5 Minutes on Breaking Habits
Updated: Jun 30, 2019
Often, when we are confronted by some problem which arises again and again, we think we have somehow been fooling ourselves about any kind of awakening at all. "I still can't relate to my parents," or, "I can't wash the dishes without getting bugged," or, "I can't stop smoking," or whatever it is. We imagine we're still as asleep as we ever were. "Here I am, pulled just as hard, just as up-tight, just as confused, without an answer." We don't recognize that what has grown is an awareness of our predicament.
Stephen Levine: A Gradual Awakening
At my first ten-day silent retreat each student was allowed five minutes each day to come to the teacher and break noble silence in order to ask a question. Nearby was an attendant whose task it was to ring the bell announcing the end of the five minute period and the return to silence.
My question was about dealing with a habit that I simply couldn't seem to break. "How do I get rid of this?" I asked him. "I've tried so many approaches, but the habit always wins. Always! It's stronger than me."
"How do you feel about it? About this habit...."
"I hate it," I answered. I feel anger and shame toward myself, and even so, I can't stop!"
"The problem is that you are pushing it away," he answered. "As long as you reject it you keep giving it energy. It sticks to YOU because you keep sticking to IT. You are the one sustaining it. That is why the habit is so strong."
"But I DON'T want it in my life. I want it to go away. I want to change. I really do!"
"You think that desire and aversion are opposites," he replied. "But they are both the same thing. They are one."
"But if I am here to change, if I am here to improve myself, I have to identify what I want to keep about myself, and then I have to get rid of the things I don't like about me. Surely you can see that."
"As long as you have likes and dislikes, you have not learned equanimity. Nothing will come of your efforts."
"But it seems impossible to do this without disliking what I want to change."
"Yes," he answered. "That is why it is said that equanimity is such a razor's edge. It is a difficult path to walk without falling off into liking and not liking."
"But," I protested, "there must be a skillful way to break a habit."
He paused for a moment and then looked directly at me.
"I used to smoke. I smoked for many years. First I liked it, and then I wanted to stop smoking. So I tried to quit. And then I tried again. And again. I became an expert at quitting smoking because I was always quitting. I was very good at quitting, but not very good at stopping. Then I came to this practice. After my first retreat I went home and tried to quit again. I tried very hard, thinking that with the power I had gained from the mindfulness retreat, I should be able to stop. I failed again. I felt like a failure. I hated myself for continuing to smoke. I began to notice that. I began to explore it: Trying to quit with my ego, failing, judging myself, hating myself. Trying, failing, judging, hating - over and over. Time passed, I continued to practice and then I returned for another retreat. I worked on other things that the practice revealed. Meanwhile, I let go of quitting. I didn't sustain quitting. I forgot about quitting. I didn't try to forget quitting or to remember quitting. But one day, several months later, I noticed that I wasn't smoking. There was no energy left. It stopped, and then I noticed that it had stopped."
I questioned back, "But how do you change without likes and dislikes?"
"You accept," he answered.
"But I can't accept what I don't like about myself!"
I heard the tolling of the bell, and over its decaying sound came the teacher's voice:
"Not yet," he said quietly. "Not yet."
We're so conditioned to add our likes and dislikes to everything we see that it seems second nature to do the same thing when we start to address personal issues like habitual thinking, habitual behaviors and even addictions. There is nothing wrong with saying to yourself, "This behavior is limiting me. I want to stop it." But then we typically start adding immediate expectations on ourselves and layer negative emotions over our decision to quit. "I have no self-control. I hate this. I'm so weak! I hate myself for that!" We add a lot of "self" in that process (count the previous I's) and we move from working with reality (what IS happening) to working with fantasy (what SHOULD be happening). I've certainly done that. One of my teachers once said to me, "You have more 'shoulds' than anyone I've ever met!"
Stephen Levine's insight was to point out that just becoming aware of the predicament we're in is already the path. Seeing clearly connects us to what actually is taking place, and it doesn't rush the process of change so that it can be organic to our personal experience.
The second insight is to realize that desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin. Both wanting something and not wanting something don't accept this moment "as it is." Ego still is trying to run the show, still trying to write the script. My teacher's wonderful confession, "I was very good at quitting, but not very good at stopping," describes this stage of trying to change perfectly.
So, the practice is to notice. The trust is that awareness is already doing its work. As we observe ourselves what looks like one habit becomes a process with many discreet steps. We see the habitual action; we see volition before action; we see intention; we see irritation that makes us want to change something in this moment; we see impatience that leads to irritation; we see boredom that leads to impatience. We see triggers. We see our tendency to try to escape from NOW.
Opening up those places between the steps and seeing them clearly is part of the spaciousness in this practice. As we are more and more mindful we see conditions, notice triggers, become comfortable with boredom, aware of impatience, conscious of intention, observant of volition and even aware of the momentum that helps drive our habitual behaviors. Seeing the spaces between the steps we may find that there is a moment when we can even make a non-habitual decision without adding more "self" into the mix, without pride, without ego growing stronger.
Suddenly, one day we may notice, as my teacher did, that a habit has simply ended. As he said it, "There was no energy left. It stopped and then I noticed that it stopped."
This is our natural healthiness returning. It is the underlying sanity beneath the conditioned self. It is the awareness that could see the predicament we were in in the first place.