Questioning Habit Energy

By Jack Lawlor

Each day, our culture sends innumerable messages urging us to consume. If we are modestly observant, we can see that many human consumption patterns threaten the air we breathe, the forests we admire, the other species we profess to love, and even the ability of less fortunate people to earn a living wage under adequate working conditions. And yet we struggle to curb our desire to consume even more, even when we’ve sensed that compulsive consuming thwarts-rather than enhances-our ability to live happily and to be truly free.

Our habit energies know us well, and we often feel stuck in them. Think of all the energy we expend on this never-ending, never satisfied cycle of appeasing our wants! The Irish novelist, Flann O’Brien, found a kind of humorous pathos in our tendency to be recidivist victims of desire. In his brilliant novel, The Third Policeman, O’Brien’s characters are condemned to an eternity of repeating the same patterns, circulating the same emotional landscape over and over, by their unacknowledged grasping. In Buddhist terms, O’Brien was describing manifestations of karma.

The teachings of the historic Buddha look deeply into the connection between desire and suffering. The First Noble Truth sets forth the Buddha’s observation that life contains suffering and unease; the Second Noble Truth observes that grasping and clinging are often a direct cause of this suffering. We are invited to experiment with these insights. We may well find that it is unhealthy to incessantly feed the flames of desire, yet we do. We often give in to compulsion in an effort to appease it, only to find that a fresh compulsion arises. If we give way to a fraction of the messages we receive urging us to consume, or if we give way to every desire that arises in us, we will find ourselves spent and exhausted. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Second and Third Realizations of the Great Beings candidly assess the relationship between compulsive desire and our experience of unhappiness:

… more desire brings more suffering. All hardships in daily life arise from greed and desire. Those with little desire and ambition are able to relax; their bodies and minds are free from entanglement.

… the human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes unwholesome actions to ever increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace, in order to practice the Way, and consider the realization of understanding as their only career.

The good news experienced by the Buddha is that freedom from destructive habit energy is possible, and that the way is an Eightfold Path of appropriate view, thinking, mindfulness, speech, action, diligence, concentration, and livelihood-practices that enable us to dwell in freedom during this very lifetime. These teachings are known as the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. For most of us, liberation from compulsive behavior does not arise from intellectually grasping the Buddha’s analysis or memorizing the various lists that summarize the Buddha’s teachings. Instead we make real progress in liberating ourselves from compulsive behavior when we directly experience the fruit of the teaching.

We are fortunate to practice in a mindfulness tradition that emphasizes the centeredness and peace provided by conscious breathing. Everyone who has experimented wholeheartedly with sensing and feeling the breath has tasted the freedom from anxiety, fear, and compulsion afforded by just a few moments of dwelling in the present moment. Conscious breathing enhances our capacity to be aware and alert, not rutted or stuck on autopilot. This experience enables us to stop–samatha-and look deeply-vipassana. Taking refuge in the island of mindfulness in the midst of confused, chaotic, and turbo-charged contemporary circumstances enables us to be the calm person in the cultural boat of consumerism. When we practice samatha, we find a respite from our habit energy of consuming in order to fill the aching void we sometimes find within ourselves, particularly when we feel tired, stressed, or unappreciated.

Taking refuge in our breath in the midst of doubt and confusion provides a moment of freedom and the option to follow the road usually not taken. If the desire to consume frivolously arises, we can recognize its emergence and disengage from it for a moment by enjoying our breathing. Rather than be swept away by habit energy, we can pause and observe what is actually going on. We can take a moment to reflect on how our habit of giving way to compulsion often gives way to greater complications, weariness, and suffering. And we have an opportunity to look deeply into the causes and conditions of our desire, in order to transform at the base our habit of compulsive acquisitiveness. A complete mindfulness practice involves both stopping and looking deeply in this way.

I have found that moments of desire are a precious opportunity to practice an insight meditation inspired by the chapters on Right View and Right Thinking in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. There, Thay essentially invites us to ask ourselves four questions: “Am I sure?” “What am I doing?” “Hello, habit energy! What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?” and “Where is the bodhicitta, the mind of love, in myself and those I am with, and how do I nourish it?” For me, these questions are a kind of natural koan that arises in the context of daily life. The moment of freedom provided by our practice of conscious breathing gives us the chance to ask these questions when confronted by desire.

We are constantly urged to consume. When we are surrounded by the Sunday morning paper, gleaming with colorful advertisements, the thought arises in us that we need a new car. The day provides a wonderful opportunity to remain home, alone or with loved ones, but the seed of new car ownership is also arising. We breathe, smile, and say hello to the thought, perhaps breathing through it to sense its marrow. I find it is helpful to ask Thay’s question, “Am I sure? Am I sure I need a new car? Don’t I already have one with only 114,000 miles? Am I sure I want to disrupt the grace and ease of a lazy Sunday morning at home with the family, the funny papers, and Dave Barry’s humor column? And aren’t car dealerships closed on Sundays?”

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Nonetheless, the day will come when the air conditioning breaks down for the second time, making it uneconomical to engage in further auto repairs. I may find myself at the dealership, being magnetically attracted to the Behemoth showroom. Thay’s second question arises then, like a guided meditation, “What am I doing? I came here to buy a replacement for my 1991 Ford Taurus and I find myself eye-level with the floorboards of new Gigantors. The family, the dogs, and I can make do with much less. What am I doing? Why? Am I about to affiliate with a symbol rather than a reality? If the goal is to vacation with the family in a natural setting, why not go home and make plans to do that rather than purchase a symbol that proclaims that some day I may get around to doing it?”

If we look deeply into our consumption patterns, we may find the same theme recurring beneath the surface of our behavior. “Am I trying to make a statement rather than ‘walk the talk’? Am I trying to find an easy way to affiliate with an image rather than live genuinely and free? How much time, money, and energy are spent on this kind of behavior? How many hours of extra work?” This is Thay’s third question: “Hell o, habit energy. What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?”

Oftentimes, when we are mindful and awake, the mere recognition of habit energy will drain it of much of its strength. On the other hand, some of our habit energies are quite strong, having been well-nourished and accommodated for many years. When strong habit energies are encountered, we can also nourish what is strong and healthy in us. For example, many Americans have strong seeds that value equality and fairness. When we weigh our consumer tastes against the air pollution and resource depletion that results from our consuming, our desires may be tempered by empathy for other people and species who share our desires to breathe air and drink water that is as clear and unpolluted as possible. “Where is the bodhicitta in myself, and in those I am with?” we might ask. This is Thay’s fourth question: “What is the best way to nourish the mind of love?”

How do we nouri sh what is best in ourselves and others? How do we water the seeds of compassion? If our insight meditation proceeds to this question, the interdependence of self and other becomes clear, and the Dharma door to taking refuge in Sangha is thrown open. Individually, we feel weak in the face of habit energies, especially those that are fed with the vigor of our mass culture. Collectively, as a Sangha, we can slowly build what Thay and Father Daniel Berrigan call a “community of resistance” to societal and individual habit energies. Practicing alone, our efforts may seem minor and insignificant. Convening regularly as a Sangha to sit in meditation and explore the Mindfulness Trainings, we know that we are part of a collective effort to transform suffering at the base.

The practice has both individual and collective manifestations. A few years ago, I read a little cartoon showing two meditators sitting beside each other on their cushions. One turned to the other and said, “Can you watch my breath for me? I have to feed the parking meter.” Of course, neither the Buddha nor Thay–nor monks and nuns, nor the local Sangha–can watch our breath for us. They cannot practice samatha for us, or ask Thay’s four insightful questions about our habit energies. Nonetheless, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha serve us as a kind of collective compass that helps in moments of doubt and confusion. And even when doubt and confusion arise, with a few moments of conscious breathing, we can take refuge in the sanctuary of mindfulness. Taking refuge in this practice in the midst of temptation, habit energy, and confusion can provide us the opportunity to ask a few very important questions about what we are actually doing. Most practitioners find that stopping and looking deeply can free us from the compulsions that rob us of our time, our freedom, and our happiness. We can learn from small successes in taking the road not usually traveled. We build upon these small successes and pretty soon, we’re following the very Eightfold Path the Buddha spoke of as the means to transform our suffering.

As the founder of our lineage, Lieu Quan, observed in his enlightenment verse, “For the realization of True Emptiness to be possible, wisdom and action must go together.”

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Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, practices with Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and leads retreats throughout the American Midwest.

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The Fifth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption. I am committed to cultivating good health. both physical and mental. for myself. my family. and my society by practicing mindful eating. drinking. and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace. well-being. and joy in my body. in my consciousness. and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins. such as certain TV programs. magazines. books. films. and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray  y ancestors. my parents. my society. and future generations. I will work to  transform violence. fear. anger. and confusion in my self and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.