What is a habit? Oxford English Dictionary defines habit as a “settled or regular tendency or practice.” Brewing a cup of coffee, stumbling into the bathroom and brushing our teeth, rising at six every morning: each is a habit, a task we ordinarily undertake. Habits may make up the mundane material of our day-to-day, but they dictate our destiny (“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our our lives,” as Annie Dillard so exquisitely says.) It’s simple: if we have good habits, we’ll lead good lives. If, for example, we’re in the habit of exercising daily and eating only healthy, wholesome foods, we’ll be fit and full of vigor. If, on the other hand, we’re in the habit of smoking half a pack of Marlboros and guzzling a gallon of Jameson every night, we’ll waste our days miserably hung over.
The beauty of habits is they’re automatic: they don’t require much— if any— effort. When we leave for the office every morning, we don’t have to consciously think “turn the key in the ignition,” “shift from break to drive,” “press the accelerator.” Nor do we have to consciously think to find our way there. Because we drive to and from work twice a day, five times a week, we instinctively know where to get on and off the freeway, where to make a right or left turn.
Where would we be without such automated, unconscious processing? Imagine how much energy we’d expend navigating streets! Or deciding what to do when if we didn’t have daily rituals to divide our days! Habits streamline our lives and sculpt the formless clay of existence into a beautiful, orderly shape. Philosopher William James went so far as to advise we make as many useful actions habitual as possible. “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work,” he believed.
Yet we don’t want to act from habit alone. British philosopher Alain de Botton views habits more pessimistically, “Much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters,” he writes, “Habit dulls our senses and stops us from appreciating.” After all, if we act out of habit, if we mechanically, mindlessly follow a routine, we’re by definition not thinking. We’re reacting rather than responding. It’s a habit to either sit and sulk or shoot back with a cutting comment when our mother makes a passive-aggressive comment about our dining room’s disarray. It’s a habit to get defensive and retaliate when our boyfriend brings up something that bothers him, even when he does so in a constructive rather than critical way.
Rather than fall into familiar roles and act out the same habitual patterns, ordained Buddhist monk and master of mindfulness Pema Chodron suggests we pause and get fully present before we react in the same unhelpful ways. In her life-changing Practicing Peace, she makes a radical, revolutionary assertion: war and peace begin with individuals, not with nations. If we want to create a more loving world, if we want to build a society based on loving-kindness and mutual respect rather than hostility and hate, we must first look at ourselves: how do we behave with others day to day? do we act with compassion and understanding or do we judge and discriminate? if there’s conflict, do we seek to find a compromise or do we wage war against our enemies? The key to peaceful relationships whether between nations and citizens or friends and family is thinking before we act and before we speak. Maintaining our composure, of course, is difficult when we feel wronged or angry. As Chodron writes:
“When we’re feeling aggressive— and I think this would go for any strong emotion— there’s a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution. We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease. It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved. Right then, we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience. But what do we usually do? We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering. We strike out, we hit back. Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there— if you can practice patience, you can catch it— but usually you don’t even realize there was any softness. You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind. It has a very unforgiving quality to it. With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain.”
What do we do when someone hurts or humiliates us? When someone attacks us, our first impulse is to fight back. Say our sister accuses us of being cheap. Outraged, we want to defend ourselves and collect evidence to support our case. Has she forgotten all the times we so generously picked up the tab? or that we just covered her share of the security deposit at our new place? How dare she call us cheap? Blood boiling, we want to shout and scream: She was the money-grubbing miser. She was wrong. She owed us an apology.
But where does hurling accusations get us? When two parties are in conflict, does criticizing or pointing fingers ever accomplish anything? Even if someone wrongs us first— makes an unfair allegation, calls us names— do we reach an amicable compromise by launching our own crusade? No, usually bombarding our enemies with bullets of belittlement only makes them fortify their walls and assault us more viciously. For there to be any hope of resolution, we must not add fuel to the flames:
“If we want suffering to lessen, the first step is learning that keeping the cycle of aggression going doesn’t help. It doesn’t bring the relief we seek, and it doesn’t bring happiness to anyone else either. We may not be able to change the outer circumstances, but we can always shift our perspective and dissolve the hatred in our minds.”
It’s a common misconception that Eastern religions advocate pacifism that borders on passivity. Buddhism recalls images of monks meditating serenely in monasteries or sitting cross-legged beneath bonsai trees, their tranquil faces radiating joy and peace. To be spiritually enlightened, we imagine we have to be similarly all-loving and all-forgiving. If a cashier is rude to us, if a hostess is discourteous after we’ve been waiting an interminable two hours to be seated, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be irritated/irate/angry.
Buddhism may advise us to pause and reflect before we rant and rave, but it never recommends we repress or deny our feelings. We should validate how we feel: it is upsetting when the grocery store clerk barely raises his head to say hello, it is infuriating when the hostess doesn’t apologize for the long wait. We can feel our feelings but choose how to express them. The goal is to bring more alertness, awakeness, and aliveness to our interactions with our fellow human beings. Or—to paraphrase the poetic Rebecca Solnit— we can feel ire without inflicting it. No matter how strong the urge to exact revenge or unleash our rage, Chodron encourages us to simply stay with our difficult feelings:
“So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means slowing down at that point— just pausing— instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response. You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot. But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling. You’re not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. If you wait and don’t fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous storyline and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and discomfort…This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy— knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.”
No human ability is more powerful than the word. “In the beginning was the word,” the Bible reminds us. Words birth new nations, begin and end bloody world wars. They can build bridges or erect walls, promote forgiveness or harden a grudge, resolve differences or incite rancor. They can be stitches and slings or bullets and bombs. They can bandage wounds or leave lifelong scars.
“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote. Though it’s tempting to slight our sisters when they say something mean or strike back with a spiteful comment when our boyfriend hurts our feelings or otherwise insults our dignity, retaliating only perpetuates the cycle of suffering. Yes, our boyfriend is a jackass for confessing he finds another woman attractive, but what do we accomplish by getting revenge? We make him insecure and jealous? Do we promote an atmosphere of trust by exaggeratedly checking out every remotely good-looking guy we pass on the street? Do we strengthen our relationship by intentionally drooling over every six-packed movie star we see on TV? No, no matter how much we want retribution for our lover’s insensitivity, our job in life is to keep our side of the street clean:
“At this point you’re getting to know anger and how it easily breeds violent words and actions, and this can be decidedly unnerving. You can see where your anger will lead before you do anything. You’re not repressing it, you’re just sitting there with the pulsating energy— going cold turkey with the aggression— and you get to know the naked energy of anger and the pain it can cause if you react. You’ve followed the tug so many times, you already know. It feels like an undertow, that desire to say something mean, to seek revenge or slander, that desire to complain, to just somehow spill out that aggression. But you slowly realize that those actions don’t get rid of the aggression, they increase it. Instead you’re patient— patient with yourself— and this requires the gentleness and courage of fearlessness.”
Every difficult conversation, every moment of doubt, fear, and insecurity offers an opportunity: will we reenact the same predictable patterns and believe our same habitual stories or will we behave in a new way? Will we be courageous enough to be vulnerable and open up or will we defend ourselves against possible attack by hiding behind an impregnable stockade?
Often times, anger and aggression mask a deeper vulnerability. Why, for instance, are we so outraged at discovering that our partner still stays in contact with his ex? We feel indignation perhaps because we find such a relationship inappropriate, yes, but our swearing and screaming is really just a guise for our insecurity. It’s easier to feel fury than realize just how utterly helpless we are at the hands of our beloved. Those we love— more than anyone else— have the profound power to hurt us deeply: sure, they might love us now, but one day they might reunite with their ex or run off with their skanky, short-skirted secretary. Rather than be vulnerable and reveal these anxieties to our partners (“I know you love me but it makes me feel insecure that you maintain a relationship with your ex. I worry you still harbor feelings.”), we lash out. We harden instead of soften, as Chodron might say: we call our husband a bunch of obscenities, we sulk and spoil our evening out to the movies, we reach out to our ex just to be petty. We don’t dare articulate our actual feelings (“I love you/ I need you/ I’m scared you might leave me.”):
“Behind resistance— definitely behind aggression and jealousy— behind any kind of tension, there is always a soft spot that we’re trying to protect. Someone’s actions hurt our feelings and before we even notice what we’re doing, we armor ourselves in a very old and familiar way. So we can either let go of our solid storyline and connect with that soft spot or we can continue to stubbornly hold on, which means that suffering will continue.”
How can we break destructive, dysfunctional relationship patterns and express ourselves openly and honestly? Chodron has a simple answer: live more mindfully. If we return again and again to the present moment, we can observe our thoughts from a place of detached objectivity, label our thinking as “thinking,” and choose our actions accordingly:
“Mediation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment. We train in sitting with the itch…and with our craving to scratch. We label our story lines ‘thinking’ and let them dissolve, and we come back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”
Practicing Peace illuminates how we can bring more compassion to a world so often driven apart by conflict and cruelty. With mindfulness, we can improve relationships individually and globally between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, between people of different religions, races and nationalities. For more Chodron, read how to be courageous enough to grow up and how to let pain enlarge your heart. If you want more Buddhist wisdom, learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.