Systems and habits

Systems theory tells us that we as people and as groups of people (all systems, really) tend towards homeostasis. This means we like stability and resist change, but are open to some changes which we then make our own and a new homeostasis is established. A system (or person, or community) can be closed, or too resistant to change, in which case the system gets stale from lack of input and collapses in some way; or the system can be too open, in which case the center doesn’t hold and the system breaks apart or is subsumed into another system. The process of adopting something new is usually uncomfortable; but since change comes, whether we like it or not, we are always responding and making adjustments.

Here is an illustration, taken from a sermon given at the UU Church of Palo Alto in 2006 by the Reverend Darcy Laine:
…”We also learned that if Mom starts changing the way she deals with her anger in a more healthy way, the system [family] will push back, trying to return to homeostasis, but that the family system also has the capacity to change and grow based on the novelty introduced to the system.”
(full sermon is here: http://www.uucpa.org/sermons_06/sermon060115.html)

What relevance does this have for those of us who have chosen to follow the Buddha’s path?

One example is how we develop the fifth precept: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking intoxicants causing heedlessness.” If one person in our social group (family or other) decides to stop taking intoxicants, it will most likely cause friction. Others may feel they are being judged or that it represents a threat. However, over time, everyone adapts. The character of the group will evolve, with some peoples’ views changing. The system might not continue in its previous form; it might split in two, or some members might come into the group and others leave.

We humans are awkward creatures. We want things to stay the same and at the same time want them to improve. We want to be happier but are reluctant to let go of deeply held habits and views. If we acknowledge these facts about ourselves and the people we know, it may become easier to recognize the assumptions and patterns that limit us. We may be able to change some unhealthy habits of body or speech. Who knows? We might even start to meditate and continue until it becomes a habit.

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Habits and mindfulness

Last March, the health section of the NY Times included an interview with Gretchen Ruben, the author of a book called “Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives”. I’ve been interested in the power of habit based on reading the work of Daniel Kahnemann and Dan Ariely. Habits are necessary to an organized life, but can become an obstacle to mindfulness. In fact, I think that cultivating mindfulness and changing or refining our habits go together.

Ms. Rubin’s book (https://gretchenrubin.com/books/before-after/before-after/) posits four categories of people with respect to habits: upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. The categories are based on whether we respond to the expectations of others and/or our own expectations: Obligers respond primarily to the expectations of others; a questioner resists outside expectations but readily meets his/her own expectations; an upholder responds to both inner and outer expectations and a rebel to neither. Obligers and questioners are the dominant categories in the general population.

It might be instructive to investigate what emotional forces form and support our habits. Do we respond to the perceived expectations of others, or to our own inner direction? There’s no value judgment attached to being in one category or another, but we can discover ways to alter our habits if we know what rewards or feedback loops we respond to.

Some of the suggested strategies involve (1) making a good habit more convenient (e.g., incorporate a walk into an errand), (2) adding accountability (an exercise buddy or peer-support group), or (3) creating first steps (taking things on gradually). If this approach interests you, have a look at the work of Ms. Rubin. [Caveat: I’m not really familiar with her work and some think her “happiness empire” is not entirely harmless.]

If we want to improve our actions and words according to the Buddha’s advice, we have to start by identifying current behaviors that we’d like to change. The more specific our goal, the more easily we can design methods for modifying our behavior. For example, if we want to avoid using bad language, what should we do? First we need to be sure that we want to change. Then we have to figure out what we might do to disrupt the habit we’re trying to break (e.g., substitute neutral or silly words). If we’re trying to establish a new habit, we need to design a system that will support our change in behavior.

One unplanned habit-breaker came to me as a gift. An old friend gave me a necklace, made from recycled materials, that has “Choose kindness” printed on the face of it. This has become a powerful mindfulness exercise for me. When I put it on (most days) and when I take it off, I am reminded that this is my deepest wish: to choose kindness over selfishness or impatience in every situation. I can choose kindness in my thoughts as well as my words and actions; it is possible, and it’s really what I want. I just need to be reminded.

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Who, me?

Ajahn Viradhammo from Buddhadharma (Spring 2015 issue):
What does attachment really mean? Attachment is always bound up with a sense of “I”. Letting go is an acceptance of this moment the way it is. This is something we have to discover. This is the path of insight.

“This moment the way it is” – what does that mean? There are physical characteristics (temperature, movement, sights or sounds) and there are feelings (happy, sad, bored, interested, etc.). Do we have to own these things for them to be true, to be real? Do they have to be ours? Or can they just be present? Can we see that they come and go according to their own rhythms, and not according to our wishes? Consider this radical possibility: imagine not claiming even our own experience as “mine”.

By claiming things and experiences, we separate ourselves in a tiny, unique, fragile and imaginary world. The more we can let go of ownership and just allow experience to happen, the more fluid and pain-free our time can be. Desire can be desire rather than “my desire”; fear can be fear rather than “my fear”.

How can we recognize and release our attachments? One clue is that whenever we feel resistant to or anxious about what’s happening, there is clinging at the base of it. When our love for someone is combined with jealousy or a need for specific words or acts; when we want an event (or ourselves) to be perfect; when we cling to unrealistic dreams – these are just a few situations in which we create our own suffering.

One reason anger is such a powerful and (somehow) attractive emotion is that anger fuels the sense of “I”. When we are filled with righteous indignation, we are in the grip of a feeling of power, and we are thinking of no one but ourselves.

Recently, I attended the memorial service for a member of my family. There was sadness, but also joy at remembering a life in the company of other people. The sadness felt soft and natural; there was no sense of “it shouldn’t be like this”, at least for me. Perhaps this is a key — acceptance of things as they are, relaxing into what’s present in each moment. It requires abandoning the judging perspective and taking a broader view.

Every time we think that our problem is “out there” rather than “in here”, we create a bigger web of suffering for ourselves. Pain and its remedy are both within our own hearts.

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Where does stress come from?

From a Carolyn Hax column in the Washington Post: “Stop worrying about pleasing a pair of big egos”
(http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/people/carolyn-hax/)

I think we all recoil from negativity. However, so much stress comes not from events themselves but instead from the gaps between what we want to happen and what actually does. It’s not easy to break the habit of wanting something from others or experiences or ourselves — far from it — but it is possible. It just requires you to identify what you’re hoping will happen, and recognize that other outcomes will be okay, too, and sometimes even better. It takes staring down your worst case and knowing you’ll find ways to manage if it comes true.

Columnist Carolyn Hax is not a declared Buddhist, but often writes with a wisdom that is deep and resonant. Her columns are in response to questions asked by various people (usually American), and her answers are made with full consideration of all the human beings who might be affected.

The paragraph above is from a recent Q&A and addresses a subject we’ve been looking at: how our wants and expectations create our suffering. The particulars of the situation in this column may not be relevant for us, but the general principle is true and useful. If we are willing to recognize what we’re hoping for AND accept that this is only one possibility, then we can know and acknowledge that other outcomes are possible.

When things don’t go our way, our disappointment will most likely be in proportion to our wishing. Hoping that someone we know who has a track record of acting in a particular way will act in a different way is a fool’s game. Why are we so reluctant to accept reality with all its flaws? Why do we often prefer our dream world to the world we’ve got?

We create stress for ourselves by thinking or saying: I don’t think I could bear it if X doesn’t happen, or if she does Y, or if I can’t accomplish Z. As my father once said to me, “You don’t know what you can cope with until it happens.” Usually, we are remarkably resourceful, and we only need to allow for the possibility of surprise.

It’s not easy to break the habit of wanting something from others or experiences or ourselves — far from it — but it is possible.

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Finding the problem

More from Ajahn Viradhammo, from the Buddhadharma quarterly (Spring 2015):
We don’t always realise when we make mistakes, so the trick is to make as few mistakes as possible and not to make the same mistakes again and again. Yet sometimes we have this blindness, and we don’t see why we have suffering in our lives. Ignorance blinds us. What can we do? Wherever there is suffering or confusion, we can begin to look at that pattern in our lives. If we look at this whole pattern, we can discover the causes of suffering and generate the intention not to allow those causes to repeat.

Let’s say I’m a person who is always making wisecracks. Maybe I watch people cringe and begin to notice that no one likes me, so I end up hating myself. Then I reflect on how this kind of speech brings me remorse and regret and brings other people suffering. Finally, I see that’s the result. So what can I do?

What can we do then? Well, we can use skill-ful thinking rather than guilty thinking. We can say, “From now on, I’m going to try not to speak in those ways.” We can make that intention. And establishing that intention helps us to be more mindful.

Wherever there is suffering or confusion, we can look for a pattern in that place or activity. This is a key to understanding where our unhappiness originates; our findings will be unique to each of us. We have to look inward instead of automatically blaming outside causes. While there may be stimuli from the outside that seem to create our problems, the actual cause is somewhere within our own hearts.

Sometimes life gives us major challenges: a child or parent with special needs, a trait in ourselves that we don’t like (and perhaps deny), a chronic illness (physical or mental), or seemingly impossible obstacles to our success and well-being. Even if we’ve been blessed with physical and financial security, life can seem unbearable. What to do?

If we are serious about freeing ourselves from our own clinging (and the suffering that results from it), we can look deeply into the patterns of our lives. What are we doing, or what assumptions are we making, that create or aggravate a problem? What might we do differently to see the situation from a new perspective? Can we turn the question upside-down and ask what we are doing to annoy the world? Can we let go of feeling bad about ourselves or aggravated by our situation and look at the broader picture as if we were an outside observer? An observer who had our best interests at heart? Who actually loved us?

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Don’t turn away

From an article called “Don’t Turn Away” by Ajahn Viradhammo in the Spring 2015 issue of Buddhadharma quarterly:
…Finally, I decided that if I was going to get anywhere on this path, I had to stop and look. I couldn’t keep rearranging things according to my desires. I had already given that a good go and knew it didn’t work. The reason I took up this model [monastic life], this vehicle, was not just to have fun or get something out of it. It was because I wanted to be able to observe the nature of frustrated desire as well as fulfilled desire.

This fundamental commitment to a structure gives us the freedom to watch our mind. Can you translate that into your own life? Your family, your job, your relationships – these can all be vehicles for spiritual understanding if you accept that within them there will be frustrations. It’s important not to always try to rearrange thing to fulfil personal desires and needs. Obviously, if the situation is harmful in some way, then you have to make a change. But the usual humdrum, annoying stuff of life is actually the stuff of enlightenment, if we are willing to observe how it is.

Ajahn Viradhammo gives advice so humble, we might miss how profound it is. Rearranging things to suit our wishes is the default mode for most of us. If we can’t rearrange what is actually in front of us, we sometimes make up a story for ourselves that creates a reality more closely resembling our fantasy. But the advice is “don’t turn away”. If we take this advice to heart we accept things as they are, the frustrations and the fulfillments, as they come up and pass away. We choose a stable position and don’t chase after anything that is elsewhere, but commit ourselves firmly to the situation we find ourselves in.

One example that comes to mind is having a task we avoid doing because it is unpleasant or awkward or we’re not sure how to start. Endless anxiety is produced in the procrastination process. If we don’t turn away, but turn towards the unpleasant state of avoidance, what do we discover? We don’t like this nagging feeling, but how do we respond to our dislike? If we look with honesty, we can directly experience the physical sensations and mental discomfort of resistance. If we study this experience closely enough, with patience, in sufficient detail, we may see past our wants to the fruitlessness of continuing our resistance. A letting go can happen, and a way forward may become clear.

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Know thyself

Ven. Analayo recently said: “If I knock myself for being angry each time anger arises, eventually I won’t see anger arising.” When we chastise ourselves for having defilements (which we all do), then we are training ourselves to ignore our defilements so we won’t be (self-)punished. It’s a self-defeating strategy; only if we acknowledge our shortcomings can we slowly wear them away.

From a column by David Brooks (12 April 2015, NY Times):
The Humility Shift – We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

David Brooks is not Buddhist but he has articulated a central principle of the Buddha’s teachings: when we speak and act in ways that harm ourselves and others, we create distress in our own hearts. We make inner peace impossible, through shame, regret or other negative feelings.

I’m reminded of the story of the father who gave each of his three sons a chicken and told them to go away and kill the chicken in a place where no one can see. The first two sons killed the chickens. The third son said he couldn’t kill the chicken because wherever he went, the chicken could see. Whenever we commit unwholesome acts, we ourselves know that they are unwholesome, and we feel bad.

Do we know what quality in us is our biggest obstacle to freedom? Can we discover it through observing our interactions with others? If we do know it, what is our relationship to it? Do we feel helpless to mitigate its effects? Or have we developed strategies to acknowledge and correct for it? Have we enlisted the help of trusted friends in working on our central weakness?

On the other side, do we know what our strengths are? What are the qualities that our friends and families most appreciate about us? Are we reliable? Gentle? Truthful? Generous? These qualities live alongside our weaknesses, and may help us to overcome our flaws.

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