The subject of “habits” keeps coming up for me. I guess that’s the nature of habit itself, isn’t it… repetitive and persistent. Are habits bad or good, or neither, or both? Do they really, as the old texts say, ‘become our character…”
A friend shared this story with me about her granddaughter. Each evening they would have dinner, then read a story and after a story, they would all have a tiny bit of gelato as a treat. The other day, before dinner, they happened to be reading a new storybook. When they finished, the toddler said, “Gelato?” When Grandma explained they hadn’t had dinner yet, the little one said, “But we just read a story!” Ah, how quickly habits get established.
To investigate habits, I often have to pay a bit more attention to the bigger picture, to see what the real habit of mind is all about. Here’s one example. I used to live in a small cottage. When I moved to a very spacious house, I often would think, “this house is too big for me.” I assumed that it was due to the habit of living in a smaller, more austere setting. Then, when I was about to get a housemate, I discovered my thought was, “This house isn’t big enough for two!” As I laughed at my mind, I also saw the real face of the habit…dissatisfaction with what is. The habit of a complaining mind can disguise itself as if it were really thinking on one’s behalf, when it is really just sabotaging contentment.
In the Indian Philosophical traditions, as well as in Buddhism, one Sanskrit word for habitual thought patterns is samskaara. It’s interesting to note that in English, the word sounds like the word “scar.” And indeed a samskaara, or habit, is kind of like a scar on the mind. It’s a groove that has been carved deeply because of repetition. This is good news and bad news. The bad news is, if the habit is one that doesn’t lead to happiness, it takes a while to remove it. However, the good news is that since repetition can lay down new tracks, we have the freedom to create new habits, new ‘samskaaras.’ Many spiritual disciplines are based on this capability we have to transform ourselves through positive habits.
Another aspect of habit that interests me is the way that habit can keep me from being totally present. I often think of “habit” and “mindfulness” as being opposites. If I am habitual in my actions and thinking, it means I also can do them unconsciously, without much thought. However, the practice of mindfulness, both during and after meditation, requires me to be present and aware. Through mindfulness I can react to situations as they are in the present, not based on habits of mind. It seems that using the practice of mindfulness during meditation, becoming aware of my thoughts, allows me to bring more mindfulness to my activities. In this way, habits no longer have to rule my life.
A friend wrote to me recently about habits, sharing that she had a habit of fear…identifying herself as a fearful person in certain situations. Our habit of self-identity is probably the most important habit to examine and change. In the Indian spiritual traditions, we break the habit of “wrong identification” by identifying with that which is beyond those labels. It is called the Self, or, in Buddhism, Buddhanature. Indian philosophical texts say, we are not anything limited at all, but the infinite witness. This practice of breaking our limited identifications is the heart of what will break all the other habits as well.
Another way to put this, in the Sufi language of devotion, is to remember our connection with the source of all. Here’s an excerpt from the Sufi poet Rumi, using ‘winter’ as a metaphor for being separated from our true nature:
My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I'm with.
If You're not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity. My words
tangle and knot up.
How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to You.”
When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. (*)
May we all find a way to dig ourselves a channel back to the ocean of consciousness from which we surely all have come.
See also: Poetry: Habits
(*Source: Essential Rumi, by Coleman Barks)
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