Sunday, 11 November 2012

Transforming Unhealthy Habits into Peaceful Enjoyment

"A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live." - British Philosopher Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (1930), p68.
"We see that we are violent, prejudiced, and selfish. We are all those things because a conditioned life based on false thinking leads to these states. Human beings are basically good, kind, and compassionate, but it takes hard digging to uncover that buried jewel." - Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, Chapter: Beginning Zen Practice, p7.
"We have habits. We have good habits and we have bad habits, and the practice of Buddhist meditation is to recognize our habits, in the form of energies, and to transform them or nourish them." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk: Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies
What if humans lost all their accumulated culture? How would we survive? It seems we are well equipped with reflexive reactions which will take care of us - fight, flee, hunt, mate, etc. These instincts would allow us to protect and feed ourselves, as well as pass on our DNA. It also appears, however, that they can now get in the way of our more civilised intentions. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn relates in his Dharma talk; Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies, p7:
"the habit of walking very quickly, running. That habit is rooted very deeply in our daily life. Maybe our ancestors used to walk very quickly and they have transmitted to us that way of walking. [...] there is a kind of energy pushing us to run, to run all our life, searching for a time, a place, when happiness is possible. So we understand why we get caught in that kind of habit, always running. We are determined to stop, to transform that habit, and we learn how to make steps that can allow us to touch life deeply in each moment."
In our modern, more enlightened world, just because one's hands curl into fists when one is angry, it does not mean one should hit somebody - if ever. In the same way, it seems our reflexive desires do not necessarily mean we need to engage in consumption or indulgence. When potentially destructive reflexive behaviours arise, we can work with them in order to maintain a positive direction. Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say, p8:
"the practice is to recognize the old habit, the negative habit, the bad habit, to recognize the energy of our habits and smile to them. And also to cultivate the new habit, the good habit, until the new habit begins to produce energy. When we have the new kind of energy, we don’t have to make any effort, we just enjoy listening to the bell, we just enjoy walking slowly, we just enjoy eating in silence, because we like it. We get the nourishment, the joy, of doing so. Suddenly, the practice becomes pleasant, joyful, nourishing."

A calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh rendered in wood and photographed by the author at Từ Hiếu Temple (where Thich Nhat Hanh began studying at age 16) near Huế, Vietnam.
It seems it is important to recognize the safety systems built into our biology in order to successfully navigate certain social and challenging environments. Mindfulness MBSR teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of our instinctive biology in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p369:
"...the deeply automatic impulse for fight-or-flight influences our behavior even when our lives are not in danger. When we feel that our interests or our social status is threatened, we are capable of reacting unconsciously to protect or defend our position before we know what we are doing. Usually this behavior compounds our problems by increasing the level of conflict. Or alternatively, we might act submissively.  When we do, it is often at the expense of our own views, feelings, and self-respect. But since we also have the ability to reflect, think, and be aware, we have a range of other options available to us that go well beyond our most unconscious and deeply ingrained instincts. But we need purposefully to cultivate these options. They don't just magically surface..."
Smiling to our biological instincts - knowing they are there to preserve human life if cultural catastrophes occur - apparently incorporates them into our being without repressing them, and makes us more whole. Kabat-Zinn, in his introduction to Full Catastrophe Living, says of this process, p11-12:
"We routinely and unknowingly waste enormous amounts of energy in reacting automatically and unconsciously to the outside world and to our own inner experiences. Cultivating mindfulness means learning to tap and focus our own wasted energies. In doing so, we learn to calm down enough to enter and dwell in states of deep relaxation."
What joyful activity can take place, then, when one's less civilised instincts are no longer being indulged? Is it all just walking slowly and eating in silence? It seems that, beyond the normal daily routines and formal mindful meditations, there are three main activities which can easily engage people during their free time, and these are:
  • cultivating other living organisms
  • cultivating artistic skills
  • cultivating community.

The author holding a papaya fruit on a tree surrounded by tomato plants in grow bags in his partner's parents garden in Sri Lanka, 2011.
It seems these activities take place in most peoples' lives in one way or another; caring for pets, photography, or supporting one's older family members could probably represent an example of each.

Of course these activities are not mindful practices in themselves, but when practiced with mindfulness, it seems they have the potential to generate peaceful enjoyment - especially if the products of cultivation are peaceful in themselves. For this reason I tend to choose to care for tropical fish over a dog, or play the flute over a drumkit. When socialising, I tend to go for walks in the countryside or sit in a teahouse, rather than spend time in a pub atmosphere.

A traditional Chinese painting of Chrysanthemums.
It seems there are many activities and phenomena which can be peacefully enjoyed without one's life turning into what could be imagined as a stark desert of lonely numbness. Even if there are few or no people practicing mindfulness in one's vicinity, there are always plants and animals waiting to join one. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step, p14:
"...everything around you is keeping your smile for you. You don’t need to feel isolated. You only have to open yourself to the support that is all around you, and in you. Like the friend who saw that her smile was being kept by the dandelion, you can breathe in awareness, and your smile will return."
A cat at Vietnamese Zen Community Plum Village, France, which sat with the author in the dining hall upon arrival in February 2010.
Ultimately it is our mindfulness practice that brings peaceful joy into our lives, and not our community, our nurturing of plants and animals, or honing of traditional artistic skills. Mindfulness practice does require one to nurture and cultivate mindfulness as a skill, however, and this becomes an art in itself; expressed through one's actions and behaviours. As the transcendentalist author David Henry Thoreau wrote in his book Walden:
"I know of no more encouraging fact
than the unquestionable ability of man
to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture,
or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful;
but it is far more glorious to carve and paint
the very atmosphere and medium though which we look. ...
To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts."
 Thich Nhat Hanh emphasises this position in his book Understanding Our Mind, when he writes, p366:
"If we are in a good environment, we get the “perfume” of the good environment. If we are in an unwholesome environment, we get the “perfume” of an unwholesome environment. Any action of body, speech, or mind can be the result of a habit energy. Some habit energies have taken thousands of years to form. Our heritage is not only what we have done in the past, but what we are doing in the present. Every word we speak and every act we perform will determine how we are. We know that if we want to come to a place of happiness and light, we must develop good habits. The best habit is the practice of mindfulness. If we live with a Sangha that practices mindfulness, we will get the perfume of mindfulness."

A lake walkway photographed by the author at Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's old monastery - Từ Hiếu Temple near Huế, Vietnam, Feb 2009.
Bertrand Russell says of quiet lives, in The Conquest of Happiness, p64:
"Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting to the outward eye."

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