Once we understand the origins of a habit we can see why, despite our best efforts, sustained happiness is so elusive in this culture. And we can see why changing habits, to borrow a phrase, is like herding cats. For example, if we attempt to point out a person’s unhealthy habit, one that they don’t see as a problem, their offended response will be righteous indignation, possibly violent. It is the same with our self. If we too energetically attempt to change a habit without the proper understanding of how that habit came to be, our efforts will be meet with great resistance and affront, quite possibly derailing our new and good intentions for change.
The pervasive illness of unhealthy lifestyle habits may be the most troubling illness of all times for ourselves and for the planet. By cultivating these six steps we can fashion a new identity of positive thought, word and action for the benefit and joy of all, especially our children. This is the persona of the 21st century, unlike the outdated and no longer viable self cherishing persona of the 20th century.
Six Steps to Health and Happiness
While my explanation of the six steps to health and happiness is linear, for optimal results, think of them as inter-dependent, worthy of merit in and of themselves, but limited in value when taken our of context from all six. Health and happiness is not about another acquisition or finding the perfect healer, it is about polishing the rough diamond of our own true nature.
Step One: Kindness
Kindness and/or generosity, the first step to health and happiness, is a keystone for changing habits and guarantee for prosperity. Lack of kindness is what initiates and perpetuates unwanted habits. Consider the characteristic nature of a habit: selfish, greedy, discriminatory, impetuous, fearful, confusing, and out of touch with the present moment. Kindness toward oneself and others, like a loving mother for her precious child, will cut the self cherishing root of all habits.
Even without the other steps, kindness of thought, word and deed will carry us a long way toward health and happiness. Yet without the sixth step, wisdom, kindness alone may leave one naive and gullible, while wisdom without kindness may leave one too harsh.
Here’s an example of how self cherishing habits of greed and desire masquerade as a means to happiness.
Many of us suffer from the bondage of acquisition. I want _______ (i.e. shiny new car, sweetheart, etc.) and can’t live without it. Once we acquire said object we think “oh I’m so happy now that I have _____”. Often the happiness we attribute to our new possession is not really about the new whatever, but simply release and relief from the angst of incessant desire. This relief unfortunately is always short lived and once the novelty of said new object wears off or shows signs of wear and tear our insatiable desires re-ignite.
The flip side of desire, also bereft of kindness and also rather disgusting, is our self righteous anger ready to strike at any one who threatens to part us from our sacrosanct belongings.
In the absence of kindness, self cherishing motivations blindly propel us on an interminable quest for praise, fame, gain and pleasure. Unfortunately this has a built in self destruct once the other side of the inevitable equation plays out: blame, disgrace, loss and pain spawning anger, jealousy and other poisonous fruit.
We may think that we might die or go insane if we let go of our deepest habit of all; our self cherishing attitude. When in reality this fear is just the last remnants of confusion blocking the way to true happiness.
People often feel shame for their habits and hide them from themselves and others. It takes kindness to bring the habit into the light for examination and change. No ailment or habit has ever been remedied by a lack of kindness, so my motto is always always meet adversity with kindness; you can’t go wrong with the truth of this philosophy. Kindness, not anger, is the balm that heals.
Step Two: Ethical Discipline
Kindness leads naturally to the second step. Ethical discipline ensures right conduct toward oneself and others. Ethical discipline, with respect and compassion, stands in direct opposition to our self cherishing habits. Self cherishing, which puts one’s own interests first, fosters anger, pride and jealousy inherent in a society troubled by haves and have nots.
The sixth step, wisdom, will shine light on the shortcomings of the misconception that ‘my needs are superior to your needs’. This misconception, countered by ethical discipline, might work if the world we lived in was made up of separate discrete entities. However, everything is connected, so an injustice done at any level of our being whether thought, word or deed will have negative repercussions confounding happiness for ourselves and others, now and in the future.
Habits foster social inequities and inequality. However, what makes us all equal is that we all want to be happy. What also makes us equal is that we all suffer. A sense of equanimity toward all, whether friend, foe or stranger plays an integral role in every habit-breaking program I am aware of.
Step Three: Patience
Kindness and ethical discipline infused with the third step to health and happiness, patience, is essential to prevent and cut the roots of unhealthy habits. Patience always benefits in response to harm.
Our 21st century conceptual plague of rushing through the day creates a boon for the pharmaceutical industry dealing anti-anxiety and insomnia medications. Stress resultant adrenal fatigue, inflammatory ailments such as diabetes and heart disease along with high octane coffee-sugar-alcohol-cocaine type habits abound in an atmosphere of personal and societal overdrive. Like kindness, patience is inimical to sustaining a habit and can be readily fostered with the aide of meditation, the fifth step to happiness.
Many diseases including Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) help to teach patience by interrupting the ‘I gotta have it now’ negative behavior habits. There is no more rushing once a person has CFIDS. Patience is essential to address anger related ailments such as heart disease and accidents, two of the top five causes of death in this society.
Pearls of Patience
•Patience is essential to allow healing to occur. •“I’ll stop tomorrow”. Without true patience there is always tomorrow, unfortunately, the next thing we know, in a flash, our life is over. We need to harness patience in order to stop that habit - today. •Patience allows us to breathe more fully, the most important ingredient in halting a host of fight or flight adrenaline laced ailments including panic attacks. •Patience allows one to look deeply within, discovering our true nature of wisdom, joy and compassion. •Cultivation of patience opens us to phenomenal strength because our energy is no longer being short circuited by the drain of conflict inherent in maintaining habits.
Step Four: Joyful Effort
With the alignment of energy born of patience one can begin to engage in the fourth step: joyful effort. Joyful effort is a bit like that initial temporary surge of energy that comes when ‘falling in love’. Harnessing and employing joyful effort is essential to overcome the fatigue and depression which results from maintaining false facades endemic to self cherishing attitudes. Looking for joy through distractions’ habits is definitely a loosing proposition because true joy comes from within.
The con of our society is that joy comes from without, not within. Children are taught to distrust their own internal joy. They’re taught that joy comes from the outside: from other people i.e. family members, events i.e. birthday parties and objects i.e. toys. This false concept robs us of our energy and power and puts it in the hands of others i.e. corporate America, investors, politicians. Breaking our self destructive habits releases the joy within, energizing and empowering.
When we move through the day and night with a different set of motivations: compassion for the well-being of others, kindness toward all (especially our enemies), patience rather than labile emotional irrationality when change occurs; then we will experience true health and happiness. Trapped by their own unexamined habits people will try to derail us, yet joyful effort can keep us on the path toward freedom from suffering.
Suffering is about: confusion of the mind, pain of birth, death and sickness. While true happiness is about clarity of mind, understanding and awareness. True joy is in the letting go: of acquisition, aversion and self cherishing attitudes. Happiness is not about what we get, but about what we do. From the words of Nobel laureate H.H. Dalai Lama: A joyful mind creates peace and peace creates a healthy body.
Keeping the first four steps in mind another habit breaking slogan naturally manifests: May my thoughts, words and deeds benefit all. Using this slogan as a marker to measure and guide our way is the most powerful method I know of to prevent and curtail negative habits.
Step Five: Meditation/Contemplation
Meditation or focused contemplation may be the most radical thing we’ve ever done, offering emancipation from this confused world of confused minds. Meditation is the antidote to distraction for those who are ready to take this step. With meditation we have a tool to analyze, investigate and test every statement in this article. Full attention to the present moment as achieved through meditation is our best guarantee for future happiness.
We cannot confront and change unhealthy habits if the mind is agitated. Denial of this is like an alcoholic who in their confusion believes that for someone else alcohol may be a problem, but not for “me”. Humans are expert at agitating the mind, yet nearly incapable of quieting the mind. The ability to quiet the mind, the mind that never ever actually stops, is essential. It allows for a clarity which brings wisdom and understanding as to how these six steps interact for healthy decision-making in a very confusing world.
The quiet and clear mind attained with meditation is definitely worth bringing along as we engage the days activities. Skills learned with meditation allow one to calmly face the most disturbing of events with curiosity, insight and the ability to act responsibly. For example, if someone says something harsh to us, we can actually take that energy and use it in a positive manner if our mind is calm and clear. If a negative thought arises in our mind, just like we learn not to put our hand in a flame, we can immediately let that thought go before it swells into a full blown drama playing out with regrettable consequences as is typical of habitual behavior.
Just like scooping up muddy water into a clear glass, in time the silt will settle and water becomes clear, so it is with our agitated minds if we pause long enough in meditation.
Meditation teaches us how to allow our thoughts and other sensory experiences to arise and slip away without getting mentally lost in distraction, sleepiness or agitation. We can learn how to use our thoughts, as opposed to being used by our thoughts. In this way we can discover the true nature of the world we live in, and by applying this understanding reduce the suffering in our life and those around us. With a quiet mind we can gain the requisite insight needed for change, in time sustaining this meditative equipoise no matter what the commotion.
There are two basic benefits of meditation: quieting (not stopping) the mind and insight into what does and does not bring true happiness and health. For specific meditation instructions please see the appendix.
Step Six: Wisdom
While it is relatively easy to witness unhealthy habits in others, often they are not so easy to see in ourselves. This is because of a basic misunderstanding which veils the true nature of the world we live in. Wisdom penetrates this veil. Born of the previous five steps, especially that of meditation, wisdom illuminates and makes sense of the world we live in while providing viable alternative behaviors to those all too familiar habits. Here are some examples of what wisdom and insight reveal on the subject of habits.
Children are keenly dependent on a nurturing environment, such as a mother’s loving kindness, for their survival. While congruent with childhood, this early life relationship of dependency programs adults to be easily capitalized on as consumers in a capitalistic society. It leaves us with an almost archetypal handicap of subservience. When this sense of dependency is coupled with a dysfunctional approach to stress management, habits become pervasive and persistent.
Unhealthy habits are all about the intoxication of distraction. As youngsters we learn to cultivate distraction as a coping technique when faced with incomprehensible and insurmountable events or series of events such as a dysfunctional family and society. No one is immune from this paradigm. A distracted mind is an agitated mind and an agitated mind is unable to enjoy sustained happiness, although it will provide an illusion of refuge when we don’t know what else to do with the situation at hand.
Typically, habits begin unconsciously when a difficult situation arises, moving us away from the present moment into obsessive thoughts about the future or worry about the past. Over time these thoughts contaminate our speech and actions, showing up as eating disorders and other habits involving alcohol, drugs, anxiety, depression and such, often modeled by those closest to us. This inability to be in the present moment is our biggest obstacle to health and happiness.
Eventually the architecture of how we move through life becomes riddled and crippled with thoughts, words and deeds contaminated by our negative habits. This leaves us destabilized and subject to even more suffering when stress levels unexpectedly increase. Habits cause us to dredge up and embrace our worst coping techniques as stress levels rise.
Our habits become part of our identity, the clothing of our self cherishing ways, and that is why they are hard to give up. They meld into our neurochemistry and other metabolic pathways (see Mood Food newsletter) making abstinence physiologically painful.
Through insight and wisdom born of meditation we can learn how to transform our negative experiences, to see them as a wonderful gift, a somewhat uncomfortable but necessary stimulus which helps us to surgically deconstruct the very habits which keep us imprisoned and suffering. As our awareness expands the importance of correcting our motivation from self cherishing to that of benefiting others (which includes ourselves) becomes exponentially evident as a means to health and happiness.
‘When I (think, say, do or obtain: could be one or all of these) _______, I feel fulfilled’. We’ve all felt this way at some time or other. The fact is, we are already fulfilled, but don’t realize it, and in the grip of ignorance thinking everything is inherently separate, we fall into a trap of seeking external gratification to satisfy that yearning to be complete and fulfilled. Not recognizing that we are already whole, a part of this immense miracle of interconnectedness, we move through life trying to acquire things in order to connect and feel whole. We’re not bad people, as our negative self talk contests, just confused.
Wisdom sheds light on the fundamental misunderstanding that things are solid, separate and permanent, which if true would mean that we could achieve happiness by manipulating the environment we live in. Not truly realizing the impermanent nature of things including ourselves, and the infallible law of cause and effect, where even our thoughts can imprison us, we move through the world like a computer dividing everything into two basic bits: like and dislike, desire and aversion, want and don’t want, me and you.
This mistaken view creates unending misery, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle as with disturbing habits and chronic illness. We are so sure that the world is divided, that “I am me and you are you”, that surely one more chocolate whatever or coffee whatchamacallit will definitely not hurt and perhaps satisfy that void within, or at least get us one step closer. Not true.
All self cherishing acts, which account for most of our waking and sleeping activities, cause us to suffer. Self cherishing is misaligned with the true nature of our world, in that everything is connected. Self cherishing is about division and separation, but since this is not in alignment with the true nature of things, suffering in some manner is an inevitable outcome.
With wisdom we come to recognize some basic truths which inspire us to remain free of negative habits: the precious miracle of human life, the nature of impermanence, infallibility of cause and effect, and suffering inherent in all compounded phenomena. These are additional meditational subjects worth examining to fully eliminate our most problematic habit of all: self cherishing.
I hope you have enjoyed this month’s newsletter and find it useful. My goal has been to present and briefly examine some time tested methodologies to assure the health and well being of ourselves and the world we live in. Comments, as always, are welcome.
Jon Dunn, ND