commonly subconscious however we are capable of becoming conscious of how we are shaped by the world around us and also, how we shape that world around us. Habitus is the relationship between the outer world and our inner world. The reason that this concept is important here is that it enables us to reflect on our cultural conditioning and therefore enables us to see, act and live beyond it. The practical and personal relevance is that it enables us to be aware of our own physical, mental and emotional conditioning – our genes, our thought patterns and emotional temperament. When we become clear about the complexities of our inner world we can then go about making meaningful changes that will then be reflected in the world around us. Our habitus is the not just how the world influences us but how we influence the world, it is a reciprocal relationship.
Our habitus has evolved and transformed through the many intricate lives of our ancestors over time to become the foundation of who we are today. Though our familial lineage we inherit learned behaviours and personality traits that co-develop with our physiological make up, our genes. In the past we thought that our genes were static structures that did not change, this is now known not to be the case. Although we do have a particular set of genes or DNA ascribed to us from our familial lineage we can activate or deactivate particular genomes in order to bring about fundamental change in our physical bodies. We can activate and deactivate genes by making changes to not only our dietary habits but also our mental and emotional habits too.
In order to understand this we need to take a closer look at the anatomy and physiology of our chromosomes, genes and DNA. Chromosomes are the filament structures inside of the nuclei of our cells, they house our inherited genes of which are sequences of DNA. DNA – Deoxyribonucleic Acid – is a sequence of genetic codes. The double helix is like the structure of a ladder, two posts run parallel to each other and rungs of the ladder hold the two posts together. All of which is twisted to create the helix spiral. The posts of the ladder are made of sugars and phosphates and the rungs of the ladder are made of proteins. The proteins rungs of the ladder are paired to create a variety of genetic code sequences, the various sequences of these protein pairs are what make you, you.
To look more specifically into how we can influence our gene expressions we need to know about genotypes and phenotypes. Genotypes are your actual gene sequences that you have been gifted from your parents, they can be the potential for you to develop strong bones or the potential to develop bowel cancer. Not all genes are active, nor would we necessarily want some of them to be, but our environment, lifestyle, diet, habits and attitudes influence what phenotype is expressed from the genotype. A phenotype is therefore is a particular gene expression, a biochemical trait that develops into a physiological characteristic.
So how does our environment influence which outcome is expressed? We enter the realm of epigenetics. Genes are affected by epigenetic chemical components that either act like a switch that allows them to be switched on or switched off, or they act like a knob that turns the volume up or down. Our epigenetic switches and knobs either activate or de-activate, or in other words they are silenced or expressed. Your genes stay the same throughout your life but your epigenetics can change throughout your life depending on your environment, diet and lifestyle.
There are many factors that influence our epigenetics including temperature, light and chemicals, which includes all of the food we eat, drugs we take and hormones that we produce. Not so long ago we did not know that our diets and lifestyles affected our physical and mental health. It is now well known that poor nutrition leads to poor chemical composition and stress leads to inflammation. Both lead to miscommunication and malfunction, as epigenetic instructions are damaged or misplaced. Our body intelligence can only work with what it is given and when it is given poor materials and a toxic environment it is no wonder that disease is the outcome.
DNA is not the heart’s destiny; the genetic lottery may determine the cards in your deck, but experience deals the hand you can play.
~ A General Theory of Love
Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.
The positive news is that by changing our diets and lifestyles we can change our epigenetics. There is a lot that we can do to positively influence our epigenetic inheritance so that we can silence our hereditary diseases and instead turn up the volume of our hereditary strengths. This process begins by knowing yourself well and investigating your ancestry, which as a process is incredibly valuable and life changing in and of its self. By knowing yourself well you can trust your body to tell you what it needs and does not need. With so many options available to us we need to know that what is good for some might not be good for all.
The last thing we need is another reason to stress. This could be an exciting exploration, an endeavour that only you know where you are headed and only one step at a time. However, to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems from the same mentality that got us into them. If we are to explore beyond the way we have been conditioned to live, the way that has lead us to our current situation in life, then we are going to need a measure of courage as we step outside of our comfort zone. We are going to need to step out of our habitus in order to analyse it from a fresh perspective.
We are all conditioned by the world that we have grown up in and yet we cannot see it unless we step outside of it, which is what happens when we leave familiar territory. This doesn’t mean leaving the town or country we grew up in, it doesn’t necessarily mean going anywhere new physically, it means allowing yourself the freedom to try something new. It means exploring the unfamiliar. Choose one thing that you have cringed at or judged in the past and actively engage in it. Scary, huh. It is exactly these courageous acts that allow us the experience of a whole new world and the revelation of a whole new way of seeing and being. It is ultimately an act of healing because it is making us whole.
Understanding ones habitus is an act of self-reflection and self-awareness. It requires suspending our judgments about the ‘rightness’ of our worldview until we have seen it from an outside perspective. The purpose is to gain clarity about previously unseen forces that are subconsciously influencing our day-to-day lives. Clarity gives rise to an immediate drive and energy to expand ones habitus to encompass the wholeness of reality and not just the parts that you have become comfortably habituated to. Wholeness of reality here implies a reconciliation of the parts of ourselves, our minds, bodies and environments, that had previously created tension in our lives.
Self-reflection means being able to become the silent witness of our triggers and the habitual responses driven by subconscious conditioning. Becoming a silent witness simply means pausing before we speak or act in order to gain clarity before we take a step forward. In pausing we gain a broader perspective of what we are thinking and feeling, and how this is driving what we are saying and doing. We are able to evaluate whether these cause and effects are causing us to live in harmony or tension within our environment. Pausing gives us space to reflect. Thus we are able to change the way we think, feel and act, no longer a slave to our subconscious conditioning.
Our external environment intimately influences our internal environment, and vice versa. We physically create the habitus of our homes to reflect the internal workings of our minds, and thus by changing our physical environment we effect our internal environment. As we gently walk through the last month of winter we naturally attune our inner environment to the changing environment outside. It is not yet time to take off a layer but it is time to observe the layers and note which ones feel the heaviest. What are the heaviest burdens that we bear and can we see glimpses of the light and freedom that lie underneath? Just as we begin to glimpse the bright golden daffodils ascending from the cold damp earth, we are reminded of the beauty that awaits us underneath the layers of our conditioning.
We are infused with a renewed sense of hope. We sense that the days are getting longer and the sunlight shining a little brighter, we too sense that it is time to prepare for spring. We look at our possessions and mentally prepare ourselves to de-clutter our shelves, and in doing so we go through our mind and de-clutter our selves. Our uninvestigated habitus can dictate our lives just as our genes can dictate our capacity to be well – annihilating our freedom of choice. Or, we can investigate our habitus and our habits, and our investigation liberates us from our historical limitations. We feel lighter and freer. We allow space. And in this space we allow our innate intelligence to express something beautiful. It is the same with our genes, when we de-clutter our bodies we allow space for our genes to express the most beautiful nature of our human potential.