"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Kicking the Habit

"Compassion and resilience are not, as we might imagine, rarefied human qualities available only to the saintly.  Nor are they adventitious experiences that arise in us only in extraordinary circumstances.   In fact these essential and universally prized human qualities can be solidly cultivated by anyone willing to take the time to do it."
― Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

“Because you are alive, everything is possible.”
Thich Nhat Hanh,  
Living Buddha, Living Christ


I think one of the most exciting discoveries to emerge from medical science is neuroplasticity.  

Even in cases where there has been fairly severe physical damage to the brain, research now indicates that new neural pathways can be created. With proper stimulation, undamaged neurons can even sprout new nerve endings.  Certain functions can even be transferred from a severely damaged hemisphere of the brain to the other!  Faculties and behaviors can be restored.  Healing can happen.
How cool is that!? 
Creatures of Habit 

Most schools of psychology agree that our basic personality is formed very early in our lives through the interplay of our genetics and the conditioning we receive in our interactions with the world around us.  As we mature, most people come to experience a "me," with a recognizable set of beliefs, attitudes, emotions and behaviors.  This "me"seems to be substantial and real -- and fixed into place.   
Modern science -- and, of course, the traditional teachings of Buddhism -- both challenge that widely shared perception.  Neuroplasticity  indicates that we can alter the elements of that personality.  We can transform the ways we view and act in the world in fundamental ways. 
As research techniques and imaging technology have advanced, modern science has been able to get a much better understanding of the brain and the vast network of nerves that are involved in creating our experience of life.  What we perceive, feel, and do relies on neural pathways, deeply conditioned sequences of synapses in our brains and elsewhere firing in predictable ways.  For the most part, this operates "out of sight" beneath the level of our awareness.
This certainly explains why many of us seem to go stumbling along entertaining deep yearnings to do certain things (or not do certain things) -- and we fail to change.   In my case, I want to be a kind, caring, compassionate person.  I've wanted to act constructively and productively in my life.  All too often over the years, I've ended up being a jerk -- and not getting the job done. 
Thankfully,  Western Science is now indicating what many of us have sensed to be true.  The phenomenon of neural plasticity indicates that change is possible.  It even happens at the cellular level!
Contrary to the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Kicking the Habit
I'm grateful to have come of age at a time when the spiritual traditions of Asia brought various forms of meditation into my life.  Mindfulness Practice has been crucial in transforming how I experience and act in the world. With Practice, I have been able to bring awareness to what had previously operated subconsciously.  In doing so, over time, I have been able to "rewire" my responses. 
Research has shown that meditation can and does alter the way that our brains function.  Studies even indicate that, over time, there are positive organic changes in the brains of longtime meditators!  This affirms what the sages, seers, and saints of the world's spiritual traditions have been saying all along.  We human beings have access to more exalted ways of being.  We are capable of incredible courage, deep compassion, and insight.  We are capable of Love.  
With Practice, we can kick the habit of being who we have been --  in deep and fundamental ways.  We can become the persons that we yearn to be.  We can get it together.  
I know this to be true.
To wit: I had a violent temper.  I was raised in a household where angry outbursts occurred often.  Like my father and older brother, I could readily fly into a rage and lash out verbally-- or physically.  My younger brother and I fought often.  Even though I was inspired by the teachings of Dr Martin Luther King as a high school student, non-violence was only an aspiration. I struggled with anger into adulthood.   
(READ MORE)   Being the Change
I haven't gotten enraged in a long, long, time.  I can usually notice when I'm tensing up long before the adrenaline kicks in.  I blame the Practice for this.

I can still be a jerk at times, of course, but it usually doesn't get any worse than a relatively mild level of irritation or annoyance.  If it gets to the level that I deliver a sarcastic or unkind remark, (in my inner dialogue or in communication with others) I am usually able to catch myself and hit the reset button.  (I may need to just drop the whole train of thought that fueled that particular fire and move on to something else.)
On the rare occasion that an angry expletive erupts, it gets my attention immediately.  I may have to get serious about taking a few conscious breaths, letting go of the narrative, and attending to the underlying emotions.  Tonglen Practice really helps to transform these energies in these situations.  If I can't then quickly let it go and apologize,  I may have to withdraw for awhile to get it together.
Yet, more and more, a deep compassion for myself and the other person emerges most of the time.  I usually remember that I and the other person are lovable jerks, after all-- and I'm ready to do what needs to be done -- or undone.  
Just Sit On It, Buddhy!

How does Just Sitting Still regularly help with all this?

With Practice, we are able to engage the present moment with a quality of consciousness that is clear, open, nonjudgmental, and caring.   Cultivating the ability to place our attention where we choose to -- learning to do that in a relaxed and sustained manner -- the range of our attention expands to include an awareness of a lot of stuff that usually operates subconsciously.  A whole realm of sensations, feelings, emotions, intuitions, subtle thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs comes into view.  In the space of mindful awareness, we come to see how that operates.  Rather than reacting reflexively, we are now free to respond consciously.  With an open heart and a clear mind, we can choose compassion and care. 
This is where real change is possible. 
So, if you're reading this and haven't begun to develop your own regular Practice, the ball is in your court.  Why not let go off the habit of mucking ahead as you always have and start a new set of habits?  
If you really do want to be a kinder, calmer, clearer and more compassionate human being, you could start with the next breath.  You can relax, look around you, and listen to your heart.  If any of this seems to feel true to you, why not make the decision to meditate regularly? You can even start with a commitment to Just Sit Still and pay attention to your breath  and body for a few minutes a day.
If you stick with it, your experience of Life, like that of many others will change. 

It's a kick!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you