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Posts Tagged ‘The Power of Habit’

Bowing in gratitude

However much we may differ in other ways, nearly all of us share one common trait. We all have bad habits. And for those of us who are married, one of the chief functions of a spouse, it often seems, is to point them out.

My personal repertoire of unfortunate habits includes leaving cupboard doors open in our rather small kitchen. After opening one to fetch a plate or bowl, I sometimes neglect to close it. So it was the other day, when I banged my knee on a lower cupboard door, and my wife kindly noted that if I stopped leaving cupboard doors open, I might also stop banging my knees, or my head, as the case may be. Perhaps after a day of nursing a sore knee, I have finally got the message and will make an effort to mend my ways.

Such efforts can sometimes be successful, at least where behavior is concerned. Far more difficult, I have found, is any attempt to change one’s habitual attitudes. By their very nature, habitual attitudes are resistant to change. Driven by what Buddhism calls “habit energy,” they bear a force as powerful as tornadoes and no less capable of causing serious damage. As with habitual behavior, each time we voice or demonstrate a particular attitude, be it kindness or hostility, reverence or derision, we reinforce that habitual attitude and the energy behind it, making it all the more difficult to change.

One such attitude is that of habitual complaint, which seems close to universal. Is there anyone among us who can emulate the example of Sono, the woman in an old Zen story who ended each day by saying, “Thanks for everything. No complaints whatsoever”? For one thing, the habit of complaint has probably been with us from the cradle. And for another, we have plenty of things to legitimately complain about—the environmental degradation caused by fossil fuels, for example, or the polarization of our polity, or, not least, the dramatic rise of toxic noise pollution in American life. But all that said, the habit of complaint, as distinguished from the justified choice to complain, is one we might well prefer to eliminate, for others’ sake as well as our own.

Unfortunately, if there is one thing that recent research on habits, as reported in such books as Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2020), has determined, it’s that few if any of our deeply ingrained habits can be entirely expunged, as if they were ugly stains in a carpet. Yes, we can become aware of our habits, as Zen teachings describe, through the practice of mindfulness, and thereby gain a modicum of control. But, as Duhigg convincingly explains, the most effective way to change a habit, behavioral or mental, is first to become aware of it, and, second, to consciously replace that habit with another.

With respect to the habit of complaint, the prime candidate for such replacement is the habit of gratitude. As the Zen teacher John Daido Loori once pointed out, it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time. Likewise, the attitudes of grievance and thankfulness are largely incompatible. In contemporary American life, it’s fair to say, the presence of the former threatens to overwhelm the latter. Many of us expend far more energy complaining than we do expressing gratitude. But the restoration of a proper balance between complaint and gratitude, at both the personal and societal levels, will probably not happen all by itself. It will take concerted effort. And giving thanks once a year—or even once a week—or noting our good fortune from time to time will probably not suffice.

What is needed is an active, regular practice. Bowing every day in gratitude, as Loori recommends, is one such practice. Making a daily list, as others have suggested, of those things for which one is—or might be—grateful is another. Having recently adopted that practice myself, I can attest to its efficacy. Indeed, having made it one of my daily rituals, I have been surprised by the number of things I have to be grateful for. The list, it would seem, is endless.

Whatever practice one chooses, however, the important thing is not so much the means as the ultimate aim: the habitual attitude being created, cultivated, and integrated into one’s everyday life. It is all very well to celebrate Thanksgiving once a year or to count our blessings at periodic intervals. But with disciplined daily practice, the habit of gratitude can become more than a matter of lip service or pious self-congratulation. It can become an authentic way of being: the governing principle behind our every action and the lens through which we view our troubled world.

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Photo: A two-year-old recovered coronavirus patient bowing to a nurse outside a hospital in East China.

 

 

 

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