Monthly Archives: March 2009

Even Bad Habits Don’t Deserve to be Kicked!

A More Effective Way to Deal
with Destructive Behavior

The spacious mind that arises out of the regular practice of meditation is a perfect stage for noticing a self-destructive behavior, and then noticing the voice inside us that activates or instigates that behavior. This noticing and listening is much more effective than trying to strong arm ourselves into stopping the behavior. How many times have you quit smoking or gone on a diet only to sabotage yourself? This is clearly a painful self-destructive pattern. Each failure makes us feel like a failure. Each hope dashed lowers our view of our own abilities.

Remembering when we have been successful at changing a behavior, we also remember a feeling of being whole-hearted, of being completely clear, and that it felt as if the change came about naturally. That sense of wholeness and clarity allows for positive change. Otherwise, the thundering roar of a cacophony of conflicting inner directives – desires, urges, fears – may totally derail us. The clarity comes from all the inner voices being in tune and in harmony. All our inner aspects need to be on board before a real shift can happen.

If we are really noticing, we find that on every journey to an unskillful action there is a conversation between inner aspects. At first we may notice only the most urgent voice demanding that cookie right now. The urgency is uncomfortable or exhilarating, and it may feel like our only choice is to comply. But when we pay closer attention, we find there is at least one other voice as well. If we recognize that the urgency doesn’t necessarily require immediate action, that we actually can tolerate ‘listening to the inner baby cry’ a bit before responding, we might begin to hear another voice as well.

There is a quiet voice within each of us that we may never notice until we are really paying attention. The silence of meditation allows us to become aware of a calm inner spacious wisdom. Through the regular practice of meditation, we can seek this wise inner resource out, as I did in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

As we begin to listen to this inner wisdom, we can allow it to have loving diplomatic conversations with our other aspects, negotiating inner peace. We can shift the internal power structure so that the urgent caffeinated aspects that have been yelling so loud that we give them what they want just to shut them up for a while, are no longer calling the shots.

At first it may be hard to find that wise inner voice, mostly because our more rambunctious aspects are running the show. But with regular meditative practice, quiet walks in nature, setting the intention to stay in the present moment and be kind, we create a spaciousness that allows us to notice and listen with curiosity. With that spaciousness, our journey of self-discovery truly begins.

Any self discovery we have done in the past, without this spaciousness, is more likely to have been a grabbing at identity clues and claiming them. I am that, I am like that, I am that kind of person. Our discoveries may be interesting or comforting, but really they are just decorative accessories of identity.

The self-discovery we embark on through this meditative practice is not a grabbing identity as if our behaviors or preferences are life preservers to save us.

Often it is our attachment to a certain identity that causes us and those around us suffering. My mother died of emphysema. She said she could have quit smoking much sooner, but she was so sure she would be an incredibly boring person without a cigarette in her hand to make her glamorous! Those artful smoke swirls of 1930’s movies had done their number on her. Of course when she finally quit she was even more interesting and enjoyable to be around.

A good question to ask ourselves when we are wanting to quit a habit but are finding it impossible: Who would I be without my cigarette? or Who would I be without my sweet treats? or Who would I be without my quick temper? The answers may set us on a fruitful journey of exploration.

Perhaps you have known a child whose room is piled high with all manner of garbage – discarded soda cans, gum wrappers, etc. – and they refuse to acknowledge this is trash. What’s up with that? Perhaps they are desperately building an identity for themselves, and everything they have touched defines them. So throwing away the soda can is for them throwing away a bit of themselves. This is an extreme example of something we all do to varying degrees. We take pride in our choices of the objects we have chosen to fill our lives, and vest them with the power to define us, to represent us to the world and even to ourselves. We can be very rigid in our definition. I would never wear that! I hate that kind of food. I’m the kind of person who lives in this kind of house, decorated in this particular style. I can’t imagine myself in a different setting. All of these kinds of statements are not just preferences, they are the life preservers of our identity, and we cling to them pretty fiercely.

When we come into a vaster vantage point of Right View, we begin to see that none of these things are us at all. What is offered is much greater than all of this little detritus floating around in the sea that we’ve been clinging to for dear life. It is the invitation to recognize that we are the sea itself. We don’t need life preservers of identity to rescue us. We are already rescued! We only need to recognize our true nature.

Notice the little voice in you saying, But I want the cool things! This is not about giving up the things. It’s about shifting our relationship to them and the world around us, not believing that these things define us. And then not being attached to the identity of being a person who can do without things. It’s an ongoing process!

If you are not yet ready to give up the life raft of identity, don’t fret. Don’t add yet another voice to the cacophony within that says you haven’t got it. Baloney! You’ve got it. It’s all there. In your own time, in your own way, at your own pace, you will reveal all to yourself. Patience. Practice. Intention to be present in this moment and to be kind. Let that be absolutely enough. It truly is.

And with that regular meditative practice comes:
– The spaciousness to notice a thought, a desire, an urge, passing through
– The patience to stay with the thought a while before fulfilling its demand through action.
– The ability to see that the thought has a voice, an agenda, an intention that may be rooted in fear.
– The time to pause and follow that thought thread down to its roots
– The willingness to become familiar with this voice, to give it an affectionate name,
– The wisdom not to claim it as identity but to recognize its concerns
– The skill to negotiate a workable solution that circumvents the unskillful behavior it requests, while fulfilling the deeper need for a sense of safety and security that it desires.

Listening to the voice that is promoting the behavior, naming it, asking questions, negotiating some equitable solution. Voice by voice, we get ourselves together, speaking with one clear intention.

That’s when resistance to the change we want to make falls away. We haven’t ripped it out, we haven’t thrown any part of ourselves away, we haven’t sacrificed anything. We have simply made friends with ourselves and become whole-hearted and able to do what we need to do.

Eightfold Path: Wise Action: Precepts

Wise Action, like all aspects of the Eightfold Path, arises out of the foundation of Right Understanding or View and the anchor of Right Intention. However, as mentioned in the last post, we may have challenging habitual patterns and unconscious behavior that sabotage our efforts to Wise Action. We come to the practice humbled by our inability to force different behavior upon ourselves. How often have we tried to break a self-destructive habit — an addiction, a lack of awareness, a leaning into the future as we race around getting things accomplished – only to find ourselves lighting up a cigarette, standing in front of the refrigerator with a carton of ice cream in our hands, or reacting with impatience, even rudeness, in a traffic jam.

Through the practice of meditation, we not only begin to see our thoughts, sensations and emotions, we begin to see our behavior in the world. We recognize the uncomfortable thoughts that arise out of doing things that are contrary to our deepest intention. And in that recognition we can truly begin to shift away from destructive behaviors.

Wise Action starts out identifying those things we can refrain from doing in order to free ourselves from suffering and in order not cause suffering to others. These are called the Precepts. There are five of them for lay people, more for monks and nuns. Every time we sit a retreat we begin by taking the Five Precepts, but they are useful in daily life as well. Like the Eightfold Path, the Five Precepts help us to identify where we are wandering into disconnection and suffering.

The Five Precepts
Refrain from killing or harming other beings.
Take only what is freely given, i.e. refrain
from stealing, exploiting or deceiving.
Refrain from misusing of our sexuality.
Speak truthfully and kindly (covered in Right Speech),
Maintain clarity of mind by avoiding intoxicants.

When we sit in meditation regularly our minds may clear to a point that these precepts naturally arise within us, bringing our actions in harmony with our intentions. The resulting sense of cohesion and calm is integrity. Integrity comes from the Latin ‘integ-’ which means whole, complete. We feel a sense of integrity in our being when our actions are aligned with our deepest wisdom. We feel we have come home to ourselves, that we are whole and complete.

Though at first perhaps, taking such vows might feel daunting, keeping the Precepts is ultimately quite pleasurable as we find a spaciousness in our minds freed from the guilt, shame and confusion caused by harming, stealing, lying, over-indulging or clouding our minds.

But a lifetime of habits does not always fall away easily. When they don’t and we are feeling miserable, we can look to the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts for clues as to why we are feeling so badly.

When we discover the source of our misery, we don’t beat ourselves up about it. We practice inner kindness. But we are also clear in our understanding that our behavior has caused harm to ourselves and probably others. While we are responsible for the resulting suffering, the resulting sense of guilt is useful only until it brings us insight. Once it has provided us with the opportunity to see clearly, we can let the guilt go. That moment of awareness always calls us to return to the practice with renewed dedication, anchored by Right Intention in the foundation of Right View.

Eightfold Path: Right or Wise Action

Our view of the world determines our actions. If we see the world as a scary place our actions will stem from fear and be defensive. They will be rooted in our intention to protect ourselves from harm. In this protective state of lock down where we see enemies all around us, we will not care about anyone else in a deep sense and our actions will reflect that lack of caring.

When we shift our perspective to a vaster vantage point or ‘Right View’ (See Jan 09 posts in the archive) we sense our interconnection. We may experience it as a powerful infinite loving radiance supporting us and expressing itself through us. From this vantage point we might reasonably expect that our actions will automatically be what the Buddha called Right Action. And they very well may be, because with Right View and Right Intention we are more present with our experience and feel more compassion for ourselves and others.

But our actions are not always grounded in our current view and intention. We probably also have some residual habitual behaviors that are calcified expressions of our old fear-based view and intention.

The difference is that now we notice the fear-based habitual behavior, and we can bring our Right View and Right Intention to focus on it. With spacious awareness, we can observe, note and explore our behavior.

As we observe an impulse to do something destructive to ourselves or others, we may be able to make an adjustment in time to avoid the unskillful action. We might feel the emotion rising up that instigates the action, and bring our awareness to it, skillfully averting acting it out.

Perhaps we only become aware when the action is coming into play. Is there some way we can soften the blow of the action through the addition of spacious awareness?

Or perhaps we only notice that the destructiveness of an action after the deed is done. Perhaps we are feeling guilty and that is our clue that we have done something unskillful. Then with spacious awareness we can take responsibility for the action, doing whatever wise action might help to remedy the situation we have caused, at the very least owning up to our role and apologizing.

With spacious awareness we have the opportunity to really begin to see the patterns in our behavior. If we take note of these patterns with curiosity and compassion we can learn the ways in which we may be causing harm to ourselves or others. Resting in the vaster awareness of Right View, we can let go of our defensiveness around these behaviors. We understand that we are human and are prone to error. We don’t need to prove we are perfect, right or justified in doing something.
But in Right View, we know that we are deeply connected to all life and there is no you or me, there is only we and us. So, even as we accept that we are human, we don’t indulge ourselves in easy acceptance of unskillful behavior that is harmful. We are all one wondrous energetic organism. All harm harms all. So it doesn’t benefit us to ‘let ourselves off the hook’. But we simply take responsibility, we don’t crucify ourselves, for when we do that we are harming all as well.

We have observed our behavior, we have noted our patterns, and now we can take the time to really question our actions, the intentions behind them, and the beliefs that feed the intentions. The first question can be “What was my intention when I did that?” Or if it is an action we are contemplating, “What is my intention here?”

This may begin an interesting inner dialog. Notice that the intention of every aspect of self is always loving, but may be misguided, rooted in fear rather than in Right View. If we switch into the fear mode, we might turn on this discovery and say “Well stop it!” or “Cut it out!” or “I should know better.” We may feel threatened by this unwelcome knowledge of ourselves as the kind of person who would do such a thing. We don’t want to think about it. It feels threatening. But it only threatens our false sense of identity, not our being, not our authentic selves.

If we go to fear and short circuit the process of exploration because it makes us uncomfortable, it helps to bring some compassion to the fearful threatened aspect. It helps to pause, take a few breaths, sense into the body and center in before proceeding. Bringing ourselves fully into the present moment, aware of all physical sensation, we can stay in the curious mode. We remember that nothing we discover is threatening to us, just interesting and useful to know. We keep that body awareness as much as possible, because all the sensations of the body provide active clues during this exploration process.

We encourage this fearful aspect of self to express itself by asking, “Why do I feel threatened?” This is a question that, if done when we are feeling relaxed and safe, can bring up fruitful long forgotten images or words that we experienced when we were younger. This could be something a parent, sibling, teacher, friend or playground bully said or did that made us feel in need of self-protection, or diminished and in need of proving our worth to the world. So we created barriers that took the shape of behavioral habits that are no longer useful, and in fact are causing us and those around us to suffer.

If we allow enough time for this exploration process, we can, with patience and compassionate curiosity, begin to untangle some of the knots in our thoughts, beliefs and emotions that set the stage for our unskillful actions.

One of the greatest benefits of meditation is a sense of spaciousness. We feel less pressured to react instantly to the events around us. We can relax into a vaster sense of the world and from that perspective we are able to respond wisely.

From this vaster sense of the world as an intricate web of loving connection, our actions are more inclined to be kind, engaged, interested, genuine expressions of our most authentic selves. They are less inclined to be defensive, pushy, needy, manipulative, punishing, avenging, wasteful, cruel, or any of the other possible ways in which we act out our fears.

We behave responsibly toward the earth, not out of fear of global warming or not having enough resources, but out of a deep and abiding love, respect and sense of connection. Only out of that level of love can we sustain Right Action.

When we are driving, we will have more compassion for other drivers. We will accept the pace of the road and not focus on our destination. We will accept the huge responsibility of our own safety and the safety of others and not let our emotions take the steering wheel. We will give other drivers the benefit of the doubt, even suggesting a possible story that would make their mindless actions understandable. “Oh, he’s just come from the hospital where he learned…”
“Oh she has a wedding cake in the back seat that she doesn’t want to disturb.”

We notice when we are rushing, when we are not paying full attention, and we have skillful means to bring ourselves fully into the moment, fully into all our senses.

Our actions are great clues. Not to our identity, because we would be mistaken if we believed that these hodge podge collections of behaviors or the intentions from which they spring, or the pot of fear where the intentions are brewed, are us. They are not! Exploring them is useful because they are chafing, masking, hiding, sometimes even strangling our true authentic expressions of self, the self that is rooted in an infinite loving sense of connection. That authentic self understands impermanence and accepts the fleeting nature of this temporal life, appreciating it as both a gift and an invitation to participate fully, divested of the mask, free from the fear-based encumbrances that we developed, individually and collectively. This is the path of liberation, and the end of suffering.

But though the path leads to ultimate liberation, the path is the experience itself, and the destination is in every moment, not on the horizon or just around the next corner. Here and Now, rooted in the relaxing realization that we are loved, we have always been loved and we will always be loved, that we are indeed expressions of that very love.