“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence.”
Habits so easily operate outside of our conscious awareness. Have you ever eaten a box of cookies before you realized it? Or smoked three-fourths of a cigarette before you became aware you were even smoking? Do you find yourself in an argument with a loved one, even though you intended there to be peace this time? Are you depressed, jealous, stressed out, irresponsible, passive, angry?
These emotions, thought patterns, and behaviors are all habits. They occur with such regularity that they happen without our actually being aware of them. Not all habits are problematic – we look both ways before crossing the street, we carry out the actions of driving. Our bodies seem to know what to do automatically.
The trouble arises when habits interfere with our happiness. And if what we want is to be happy, the solution is to unwind these patterns, to find our way back to our natural state of wholeness and ease. We move from sleepwalking through life to being awake and alive to our moment by moment existence.
How Habits Arise
So how do these habits develop? When we come into this world, we have no habits. Our original state is innocent, open, and free. If we distinguish between “being” and “doing,” as newborns, we are being. We just are without trying to control our environments or the people around us. Our behavior doesn’t have any particular intention – when we feel hungry we cry; when we are full we stop. Newborns live in the unconditioned, prior to any learning.
Very early on in life, the doing begins. As infants, we figure out how to strategize so that our caregivers will give us the attention we need. We smile, cry, or behave in irresistibly cute ways to get food and diaper changes. We want to be noticed and loved.
Habits Become Identities
As life progresses, things get complicated. We may not be able to get our needs met no matter what strategies we try, so we feel anxious and despairing. We are told that some of our behavior is unacceptable, so we feel ashamed. We are criticized, so we vow to prove ourselves or we get lost in self-doubt. Our motivation is survival, safety, and protection. We send painful feelings underground and develop strategies and habits that enable us to cope as best we can.
The results? Addiction to substances or unhealthy behaviors; avoiding conflict at all cost; pushing to get our way; perfectionism; overworking; low self-esteem; arrogance. These habits become our identity – who we think we are.
Our Original State Is Still Alive
So what happened to the original state of being innocent, open, and free? In addition to our habits, we experience joy, delight, beauty, laughter, and love. These are irrepressible signs that our natural, unconditioned existence is not completely buried.
In the moments when our habits and strategies aren’t in play, the light of our true nature has space to shine, sometimes brilliantly. We express ourselves with abandon; we feel expansive and boundless. The unconditioned is always alive.
I remember a lovely day I spent at the beach with a young family not long ago. Over and over, 9-year-old Ellen threw herself into the waves and rolled in the sand, gleefully exclaiming, “I feel so free!” Such a beautiful expression of the natural state.
This is the human condition: we identify ourselves by our habits and live in our minds trying to figure out how to be happy and comfortable. At the same time, we resonate deeply with nature, children, love, happily rolling in the sand and waves – reminders of freedom that are all around us. We long for an end to suffering.
Habits Are Our Friends
And this is the possibility: to recognize our habits and use them as a path leading back to the natural state. Peace, love, effortless joy are right here – so close and so available. When we use them well, our habits become our allies, our teachers. We start where we are by bringing our awareness to whatever we experience in this moment, then peel the onion to journey back to the source.
As we do so, the energy of our habits that has been constrained for so long is seen, freed, released. We return to the natural state where habits are no longer needed. Every aspect of them becomes a gift to support our awakening.
This might sound easy, but conditioning is powerful and some habits are subtle. In Part 2 of this series, we continue by learning how to recognize a habit and how to use the key of awareness to open the prison door.