During my years of teaching at Alfred University, I often found myself holding a piece of paper known as a Drop/Add Form. With this form in hand, students petitioned their advisors and professors to permit them to drop a burdensome course or add a desirable one or otherwise navigate the academic system. In this way students learned to make judicious choices and take responsibility for their decisions. Meanwhile, we professors learned to use a ballpoint rather than felt-tip pen when signing a multi-carboned form.
So far as I know, Drop/Add Forms are peculiar to academic life. They are not to be found in any other line of work. But the need those forms answer and the process they represent transcend the boundaries of academia. Dropping-and-adding, it might be said, is the heartbeat of everyday life, whether the item being dropped or added is tangible or intangible, conceptual or concrete. Sometimes, as in the case of mandatory retirement, the dropping of a habitual activity is not a matter of choice. Likewise, the adding of an activity or device or medication to one’s daily round may be prescribed rather than freely chosen. But often the choice to drop or add may be more voluntary than one supposes, particularly if what is being dropped or added is a personal habit. And meditative awareness can play an integral role in that process, whether the habit be one of thought, feeling, speech, or behavior.
In her essay “Consciousness, Attention, and Awareness,” the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer has this to say about habits and awareness:
Sometimes people say, “I ought to drop this habit, but I can’t” No one is asking us to drop anything. How can we drop things when we are in our customary thinking and suffering mode? We can drop a bowl of cereal, but our habitual reactions need to be seen thoroughly as they are taking place. When there is awareness, a reaction that is seen and understood to be a hindrance diminishes on its own. It may take a lot of repeated suffering, but a moment comes when the energy of seeing takes the place of the habit. That is all. Seeing is empty of self. The root of habit too is empty.
Viewed in this way, the process of dropping habits seems as natural as swimming—once one has learned to swim. Through the cultivation of meditative awareness, our habits and habitual reactions are exposed. And once exposed, they gradually erode. The energy of habit gives way to the “energy of seeing.”
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg essentially concurs with Toni Packer but offers a more methodical approach. Drawing on scientific studies of habit formation, Duhigg explains that habits emerge “because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.” By converting routines such as walking and eating into habits, the brain conserves its energies, allowing it to focus on more advanced activities, such as “inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.” In this process of conversion, a conscious choice becomes an unconscious habit. And though the process is complex, it can be reduced to a three-step pattern, known as the “habit loop”:
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.**
If the loop does endure, it becomes automatic, as cue and reward become intertwined, and a “powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” Out of this fusion, “a habit is born.”
But can that habit be subsequently dropped? Can we replace it with another? According to the studies cited by Duhigg, our habits never really leave us. They are “encoded in the structures of our brain[s].”** But with effort, a second layer of habit can be added, effectively replacing the first. As might be expected, such an effort requires motivation, determination, and self-discipline. And it also requires an awareness of “cue,” “routine,” and “reward,” even as those steps in the process are occurring.
As an example, Duhigg cites his own habit of eating a cookie at around three o’clock every afternoon. Once he became conscious of this habit, which was adding inches to his waistline, he experimented with cue, routine, and reward, watching his responses at each stage of the process. In the manner of a Vipassana practitioner, he closely monitored his urges and became intimate with his changing thoughts and feelings.
Duhigg’s experiment succeeded. The cue, he discovered, was the time of day: three to four o’clock. The routine was getting up from his desk, going to the cafeteria for his cookie, and conversing with colleagues at the cash register. And the reward, he found to his surprise, was not the satisfaction of a sugar craving but the pleasure of social contact. Having thus identified the motive driving his habit, he replaced his “routine” with a new one: chatting for ten minutes with a colleague in mid-afternoon. At the end of the workday he felt better, and in a few weeks’ time, his cookie-habit disappeared.
As Duhigg acknowledges, not every habit can be so easily replaced. There is no quick fix for deep-seated habits and addictions—or Drop/Add Forms to facilitate the process. But as Duhigg’s experience illustrates, and as his research amply demonstrates, it is possible to drop destructive habits and replace them with new ones. And that way freedom lies.
* Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala, 2002), 134.
** Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012), Kindle edition, location 449.
*** Duhigg, 466.