Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

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Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

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Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

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This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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