Habits

One good investigation when attempting to make one’s actions more wholesome is “what are my habits?”.

Some habits are necessary efficiencies; some habits are beneficial; many are neutral, causing no harm. The beneficial and helpful habits deserve to be recognized and affirmed. However, other habits create problems for us. For example, saying hurtful words to people we live or work with can be such a normal part of life that we don’t even notice it any more; or maybe we reflexively hoard things that would be better shared.

In general, to bring one’s best intentions to each moment, one has to first discover what habits are already established. Careless habits can gradually be replaced with careful ones. Thoughtless habits can be replaced with thoughtful ones. But first you have to know what your habits are.

The first step in developing skillful actions and words is to notice what we are doing, or intending to do. This requires that we attempt to know our own body and listen to what we are saying. Most of the time, the normal instinct is to look outside ourselves. We try to work out what’s going on and how we fit in, or how we can get what we want, or avoid what we don’t want. But the invitation here is to make a big U-turn with our attention and look inward. What is actually happening in our body and mind right now?

It is good to start with the body, because it’s harder to be misled by body sensations than thoughts. Right now, do an internal check; is there tension or ease in the body? Does some sensation in the body stand out? What position is your body in (sitting, standing, something else)? Is there energy? It’s important not to have this be a rating system, but a series of unbiased observations; we’re trying to discover what our body is telling us. Is there something we’ve done that we regret? Something we’ve left undone that should be done now? Is there some feeling we’re suppressing that needs to be allowed and understood?

Similarly, you can check in with your state of mind. You might pick a particular set of mental qualities to look for. For example, the mind might be: peaceful or agitated; angry or loving; tired or energetic; tuned out (cloudy, somewhere else) or tuned in (clear, alert). What’s the current weather in your mind? How would you describe it? Please try not to judge it – just know what it is for now. Turning your attention inward can reveal what is actually going on, which is often different from (and usually less coherent than) the story line we carry in our minds.

What I’m recommending is to find ways to bring your attention closer to what you’re doing RIGHT NOW. If you stay alert to your actions and words, and their effects on others, you can identify habits that you might want to replace with more wholesome ways of interacting.

We can only break harmful habits and affirm helpful habits if we can first identify them. The very act of bringing awareness to our mental states has a clarifying effect on them. In this way we come to know ourselves better.

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