Category Archives: habit

What role does ritual play in your life?


Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.

When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.

Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.

When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture. 

He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”

I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.

When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.

Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.

Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.

But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.

Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:

How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)

Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.

If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!

And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.

Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.

Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

New Year’s Resolutions That Work

If you incorporate mindfulness into your New Year’s resolutions, you will achieve them.

For example, if your intention is to lose weight, practice mindful eating. If you are in the present moment when you grocery shop, peruse a menu, prepare a meal and chew your food, you will tap into the body’s wisdom. With mindfulness you will enjoy the whole process of nourishing yourself. It is when we go mindless that we over-eat, unaware that our stomach is full. It is when we go mindless that we eat food we are programmed to want but that does not satisfy our body’s hunger. When we are mindful, if our body isn’t hungry, we don’t think about food. What freedom!

If your intention is to exercise more, incorporate awareness into your practice. As you exercise, sense into the body, feel the movement, follow the breath. You will feel more fully alive and find joy in the movement. If you are doing exercise that requires a certain set of repetitions, do the counting based on your breath or pulse. This helps you stay in the moment, anchored in physical sensation, so the mind is less likely to wander off, get bored and stop exercising.

If your intention is to spend less money, be mindful of when you need something and when you are following a desire based in some complex impulsive pattern that does not serve you. This will help to make wise spending easy and pleasurable.

You can see how mindfulness can apply to any resolution you might make. If you don’t see how it applies, let me know and we can talk it through. (Make a comment below.)

The New Year is a powerful time to make a change in our habitual way of being. When I was 25, I quit smoking as a New Year’s resolution and have never smoked another cigarette in 40 years. Yay! Since so many in my family died from smoking-related diseases, I am especially grateful for my having made that resolution at a young age. But it is never too late to make a wise choice.

The common joke is that we will all fail in our resolutions. But if our intention is grounded in wisdom, and if we practice mindfulness, we can do it!

In Buddhist thinking, every moment is a fresh beginning. In meditation, our mind wanders and when we become aware of it, we simply begin again. Just so, it’s important not to sabotage ourselves by thinking that if we failed one time, then we have to wait until next New Year’s Day to try again. Every moment is a fresh beginning. We reset our intention grounded in mindfulness, and simply begin again. We can use the idea of the beginning of a new year to inspire and support us, but if we use it as an excuse to give up, then let go of any attachment to the New Year as some be all end all point in time.

In our practice we have two ongoing intentions: The first is to be present, and as you can see in the above examples, the resulting mindfulness helps us to live wisely and joyfully. The second intention is equally important: To be compassionate with ourselves and others. In this way, we don’t waste time beating ourselves up or blaming someone or else. We understand that we and they are human, prone to error, and that we are all in need of loving kindness. We don’t have to make up excuses for our behavior. That’s just a habituated pattern of fear-based justification that distracts us from being present. Instead we simply recognize our error, apologize and make amends as appropriate, see where we went astray from our intention, sense into our breath and begin again.

I wish you every good blessing in the New Year and always.

‘What Is holding you in bondage?’ meditative exploration

“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.

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.