Let Go; A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits - Terebess

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Let Go Let Go A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits Martine Batchelor Wisdom Publications 199 Elm Street Somerville MA 02144 USA www.wisdompubs.org © 2007 Martine Batchelor No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photography, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system or technologies now known or later developed, without permission in writing from the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Batchelor, Martine. Let go : a Buddhist guide to breaking free of habits / Martine Batchelor. p. cm. Includes index. ISBN 0-86171-521-7 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Meditation—Buddhism. 2. Habit breaking—Religious aspects— Buddhism. 3. Buddhism—Doctrines. I. Title. BQ5612.B36 2007 294.3’4435—dc22 11 10 09 5 4 3 2 Cover design by Pema Studios. Interior design by Dede Cummings. Set in Caslon 11.5/15.5. Wisdom Publications’ books are printed on acid-free paper and meet the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources. Printed in the United States of America This book was produced with Environmental Mindfulness. We have elected to print this title on 30% PCW recycled paper. As a result, we have saved the following resources: 11 trees, 8 million BTUs of energy, 991 lbs. of greenhouse gases, 4,113 gallons of water, and 528 lbs. of solid waste. For more information, please visit our website, www.wisdompubs.org. This paper is also FSC certified. For more information, please visit www.fscus.org. To Lena and Alex who bring me joy and keep changing Publisher’s Acknowledgment The publisher gratefully acknowledges the generous help of the Hershey Family Foundation in sponsoring the printing of this book. Contents Introduction Patterns Meditation Grasping Mental Habits Lost in Emotions Signals of the Body Recovering from Addiction Love Compassion Ethics A Creative Path Afterword Acknowledgments Bibliography Index Introduction Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits is a book concerned with the transformation of compulsive habits and an exploration of how meditation can support this transformation. As a teacher of meditation for the past twenty years, I have met hundreds of people on courses and retreats, and most people, I have found, are drawn to the practice of Buddhist meditation because they feel blocked somehow or are suffering in some way, in some kind of pain. They hope that meditation will bring them stability and clarity, thus enabling them to deal better with their difficulties. In particular, I have been struck by how much people suffer from persistent habits of behavior that dominate their mental, physical, and emotional lives, and from which they feel powerless to escape. I have been greatly inspired by the changes people have made in understanding and transforming their habitual patterns through applying different kinds of Buddhist meditation. The meditations described in the book are drawn from different Buddhist traditions. I introduce the practice of mindfulness as a means to focus the mind in order to see clearly what is happening in each moment. This is complemented by the Zen practice of meditative questioning, which helps one understand more deeply what lies at the root of repetitive behavior and what triggers that behavior. Each chapter concludes with an exercise or a guided meditation as a tool for the reader to work with negative habits in a new and creative way. I start this book by looking at how patterns of behavior emerge through learning and repetition. For example, fear, an emotional pattern that affects us all, can have both positive and negative effects. It ranges from a healthy survival mechanism to a blind reaction that can distort the reality of the situation we face. This leads me to ask: Which are the patterns that we need to change and which are not? And, if they need to be changed, how might we accomplish that? I explain the crucial role meditation has played in transforming some of my own negative and painful habits. I present meditation as a positive and constructive pattern that has the power to transform our painful habits. One key element of Buddhist meditation is concentration, which helps calm the mind, thereby lessening the power of blind reactivity. Another essential element is inquiry. This helps illuminate the changing nature of experience, thereby unlocking the rigidity that so often results from compulsive habits. When practiced together, concentration and inquiry merge into a nonjudgmental awareness, which enables us to start looking at ourselves and our world in a different way. By bringing the power of such awareness to our experience, we may discover that grasping underlies all negative habits. I point out the dangers of “positive” grasping—as when we strongly desire something—and “negative” grasping—as when we are filled with hatred and rejection. In reducing us to what we desire or hate, both forms of grasping limit the possibility of our responding creatively and freely to the situation. Meditation enables us to experience how grasping happens when the senses are stimulated. By listening in a meditative manner, for example, we can learn to hear even unpleasant sounds in a calm and expansive way. Thus listening can be a point of entry either for negative grasping (“I cannot stand this noise”) or for freedom from grasping (“I can creatively engage with this noise”). Mental habits have a tendency to be repetitive, making us feel flat and two-dimensional. In this book, I look at a few such habits, like daydreaming and judging, in detail. I also explore the types of inner language we use to describe our experience to ourselves and how it can influence our experience. Awareness helps us to recognize how our habitual patterns of thought have a profound influence on the way we feel. Such habits shape our personality and lock us into fixed forms of behavior. By using questioning meditation we can create a new relationship to our thoughts and thus begin to change the way we think and, subsequently, behave. I look at how Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz used meditation to create a new way to deal with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I also point out that there seem to be three levels to our mental habits, which I call “intense,” “habitual,” and “light”—and I propose three separate meditative techniques to deal with these different levels of patterning. The moment at which a feeling of pleasure or pain begins to turn into a disturbing emotion is the point at which meditative awareness can be most effective. For example, a simple feeling of sadness can easily spiral into a dark and painful emotional state in which we get lost in the “Poor Me” syndrome, convincing ourselves that we are unloved and alone in the world. I explore frequently experienced emotional habits associated with anger, depression, boredom, loneliness, and anxiety. I introduce a practice of meditation on feeling-tone (i.e., pleasure, pain, and indifference) as a powerful tool to help us experience our feelings more directly, accept them for what they are, and work with them in such a way that they do not develop into disturbing emotions. I also present the work of John Teasdale, Mark Williams, and Zindel Segal who developed a method called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for prevention of relapse in depression. In addition to mental and emotional habits, we also develop “physical” habits, often as a result of an unskillful or unhealthy relation to the body, such as ignoring or suppressing, due to our tendency to be lost in thoughts and overwhelmed by emotions, the important signals our body may give us. I introduced a practice of body-awareness as a means to give us better access to our sensations. I consider the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose innovative stress-reduction methods using mindfulness meditation have been found to be highly effective in dealing with physical pain and one’s relationship to it. Next, I explore the question of what we can do when the mental, emotional, and physical habits become so fixed and powerful that they turn into addictive behaviors. Meditation has been found to be a valuable component in a multipronged approach to recover from addiction. It is able to provide the vital elements of stability and spirituality. I present how people have successfully combined meditation and the Twelve-Step program, and I suggest that the Buddhist concept of the ten perfections could be used as a template to support people who are recovering from addiction. Our painful habits can also inhibit the potential we have for developing loving relationships with other people. These destructive habits are able to undermine even the feelings we have for our partner, children, family, or friends. By enabling us to see these patterns more clearly, meditation can provide us with the insight and courage needed to transform them. It can also show us how acceptance and trust lie at the root of love. Moreover, with practice we cultivate greater self-confidence. This makes us less dependent on others for our sense of identity and breaks down the fear that might prevent us from establishing a healthy, trusting relationship. Rather than making us aloof and detached, meditation has an important role to play in issues of intimacy and sexuality. All life has a social dimension. We are alone but inescapably linked to others in this world. Thus, the question of how we actually treat other people is of utmost importance. Is our behavior driven by deep-seated habits of self-interest? How can we move from a predominantly self- centered relationship with the world to an increasingly other-centered one? By reflecting on the fundamental equality we share with others we can feel empathetic identification, which we can then transform into compassionate acts of body and speech, and even mind. In conjunction, meditation and compassionate ethics challenge us to respond to unique and unprecedented situations in a caring and creative way instead of reacting blindly according to our habits. Finally I consider how we can practice meditation in the hustle and bustle of daily life. I believe that we can dissolve the negative power of our painful habits and transform them, thereby actualizing our potential for wisdom, compassion, and a creative life. In Zen Buddhism, the ten “Ox- herding Pictures” compare the stages on the meditative path with an ox- herder’s search for and taming of the unruly ox of the mind. I interpret these images from the perspective of understanding and taming our destructive patterns. Although originating in ancient China, these pictures continue to serve as signposts for a radically new way of living our lives in this world today. 1 Patterns Repetition and Adaptability I once saw a four-million-year-old ant inside a piece of amber. It looked exactly like any ant I would find in my garden today. In spite of having had to adapt to changing environments for millions of years, modern ants have remained more or less identical in appearance to that ant in amber. Ants are both extremely resilient and adaptive, which explains why they have been able to survive for so long in almost exactly the same form. Everything alive has evolved though replication. Repeated patterns in conjunction with occasional mutations are what make the emergence and transformation of life possible. If there were no stable patterns that repeated themselves, it would be impossible for any creature to continue in a consistent form. But were there only repetition and no possibility of variation, the living system would be unable to adapt to change. Thus repeated patterns ensure stability while random mutations allow the possibility of adaptation to new circumstances. Repetition and adaptability are equally essential for life to continue and evolve. Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, argues that cultures evolve due to the spreading of information and the development of commerce, enabled by self-interested co-operation. He points out that authoritarianism, which seeks to protect the interests of those in power, often tries to stop change. By suppressing variation, the result is either stagnation or regression, which in the end only breakdown and chaos will change. Likewise, when we too are stuck in a fixed pattern of behavior and resist change, it too can cause us to stagnate or regress. We have a choice. Do we want change to be the result of a chaotic breakdown, or do we want to be a responsible agent, creatively involved in the flux and transformation of our own lives? Neuroscientists argue that novelty in solving problems is linked to the right hemisphere of the brain, while cognitive routines are linked to the left. Both novelty and familiarity are essential for learning. Learning begins in finding a response to changing situations, which then gives rise to habitual patterns of response once we have been repeatedly exposed to similar situations. As human beings we are constantly moving from novelty to rote behavior. As a child grows and develops, it is through establishing patterns of behavior that he or she learns how to eat, walk, go to the toilet, read, and write. We are surrounded by patterns; we are made of them and live by them. Some patterns, like eating, are necessary for our survival. Others, like driving a car, are learned activities that make our life easier. Both can simply remain as abilities that we possess or have learned. But they can also develop in positive and negative directions. You can eat wisely and appropriately or greedily and inappropriately. You can be a responsible driver or a dangerous one. What patterns of behavior do you want to cultivate? Are you conscious of how a pattern can start to have a negative effect? And do you want to do something about it? Afraid of the Dark? I used to be terrified of the dark. When I was a Buddhist nun in Korea, amenities were basic and the toilets were outside. I was so frightened of going to the toilet at night that I would have heart palpitations from imagining that a man with a knife was going to creep up from behind and attack me. One winter, my companion nuns and I decided to sit in meditation all night without sleeping for five days. I was very worried. How would I manage to go to the toilet throughout the night? So I went to my Zen master, Kusan Sunim, to ask his advice. He told me that whenever I felt afraid, I should return to my object of meditation, which, in the Korean Zen tradition, was the question “What is this?” I thought the Zen master’s question would work as a kind of talisman and thus protect me from any danger. It worked well. My fear vanished when I went to the toilet and I survived the all-night meditation sessions. Some time later, though, it struck me that it was not a magical trick at all. My teacher had given me the gift of paying attention to the present moment. As soon as I came back to the question “What is this?” on my way to the toilet, instead of feeling anxious, I would find myself standing with my feet on the ground, deep in the mountains, in a large monastery in Korea. Who on earth would even know I was there, let alone plan to attack me in the middle of the night? We often find ourselves in the grip of such emotional patterns, which we then reinforce with habitual patterns of thought. It is entirely natural to be afraid in the dark. It is a good survival mechanism, a valuable adaptive strategy. Because we cannot see well in the dark, our autonomic nervous system is activated and we are primed, ready to move fast at the slightest sign of danger. For a woman walking alone at night in an unknown part of a city, this mechanism is just as important today. But in rural Korea, I would have been far safer at night than during the day, when all sorts of people were coming in and out of the monastery grounds. Some patterns of behavior may be instinctive reactions that no longer make much sense, but once in their grip we still suffer the stress and fear that they provoke. Who Is Going to Change? My nephew and my grandmother did not get on at all well. So when the two of them were obliged to stay alone together for four weeks at my mother’s house, I was called in to serve as a peacemaker. By the time I arrived, war had been declared and the two of them were not even speaking to each other. Since my grandmother was eighty-five and my nephew twenty-four, I realized that there would be a better chance of getting my nephew to change his ways than my grandmother. I took him aside and asked him why he was so upset with grandma. He said he had trouble with the way she did things —even when they discussed something, he said, they could never see eye to eye. I asked him if he thought it realistic to expect grandma at her age to change her ways of doing things just to please him. He thought about this for a while, then agreed that, yes, grandma was too old and set in her ways to change. He accepted that the only thing to do was for him to adapt to her and behave differently. A truce was declared and a peace was established