Breaking Habits the Buddhist Way

Lately, I re-read Rev. Tagawa’s book on Yogacara (Hossō) Buddhism as translated by Professor Muller. Chapter Five delves into the cycle of “seeds” perfurming the mind, which in turn lead to thoughts and actions that generate more seeds. Here “seeds” refers to experiences in life (all experiences in fact) and how they leave an impression on the mind, which colors our future actions, which leads to more experiences, etc. A constant feedback loop in other words.

As Rev. Tagawa writes:

Compared to other religious and philosophical systems, Buddhism pays a considerably greater amount of attention to the matter of the inseparability of cause and effect. (pg. 48)

Which leads to habit:

We all have the tendency, whatever the situation, to opt for the easiest way out [instead of doing what's right]. By repeatedly continuing in this activity we become habituated. (pg. 57)

It never occurred to me until reading this passage again how habit begins and how it forms. It’s very much a constant feedback loop of action leading to impression on the mind, leading for further action, impressions, etc. Habituation, and forming of bad habits isn’t just an issue of will-power, it’s something that goes beyond the conscious mind to whatever impressions one might have picked up in the mind.

This got me thinking about what triggers, or circumstances in my life, cause the latent impressions to manifest in thought and activity. For example, I tend to drink a lot of Coke, even though it’s very bad for the teeth, has no nutritional value, high in sugar, and wastes money. I don’t drink it daily, but often in certain times, such as when I am tried from not sleeping enough (sugar replacing sleep, in other words), or when I feel like celebrating. The latter is probably habits I picked up at a younger age when it was fun to drink Coke.

But then I started thinking that rather than just relying on will-power alone, if I start to observe the triggers and situations that cause me to want to drink, maybe I can avoid those triggers and thus stop drinking Coke. This is a work in progress right now, but if you think about it, it can be applied to any undesirable habits one might have. Willpower is fickle, and not always reliable, so you have to also observe how your minds works and what triggers habits that are unwholesome. You might not ever be able to remove those habits but at least deflate them by not reinforcing them. Otherwise, those are situations when the unwholesome seeds might manifest, leading to further undesirable action.

Self-examination and observation of oneself is the cornerstone of the Buddhist lifestyle of course:

At length, coming to an awareness of this [habituation], we realize that it shouldn’t be, and the mental factor of regret (Skt. kaukṛtya) beings to take hold. Is this not our most authentic mode of being?….While one can always make the excuse that we are “only human”, the awareness brought about from the Yogācāra perspective should help to prevent us from becoming fully immersed in pleasure and ease. (pg. 57)

The importance of having a clear perspective on life should not be understated.

Namo Yakushi Nyorai

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