Wednesday, July 25, 2012


"Habit is a second nature which prevents us from knowing the first, of which it has neither the cruelties nor the enchantments." - Marcel Proust

(Oh, Proust. Feel how you want to about the French, but their ability to produce crispy-soft baguettes, flaky-sticky macarons and sardonic-revolutionary 'intellos' is beautiful.)

As Proust succinctly notes in the quote above, habits become a second nature which prohibit us from living life in our first nature. First nature being the experience of life as it happens to us directly, as if everything is happening for the first time. (Which in yoga is referred to as the beginner mindset.) As if every bite of a peanut butter sandwich even if you've had 7800 in your life was the first bite or the last. As if it was the first taste of salty, oily crushed peanuts and sweet, yeasty bread meeting the tips and sides of your tongue, the roof of your mouth, the insides of your lips. It means realizing that saying goodbye to someone is sad, or that being honest with someone is a bit frightening. It's a way of living attuned to our senses and sensitivites. So yes, it might hurt more finely to live life with awareness because the sharpness of pain is more acute, but so too is the joy. Wouldn't we rather endure the brief sting of acute pain over the prolonged dull, gnawing ache that has neither location nor sensation, that grey and bleak feeling of colorless sadness? So in our first nature - which is not relying on habitual patterns of behavior or thought - we may be more aware of pain but we are also equally as aware of joy; the joy is fleshy, vibrant and delectable.

Perhaps sometimes we live our lives in dull, habitual patterns because we think, superstitiously, that it will protect us from pain. Only it causes a different kind of pain, a pain that casts a thick, impermeable fog over everything so that no light can seep through, so that color is diluted, sound is muted and taste is watered down.

Habits are also repetitive ways that we appease certain needs. We do things, as Geneen Roth says, for "exquisitely good purposes." We aren't always aware of what those reasons or purposes are though. In the video below Charles Duhigg explains how he changed his 3 o'clock "cookie habit" by experimenting with different behaviors. Instead of eating a cookie, for example, he tried eating a candy bar, going for a walk, and stopping by a coworker's office to chat. Through his experimentation he realized that his craving for a cookie was actually more of a craving for human interaction.

I believe this kind of investigative and experimental attitude towards habits that we want to break or habits that no longer serve us or the specific need we are trying to fill, is paramount to lasting change. It can be applied to other habits such as, say, smoking, by asking ourselves clarifying questions:

  • What times of day or in which situations do I crave a cigarette?
  • Is it to connect with coworkers?
  • Is it a way to get outside for fresh air and a change of scenery?
  • Is it to be alone with myself and my thoughts?
  • Is it a way to do nothing else but focus on "breathing in" and "breathing out"?
  • Is it calming? Or energizing? Or both?
  • Is it a way to add "thrill" and "excitement" into my day?
These are just some ideas of questions to ask ourselves. For example, I'm realizing a certain habit I have is because it brings me a form of pleasure and giddy excitement, and now I am wondering "hm, how else can I indulge my senses in a fun way?"

Also, it is important to note that habits - which in their exaggerated, more extreme form, we call 'addictions' - are simply the mind/body grasping at external substances, stimuli or internal patterns of thought (because we can be addicted to certain thoughts too) as a way to cling to something certain in the midst of the unpredictable, jerky, winding changes that occur both in life and in the mind itself. Or as lazyyogi says in "The Technology of Non-addiction":

The spiritual path is the path of non-addiction. Addiction implies being incomplete, unwhole, lacking. Addiction tells you that you need to add something to your self, your world, before you can be at peace. Addiction is a lie.

There are two parts to addiction. The first part is chemical. Your body physically requires and craves a certain chemical in order to maintain its feeling of normalcy. This is the kind of addiction you see with certain drugs from cigarettes to heroin. The drugs themselves are just atoms and molecules and matter, nothing evil. But when habitually used they rob you of freedom.

The second part to addiction is much more rampant. That is the mental aspect of addiction. One can become addicted to anything in the sense that it becomes habit forming. Habits are a way of living below your level of awareness. You don’t have to be present and aware, you simply let the habit take over.

This desire to revert to a level below awareness brings a certain degree of relief and happiness. Why? Because it allows you to escape the disparaging and critical mind with which we are so used to walking this earth. Addiction and habit is simply the misplaced desire to escape the prison of thought.

The thinking mind is a gift and a wonderful servant. But in this modern era it has become a terrible master. We have become victims of our thoughts and judgments rather than evolved beings graced with intelligence.

Meditation is the technology to emerge from addiction once and for all. While doctors and rehabilitation can help remove physical addiction, they do not guarantee that the patient will not relapse into old habits. The only one who can guarantee that is the individual in question.
Through meditation we come to discover a kind of spacious stillness within us, a filled contentment that is empty and yet brimming to the seams. When you discover through your own experience that you lack nothing, need nothing, and are filled with everything, what room is there for needy addiction?

Habits melt away; addictions dissolve. While previously you needed to revert to a level below thought, meditation takes you to a place above thought. You are awakened, clear, and empty. Anything that arises simply passes through you.

That is the supreme peace of the Self and the true inheritance of humanity.

So can we live life embracing uncertainty? Knowing that we "lack, need nothing, are filled with everything?" Can we live, as Proust says and as all of the great spiritual philosophers of all time have said, with more first nature awarenesss? Holding opposites, seeming juxtapositions and polarities with delicate hands, keeping in mind the truth of the 10,000 sorrows and the 10,000 joys of life? Can we embrace our lives a bit closer to the bone? Preciously, with new love?

I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain; and never shut myself up in a numb core of nonfeeling, or stop questioning and criticizing life and take the easy way out. To learn and think: to think and live; to live and learn: this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love. ~ Sylvia Plath

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