Selfless Self Help Guide
The path- who should walk it?
This is for anyone who wants, in some part of their being, something new, newness itself. It is possible to get out of the normal way of doing things. I don’t mean acting strangely, or quitting your job, or wearing strange clothes. I mean that there is a side to life, everyone’s life, that is highly addicted. This aspect of life is painful, claustrophobic, repetitive, stubborn, and extremely limited. It is very possible to cut your way out of this jungle of pain and addiction, and I am not speaking specifically to people who’d identify as “addicts,” because everyone is an addict, to their habitual ways of seeing life, and to their routines. When we talk about “selfless,” this is significant, because the self that is so enmeshed in habit, and addiction, is what we have to explore in order to get free.
This form of training is for people willing and interested in dealing with this side of life- addiction to self. The training has to do with “exploring in order to get free.” There are no promises being made of getting rid of stress, or spiritual bliss, or becoming the best person. It’s about, first, seeing the extent of one’s habituation, and then, through various techniques, working to untie this habit of the self.
On one hand, this is not for everyone. Being a spiritual practitioner, a meditator, or what have you, is not the life for everyone. In some ways, it makes life more difficult, and this alone makes it unappealing to a lot of people, who’d like to hear that practicing will “reduce stess,” or increase happiness in some simple way. Then again, some people just don’t “connect” with this presentation of the teachings. It may not seem alluring, and it may not seem disturbing. It just might seem irrelevant.
It’s impossible to say this enough: be forewarned. The real thing is not easy or nice. It’s not purely difficult work or pain either. If a system claims that it will fix things, it’s not the real thing. The particular version of meditative practice being presented here could seem horrible, unfair, nonsensical, or just boring. It’s not for everyone. Then again, pay attention to those doubts and reactions, and see how many are trustworthy.
On the other hand, life is itself sacred. Practicing has a lot to do with realizing the way things already are, seeing things clearly. In this view, it doesn’t matter whether or not you call yourself a “spiritual person” or “yogi.” You’re in it no matter what. You’re on a path whether you decide to practice or not, whether you decide to go this route or not.
Oddly, this is not for everyone, but everyone is involved in some form or fashion. Even people who run like made from meditation are still meditators in some way. They just don’t want to know it.
I’ve believed for some time that everyone, whether they like to admit it or not, is a philosopher. Everone forms ideas about what life means, how to behave, and what’s important. So this is not for everyone, but simultaneously, it is not something we can get out of. What’s not for everyone is the specific presentation that Selfless Self Help offers. Life is full of lessons, and is essentially spiritual.
While this specific training format may not be for many people, I’ve come to feel that it is worthwhile, especially when I see the quality of a lot of the teaching out there.
Language is a large part of SSH. This will be expored more in depth later, but for right now I’ll say that language, how we speak to ourselves and others, is integral to the experience of living. A lot of times, when people start to meditate, they think it’s about getting rid of thoughts. Any meditation teacher will tell you that this is not how it works. There is something there, however, in the feeling that thoughts are something problematic or unpleasant, and thoughts seem to be made, largely, of language. So, if we’re going to work with ourselves, and our thoughts, it makes sense to approach it through language, and be conscious of language, our so-often silent partner.
It may be a little bit of a tangent, but language is something we can come back to again and again, as we’re looking at teaching, or at wisdom. Teaching, meditation, finding wisdom, always seem to happen in the shadow of language, and it is never enough to say, “It’s only words.” Everyone has experienced the beauty, power, and horror of words, internal and external, so to play a game that consists of pretending we can just “let go of” language is painfully unreal.
Sanity for Self and Others
This is one of the slogans of SSH. Just touching on what this means, it has to do with notions of sanity, and self. The idea of sanity is that there is insanity, which is a pretty wide-spread problem. Just consider, for a moment, your own life, and the situation that exists in the world right now. There times when you go through your routine. There are times when things are exciting, fun. But there are also lots of times when your mind is not cooperative, when interactions with others are jarring. This is what we have to work with. To begin with, we have to admit that sometimes our mental state is not entirely together, and this doesn’t mean a sort of condemnation or mental death sentence. I think people are, for various reasons, terrified of mental illness. The irony is that mental illness is pervasive (today, and maybe has always been). Once we’ve admitted that, at least on the inside, our lives are often chaotic and disturbed, we can start to connect. (As long as we’re committed to denying our own pain, our own reactions, our own problems, it’s almost impossible to even start.)
For some people, there is a situation which is set up like this: they are so afraid that they are really insane, at some level, that they will never admit that they have a difficult mental life. They are so afraid of insanity that they will put on a show, in various ways, of being normal and sane. This is simultaneous to their feeling insane. It acts as a kind of privacy maneuver, and a kind of magical invoking of the principle of sanity, faking it till you make it. Of course, that doesn’t really work. Fake sanity is just fake sanity. To really begin, you have to be willing to admit that you have problems. To get to that point, it is probably helpful to know that everyone does, and it does not mean you’re defective at some root level, or that the world is hopeless these days, or that admitting that problems exist will lead to your being ostracized along with the rest of the insane.
For a meditator, sanity is not exactly the same as what you might think. It has something to do with the sense of being honest and kind without hurting others or being fake. It is based on wisdom. Without some real wisdom, sanity can’t be real sanity; it would be something superficial, maybe some kind of normative or conformist act.
With “oneself and others,” it’s a cultural issue. In order to become more grounded, yourself, you have to involve your world, and this means your culture, your family’s culture, your town, everything. These all mean dealing with the balancing act of conformity and personal expression.
Self is something that’s hard to define, and we’ll look at the self in some depth. Of course, we won’t be able to look at the self without involving others. Speaking very broadly, one big goal of this project is to investigate the nature of self. This goes together with sanity in this approach: in order to get sane, we have to learn about ourselves. If this is similar to self improvement, or self help, it is different in terms of the understanding of who we are. It should be noted that when we talk about “self” we’re not just limiting that to human beings. The definition is larger.
In some ways, we’re getting the proper distance. Without this proper distance, insanity seems terrifyingly overwhelming. Problems can seem like condemnations. The self’s difficulties are intractable. By using the tools of meditation, contemplation, and so on, we get some distance, and a greater ability to move within circumstances.
Examples of Problems
This seems like something that is almost unneccesary. Life is so full of problems, from large to small. Looked at from the perspective of sanity/insanity, you can see lots of sadness happening for people because they are not completely sane, in their approach to themselves, and to others.
One perspective on sanity: you cannot say that it is about finding creative solutions to life’s problems (because the main problem is misunderstanding the self, and not external circumstances), but you cannot say either that you can ignore life’s problems (because ignoring external circumstances is a way to avoid living, and doesn’t work). Creativity is important, but solid solutions never present themselves, especially to those who fail to understand the self.
One example might be seeing someone who seems upset with a recurring problem in their life, that they somehow keep falling into. In spite of others’ advice, the availability of many spiritual resources, various options, they keep making the same painful mistake. This is us, as well. It is one of the main ways insanity seems to function. Why belabor this point? It’s one reason to practice, to begin with. Not only in craziness all around us, but we somehow get so used to it, that it seems sane. Negativity has become normal. It can be useful to be reminded that there is so much suffering, and there are other ways to live.
We live in recurring nightmares. If life seems good now, that’s fine, but sooner or later the nightmare comes back. If we’re practicing, if we’re really on the path, the next time around our plan of attack should be more sponaneous. Taking the same failing approach to the nightmare indicates that we’re stuck in some way.
As in the example of someone stuck repeating some mistake, this is a habit. There are good, neutral, and bad habits. This is somewhat up to you to decide, based on your opinions and understanding.
In some ways this system is extremely loose and open- you’re left on your own to reflect and decide what defines good or bad habits, or what insanity really is. In part this is due to the teachings of Tarthang Tulku and his emphasis on open questioning.
What’s a good habit? A bad one? Overall, though, habits themselves are less than conscious acts. If becoming more conscious is desirable, then we have to work on becoming less habitual. This is not about getting rid of bad habits directly, in some kind of battle of wills with oneself, although decreasing bad habits, whatever you think they are, is probably a good thing. It’s first and foremost about seeing your own habitual ways of behaving, and then beginning to loosen them. This approach is far more gentle than just trying to force goodness onto badness.
I think the issue of curbing bad habits and developing good ones is, in most ways, something that’s so obvious that I don’t need to address it. Certainly a lot of other people have worked on this side of the problem, and how best to address it. The usual thing is to try to develop good habits, and reduce bad ones, or turn bad ones into less harmful ones somehow. I think that makes sense, and I’m all for it. If you can do good things, and stop doing bad things, fantastic. The approach here is more about the moment when things become habitual or robotic, especially when dealing with negative patterns and the struggle to change them. Very often struggling to conquer a bad habit becomes a habit of its own, and this is one particular niche SSH seeks to address. On a larger scale, the habituation is what I’m looking at, more than specific habits. It follows that spontaneity becomes exceedingly important later on.
As a side note, just talking about habits could make for a very long, detailed course. It encompasses just about everything. When we’re talking about habits, it doesn’t just mean whether you eat enough vegetables, or if you’re polite to people when you’re driving. It means how you see things, the language that you use for everything, how your body moves, the interpretations you use for reality again and again. It includes every movement of the mind and body.
Working with Habits
Again, we start with observing. It’s important to observe habits, and keep in mind that this relates to the self. Pay attention to what our net of habits means for the self we experience and believe in. How much of the self is habit?
Or, to take another angle, what is repetition?
The first part of the class focuses on listing, paying attention to, tracking our own habits in every area of life. It’s important to note that this could for many or most people get, very quickly, stressful, negative, self-denigrating. If you notice you’re getting angry at yourself for some perceived pattern which you dislike, remember that this frustration will probably not make your job (observing, eventually working directly with habits) any easier.
Actually, mental self-abuse, internal hatred, what have you, seems to be deeply connected to the struggle to change patterns in life. Isn’t it often the case that there’s a sense of guilt around areas that we’re working on? What does this mean for the sense of who you are, that guilt? It’s not as simple as saying that when you fail to do what you wanted to do, you feel guilty, it’s something a little more deeply rooted and pernicious than that.
Why is it so easy to feel bad when the suffusion of habits becomes apparent? What else could we hope for?
It is very possible to observe yourself, and your habituation without feeling entirely miserable. This can create a kind of interesting distance.
Making a List
We’ll begin in a freeform way. Any habit you notice is worth taking note of. We may introduce some more structured ways of looking at this issue next class. For now, just dive in. It might be overwhelming, or it might be interesting. I would be surprised if anyone had trouble thinking of some habit that they do on a daily basis. When you go home, take some time to note habits that you notice, habits of any kind. This could mean you spoken words, your reactions to others, the foods you eat, anything at all. Next class we’ll add some focus to this part of the SSH path.
Along with the work in the journal, please find time to practice meditation every day, even just for five minutes. You can do any of the techniques we do in class. (As the class goes forward, we’ll probably do a couple of different kind of meditation. It would probably be helpful to follow along, doing what we’re learning in class, at home. I suggest that, once the class is over, if you want to keep meditating, you pick one technique and do that for a while, say a few months or longer. This accomplishes a few things: it lets you become better at a given technique, the repetition makes it a little easier to actually do, and it allows you to focus on developing certain skills and abilities, instead of jumping from one thing to another.)
What is meditation? It is a practice that allows people to develop their minds and bodies. In this way it’s very similar to other disciplines like yoga, martial arts, or prayer. In Selfless Self Help, meditation is a way to work with our thoughts, not to suppress them, or defeat them, but to transform them intelligently, or to turn them into fuel for our spiritual growth. One of the best things about meditation is its earthy quality. You sit down, usually, and do the technique, and just doing the technique some of the problem of thinking is solved right there. It’s as if the chains of language loosen right at that moment where you sit down.
A few things: first, the discpline of meditation is a key feature of this class. However, I also like to think of Selfless Self Help as basic training for any variety of spiritual person. If being that sort of person appeals, but meditation does not at all, then there are other disciplines out there worth studying. (I do believe that settling on one eventually and receiving the instructions in person from a good teacher are important.) Second, the way to deal with thoughts and language has to be a little more skillful than just demolishing. New meditators often say things about wanting to quiet thoughts, get rid of thoughts, or stop thinking. It is possible to meditate enough so that the upper reaches of the language part of the mind become clearer, less clogged, even quieter. Sad to say, though, that this can’t be done with a concerted effort, or some kind of frontal assault on the mind. Just do the technique, and things will happen, slowly. Note that there could be some element of aggression to any attempt at improvement that seeks to get rid of something, or suddenly fix something. This project is fundamentally nonaggressive.
Maybe one way to look at it is that we’re confronted with so many choices (and people always have been) and, in sitting down to meditate, those choices are significantly narrowed down. You don’t have to decide what to say, or where to go, or what to do. You just follow the breath, or become aware of the body, whatever technique it is that you’re working with. (Incidentally, if you continue practicing after this class, I’d recommend that you choose one technique to use for a while, instead of doing a different thing ever day.) The specificity, the freshness of the present moment, is brought home. Is that fresh moment important? If it is, then meditation is a good introduction to it, and a good reminder of it. Language can obscure that freshness. Language can make it too much of a battle, or inelegant. It’s not that language itself is inelegant, but it can become clumsy when its complexity takes over. It’s sort of like drinking a little too much; it’s not that alcohol itself is evil, but when your body gets too intoxicated, you become clumsier and clumsier, less and less coordinated. Language does a similar thing sometimes when it is complex. The problem is not complexity, it’s clumsiness. Meditation is a great cure for clumsiness.
I emphasize that language is not bad over and over because I see some teachers treat words like they’re the issue. What would this mean? Stop using words altogether, somehow? Treat any language-based interaction with subtle disdain and disrespect, as if the presence of words is polluting? Let’s not forget the times that words have been powerfully beneficial, meaningful, in our lives. Try looking at it this way: thoughts and emotions exist like clouds, layers and layers of clouds. They have different shapes, textures, colors even. (Maybe clouds don’t really have colors, but bear with me, imagine clouds having various colors. Maybe it’s like a sunset or sunrise- those have colors!) When you reflect on what your mind is doing, especially when you meditate, the content, the clouds, seems to be mostly words, or even all words. If you keep looking, though, you can see that there are other movements and energies around the words. I would suggest that it’s very important to pay attention to this quality of language- that there are things happening around language, and this not only shapes the language, but is a part of what we’re considering whenever we think about words, or thoughts, themselves. If you don’t like someone’s words, very often it has to do with the spaces between the words, or the things around the words themselves. This can be easy to overlook. Overlooking this part of the problem is like focusing on one little area of a cloud, ignoring all the other shifting parts around it.
Language is dualistic. It deals in contrasts. Life itself is not the same thing as the language we use to communicate it, or understand it. Life is nondual. Meditation is also nondual. It also gives us ways to work with this duality/nonduality problem. We’re stuck with language. We need it to interact, to create, to get along. Like being sold a car, though, inevitable problems come up. We need to repair things. We need to maintain it. It’s not a lemon. It does require thought, and care, though. Being able to see clearly, and address our addictions and problems involves alchemically transforming our language. Meditation is the best way to do this. It is learning to dance with words. (Unfortunately, most of the time, this dance, as we sit in a chair, or on a cushion, is not especially fun or exciting. It’s painful and boring.)
Reality itself is not language. Language describes. It is limited in ways reality is not. Those limitations can lead to confusion and wrongheaded ideas. We are, again, stuck with language. If you want to put a positive spin on it, language is the game. We can get better at playing that game.
This is a path created by the teacher Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche in the late 20th century. He created it after having come to the West, and worked with a number of American students. It is a vision that seeks to integrate philosophy, history, science, Buddhist thought, and theology. It includes both books and specific meditation exercises designed to create insight on a personal level of the TSK concepts.
So, one thing I like about Time/Space/Knowledge is that it seems designed with the contemporary Western person in mind, not in a calculated or artificial way, but in a good way; it’s based on the Buddhist tradition, a lot of it, and Buddhism can sometimes seem exotic or old-fashioned. Now TSK goes beyond the scope of this class. There’s a lot to it. I like using it to support some of the things I’m trying to do in this course.
In this class, we’ll be looking at some excerpts from this (very diverse, and long) series. One thing I find very useful about TSK is that it describes in detail the mind we see in meditation. I think during meditation, even after you’ve done it for some time, it can be easy to get foggy about what’s going on in your mind. It can become kind of a blur, during practice. At different points on the path, it is easy to zone out or not be precise about what the mind is doing. TSK gives a way to sharpen this, to see more clearly what our minds are doing. This is useful because mind is a big part of the path, both in terms of practice (meditation) and study (reading). In terms of the discussion of insanity, TSK also gives a way to see this, in terms of “constriction” or “limitation” that is, again, detailed, and thoughtful (and not entirely Buddhist).
If you’re inspired to study TSK more in-depth, there are some options for continued study. The main place to study is in California, and there are some online classes as well. Again, Selfless Self Help may be something that people want to spend some time with, but it is, for most people, probably, basic training for the path. People can study it for a while, then go on to find their real calling, spiritually speaking, with a good grounding in the basics of contemplation, meditation, self-reflection, and so on.
Common Problems with Practice
People commonly have difficulty with the physical side of it, the discipline of it, and facing themselves. The physical side easy enough to remedy. You don’t have to sit cross-legged or in an uncomfortable position. If you want you can build up to this, but sitting in a chair is fine for sitting. You can use a cushion, and find a good posture that will make it more comfortable. Of course, if you sit for half an hour, or an hour, you may begin to get achy (like you would from a car trip). There are some tips for working with this too.
One tip that might be useful is that if you start to feel very uncomfortable, physically, or if you feel some real pain right away, after you assume a sitting posture, you’re sitting the wrong way. You should be able to maintain a seated posture for at least ten minutes with relative comfort. Most people should, at the least, be able to sit in a chair for ten minutes with ease. One interesting thing is that, with a lot of pain, there’s a subtle mental element woven in with the physical element. It can be hard to tell how of the pain of sitting is actual body pain, and how much is mental complaining, resistance, laziness, et cetera. If the pain is extreme, like a broken limb, it would be easy to tell, but usually it’s not that bad, which makes it a little more confusing. That is really up to you to distinguish, to discern. I personally have trouble with falling asleep when I try to sit, to this day. It seems to happen when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed (although it also coincides with not getting enough sleep sometimes). Some small lessons to take from this: body and mind are intertwined, practice is usually slightly uncomfortable or painful (and not some kind of blissful experience), and obstacles will always come up.
Having difficulty with the discipline is a huge obstacle, but also very ordinary and not a problem. Just try to sit for a short time, at first. Sitting with a group can promote longer periods of practice, and, on your own, just start with a little. Then it won’t be too frustrating or boring. Also, dealing with this negativity is part of the point. This is sometimes called “resistance.”
Perhaps this is a mistake, but this is one of the first, and hugest hurdles new meditators tend to face: resistance. It could come in the form of being busy, finding distractions, forgetting on purpose, using intellectualization as an escape (reading a million fancy books and never finding the time to actually sit down and do it). It can be very mysterious. Somehow you just can’t find the time. Somehow you just can’t do it. Time passes, and yet somehow the discipline doesn’t establish itself, as you keep wishing you could do it, and you keep reading and discussing lofty ideas. If people are confronted with this kind of obstacle, even in a common-sense way, say, by suggesting a short practice every day, there are two common reactions: annoyance and blurriness. If someone tells you to just do it, just do your practice a little every day, in spite of your being busy, it can make you angry. Your reasons are so reasonable! You don’t have time! It’s too hard! This might be connected to feeling embarassed, put on the spot. It’s always interesting when new people have their anger uncovered. The second reaction is a kind of dreamy, dull, confusion. You don’t understand. You have reasons for why spiritual practice just isn’t happening in your routine. You’re a reasonable person. If someone suggests that there’s something fishy about your resistance, or that you might be able to do more, to try harder, it just doesn’t make sense. There must be something you’re not getting. Are they suggesting you’re avoiding it on purpose? What could that possibly mean? As you can see, the resistance to just sitting, even for a few minutes is rich with possibilities, and tends to bring up a lot of powerful, neurotic reactions.
Finally, facing oneself shows up in different formats. People complain that their thoughts are racing, or that they’re thinking more when they meditate. This could just be due to noticing their thoughts more. The question could also be, then, why is that a problem? There is a related problem, which is beginner’s awkwardness. With any new skill, it’s easy to be embarasssed about lacking skill, or feel lost. This is one reason I don’t usually play sports. It’s so embarassing.
There is a thin line between looking outward, and facing oneself by looking inward. It can be bizarrely, tremendously difficult to cross that line, stop thrashing around mentally and physically, and just look. Then, once you do it, you see how thin the line was, and most often, how unterrifynig the self you’re looking at actually is. With regards to beginner’s embarassment, try not to worry about it. At least with meditation no one can see how badly you’re doing, at least not as much as with something external, like cooking, or singing. You also don’t have to worry about any sort of product, at least for a good long time, years, so as long as you try, and keep trying, you’re okay.
Overall, if something about the practice resonates with you, then you will put up with the difficulties of it, and keep in mind that it will probably always be somewhat difficult. It’s not supposed to be some sort of diving into ease and bliss without any kind of hard work, or having to look at the shadow.
This is an important point, not going for bliss. I suspect that most teachers who talk about peace or bliss a lot don’t really experience it. One of the SSH slogans, “you can’t jump over yourself” refers to this. You just can’t create positive states of mind. You can’t will yourself into peace, or calm, or happiness. If you could, then the rest of your life would be very different. (So just do the techniques, and see what happens.)
How to Know if it’s Working
This is a tough one to answer. The view I take is that practice is not about manifesting some kind of concrete result or wealth as a kind of magic. It’s not about a miracle technique that solves all of your problems, or some kind of shortcut to happiness, an easy life, anything of that sort. So, looking for results, especially quick results is suspect.
Of course, if you didn’t want any results or change, why bother at all? Here are some ways that I think about this issue. First, there is something that draws you to the path. This is a pretty subtle, intuitive thing, but if you experience it, it’s right there. Something feels right about it, and right in a way that’s very different from the feeling of comfort, or addiction. There’s something awake and true about it.
Second, it’s about exploration. My experience of practicing has been that changes do occur, you do grow, and it has a lot to do with exploring yourself and the world and life in general. Being a meditator should mean an exploration of things. That’s both a result, an increased experience of exploring, seeing things in new ways, learning basically, and a process which you take up.
Third, it takes time. This one is straightforward. Fourth, you should become more decent, which is to say more wise and more compassionate. If a practice is shaking you up a little bit, or is disorienting, this could be okay, but if it becomes clear that the result of your practice is you becoming angrier, more negative, and so on, those aren’t good results, generally speaking.
Finally, it’s different for everyone. Realization looks different in how it manifests in different people.
It can be hard to promote meditation. If you oversell it as some kind of wellness technique, a few problems arise. First, wellness itself is problematic. It suggests, to me, a kind of watered-down, New Age spirituality disguised as health practices. Second, if people don’t get results, and the results you’re selling, quickly, you seem deceptive. You haven’t delivered. On the other side of the coin, if you put people off, telling them not to worry about results, you can also seem like a con artist- just keep going! Keep paying for classes and retreats. Sooner or later, you’ll get it. That can seem like a trick (and there are people who do that).
So there should be some results to the process, although not necessarily easy or fast results. It should click. Intuitively it should feel correct. It should not seem like a con. If money is being demanded in a deceptive, pressured, or otherwise unseemly way, that’s a problem.
Although peace is a good, eventual result, it can come through experiencing more insanity and difficulty and sensitivity for some time. Personally, I become more sensitive to sounds after a certain point, and had to work with that, with how to deal with that sensitivity, without expecting others to totally change to placate me. That’s just one example, but my point is that, when it comes to fruition, things can get more difficult before they get better, and then you have more training to do. A lot of it you have to figure out for yourself. I like the teaching that, whatever practices you’re doing, however long you’ve been at it, you should become more kind and compassionate. That’s a good benchmark.
Exploration means, first, getting yourself to “the cushion.” This can happen because you’re intrigued, fed up with yourself and your problems, desperate for help or desperate for more sanity, any number of reasons. Once you’re there, in class, or by yourself, exploration requires genuineness. You can’t jump over yourself. Let your mind do its thing. It will be embarassing sometimes, to see how childish, negative, repetitive it is. Exploring means that, at least a little bit of the time, you need to let your mind do its thing, and observe, and keep returning to the technique.
More Discussion of Habits
Another benchmark of being a good meditator is becoming less habitual. A good meditator should not be robotic. At some point along the path, you have to start becoming more spontaneous. It would not make sense for an enlightened person to be completely habitual or unspontaneous, because those ways of acting don’t go along with freedom, and freedom is a component of enlightenment. So, following on the discussion of results, spontaneity is another good one. Personally, it took me a long time to start to experience this particular result, but that could just be me, and my own uptightness.
Whenever I think about this part of the teaching, I think, what about people who are already really spontaneous? What if I taught someone who was already really comfortable with this, with being able to react quickly and loosely and without tons of planning? I guess I’ll find out. I will say that even people who tend to be less uptight and less creatures of habit probably have some areas where they go into the cocoon. Those areas are the ones to work on. If they don’t have any habits of that sort, then I guess I have very little to teach them.
By this point it’s clear that habits themselves are suspicious. It’s not enough to take a view that some habits are bad, and some are good. It’s not enough to live a life of good habits, for a number of reasons. The main one is about the nature of habit itself, which is not free.
If you don’t entirely buy this line of reasoning, think about times when you have gotten emotional in a way that you didn’t like. People often find family, I think, to be an environment where this can happen, in a frustrating and surprising fashion. There have probably been times when someone has said something to you that elicited a stronger and more emotional reaction than you would have liked. That is a habit. Habits have a life, an energy, of their own. I don’t know if the goal is to be in control entirely of habits, although maybe that’s one way of looking at it. (“Control” is such a negative buzzword in some circles, for understandable reasons, but I wonder if there’s a way to frame it so that it is enlightened, in the right context.) It can seem weird to hear that habits in and of themselves are problematic. It is possible to approach the issue in terms of good and bad, but that is not how I see it. The approach here is more general: by beginning to undo habit itself, things become slightly more spacious. In that space, choices can be made. If choices are not being made, and there are only emotional reactions and counterreactions, life easily becomes painful and insane.
Using the exercises in class, work with your habits. Observe your habits, and those of others. Try not to get frustrated or discouraged if you see yourself being very habitual. It can take time to work with this angle of the teachings, and small progress here is still progress. Also, the difficulty of changing set habits speaks to the power of this part of the mind (so don’t feel too bad about it taking time and effort, it’s like pulling up weeds with very deep roots).
I often think of the example of smoking cigarettes. I smoked for about seven years when I was young. I never smoked a lot, but it was a part of my life. (And fun, at first.) I remember trying to quit, more than once I think, and finding my hand just reaching for a smoke. I wasn’t even aware of it, I just found my hand reaching automatically for a cigarette. I was, eventually, able to quit, largely because it wasn’t that enjoyable, and I wanted to pursue physical activity more. A lot of habits work this way, however; we do them for various reasons, and run on auto-pilot. Even when you try to stop, you keep running on auto-pilot. It takes some time and real work to get out of that.
Of course, it’s possible that you’re not convinced, on some level, that habits are as problematic as I’m saying. I would suggest that, if you think that’s the case, look more at your life, and where you feel like you fall flat, where you feel depressed, or stuck, or trapped. Aren’t there habits involved there? If you investigate, I think you’ll agree.
Think of situations where you feel trapped or unable to respond effectively. Haven’t these been coming up for years and years? Those are patterns, and you can work with them. They can change. Think of situations that are heavily patterned, but that seem pleasant. Even those, I think, won’t seem so pleasant if you look at them carefully.