“What is holding you in bondage?”
That question was posed by the Spirit Rock teacher Mark Coleman back in 2002, and it sent me on quite a journey.
“What holds me in bondage?” I asked myself over and over again in the following weeks. Finally, I had a big aha! It’s my habitual nature, my habitual thinking, that holds me in bondage. My repeated patterns of behavior and thought tread such deep ruts in my life that they create steep walls beyond which I don’t feel I can go, beyond which I can’t even see. I have created my own prison for no other reason than my habitual nature.
But why? Why would I do such a thing to myself? Why would I create a prison for myself when life is so short and there is so much I would like to experience?
In the following weeks I kept noticing my habitual nature, how it contained my experience, how, given the choice, I always chose the way I had always done something, the path I had always taken. I continued to ask myself why I cling to these habitual thoughts and patterns.
And then another aha! In my noticing I realized that I cling to my habitual mode out of fear, out of a yearning for safety. If I just keep doing the same things in the same way, stick with the known and avoid any unknowns, my life will stay as it is and I will be safe.
But this is a total fallacy, that I could possibly keep things staying the same, no matter what I do, no matter how I behave. I have no control over the fact that the nature of things in this universe is change. Everything changes! Impermanence is the only constant. Living in fear of change I had created a rut that I thought was safe. But it wasn’t keeping me safe, it was just keeping me tight in fear and numb to the life around me.
So I stayed with the noticing and set the intention to see beyond my rut, to see other options when they present themselves. I promised myself that when given two paths of equal value (i.e. both ethical and healthy), I would choose the one less traveled by me.
That discovery and realignment of intention has changed my life! And even though at times it has felt scary and challenging, it has also felt immeasurably richer and more alive. It also feels more honest because I am constantly aware that there is no promise of permanence, and that the hypnotic drone of the habitual mode cannot secure that promise, no matter how hard I had wanted that to be true.
Of course there are times when I go a little numb and forget my intention. I wake up and notice the rut rising around me, and see how easy it is to succomb to the hypnotic drone of my habitual nature.
In this class the past weeks we have been studying meditation and creativity. So how does this experience of mine relate to creativity? How does the habitual mode affect creativity? Well of course there are good habits, like getting in to the studio to do the work, even if the creative urge isn’t there. But beyond that, for most of us, habits tend to get in the way.
We begin to believe we are our habits. “I am the type of person who does things this way. I would never do things THAT way, etc.” We let our habits define who we are. We cling to the carefully constructed identity we have created out of this habitual behavior. We may not be able to imagine who we would be without them, which could be very scary indeed.
Since habits are based in fear of change, then we are stuck in finite fear based mode. This tightness cramps our ability to create. We talked a couple of weeks ago about creating from the finite vs. the infinite source. When we are in habitual mode we are most definitely operating out of the finite source, and our experience in the process will be limited, tight and fearful. Breaking free of our rut, we tap into the infinite source. We become fearless, intuitive, inventive, inspired.
Habits are mindless, opposite of mindful. In our practice we simply notice what is, bringing mindfulness to our experience. We notice what is true in this moment. But when we are in our rut, it is hard to notice it. When we do, we don’t have to beat ourselves up about it, but just the noticing opens us to all the possibilities.
At every point in every moment we have infinite choices. There are the obvious choices but if we sit with it we find many variations and maybe even ones we never thought of.
If we are fully present in the moment we have the luxury of pausing before proceeding down a habitual path to appreciate all the possible ways we might go now.
This is not a day dream that gets us stuck at the crossroads, just an awareness that our options are infinite. How does this feel? Maybe a little scary, too open, too many choices, like being spilled out onto a vast plain when we were in that seemingly easy rut.
Being with our own fear, our own discomfort is an important part of the practice of being present. If we can be present for this we can be present for anything. Being fully present allows us to access that infinite source of creative energy. Letting our fears cut us off from it is handing keys to a jailer, when he was fast asleep and we could have skipped out. And not realizing we’ve been paying him to be there.
Habitual mode is automatic pilot. It is the opposite of true engagement in life. It is numbing out and dumbing ourselves down. It is never questioning authority, the authority of past behavior to dictate our present and future.
Of course we of a certain age have found ways that work for us, ways that are hard won and comfortable, thank you very much. We know what we like, what we don’t like, why we go this way and not that. We have learned and don’t want to go back to when we didn’t know what we know. Why should we?
Sometimes it’s useful to question what we know. The teacher Byron Katie has built her whole teachings on questioning. “How do I know this is true?” is a very effective question to pose to oneself every time we make a statement. Because what happens with habitual behavior is we stop questioning, we just keep building on assumptions from the past. If those assumptions are erroneous, and they often are, then we are building this mountain on a trash heap.
No one wants their whole live’s brought into question, so there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this idea. But give it a try next time you choose a direction out of habit. Pause and sense in to the body. Notice what sensations arise, if any. Then consider an alternative (kind, healthy and legal) option and sense in to the body again. Start noticing the body’s response to the directions you choose.
Just noticing that we do have a choice in each moment is huge for some of us. We are in such ruts in our thinking that we feel we have no options. This numbs us out so that we are barely alive. We may be on such automatic pilot that we are in a mobile comatose state.
When something jolts us out of our rut – a crisis of some kind perhaps – we are suddenly challenged to use muscles we haven’t used in too long: the muscles of choice. And it is painful! And it can be dangerous because we are not adept or quickwitted any more. We are stuck, calcified in our habitual mode that suddenly doesn’t support us.
Newsflash: The habitual mode doesn’t support us even now, even when things are going relatively smoothly. Because life isn’t meant to be gotten through, it’s meant to be lived.