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.