Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of October 10, 2011

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Habits: Self-Regulation

(Developing Will: Aspect 1 of 10)

As creatures of habit, we know the profound impact on our lives of our habitual patterns of action, thought, and emotion. To change our life, to evolve, we need, among other things, to change our habits, which is a matter of will. Habits run on momentum and thus require little or no active will. Our will is already embodied in the habit. Indeed, a habit is a kernel of will fixed on a particular pattern. And just as force is necessary to change momentum, will is required to create, change, moderate, or stop a habit.

But before we attempt to change anything, there is the question: which habits are good and which are bad? From the many possible perspectives on that value judgment, we adopt the point of view of spiritual development: which habits hinder our inner work and which promote it? Other viewpoints can be subsumed into that one. For example, the health perspective matters, because we need our body as healthy as possible for as long as possible, to give us the energy and time to develop our soul.

Yet we need to take the question a step further. How do we judge whether a particular habit helps or hinders our spiritual development? From the deeper points of view, like whether the habit strengthens our self-centered egoism, it is not so easy to judge, because ego itself infiltrates that judgment. Instead, we judge the question from more objective grounds. For example, if we meditate regularly, we may be able to discern how certain habits impact our meditation. If we ate or drank alcohol excessively the night before, how does that affect our meditation session the next morning? If we practice presence persistently, how do our various habits affect that? How does the habit of meditating in the morning affect our ability to be present during the day? Are we able to be present while habitually watching television? How does the habit of arguing affect our presence? What about procrastination, our favorite daydreams, physical exercise, habitual postures, our perennial worries and fears? How do all these habit patterns affect our inner work?

By asking ourselves these and many other such questions and actually observing ourselves to gather real data for the answers, we acquire a more accurate understanding of what helps or hinders our spiritual life. Then we are ready to address the challenge of creating, strengthening, changing, moderating, or stopping particular habits, the challenge of regulating our behavior to maximize our spiritual development. But we enter that challenge with a particular value judgment to back us up, a value judgment based on eternal values.

That value judgment places our efforts within the context of our broader goals and wishes and helps us shift out of the grip of destructive habits and into constructive ones. For our spiritual development we want to increase or create habits such as meditating daily, regular prayer, work at presence and kindness, and so on. We want to decrease habits like smoking, excessive alcohol or eating, passive TV watching without presence, racially or otherwise prejudiced thoughts, and so on. These lists are meant to be indicative. We each need to observe and judge for ourselves what is useful and what is harmful in our own life.

And then we act. One key to that action is to work on changing only one habit at a time: being overambitious usually ends in failure. Also, if the habit is a very strong one, we may need help or a strategy: better to start with habits that are easier to change and build up strength of will. For stronger habits, we need to judge whether the coalition of the willing to change is stronger than the coalition of the entrenched, because change of such habits does not come easily. We can expect resistance, persuasive resistance, that little convincing voice of temptation: just this one time or why bother changing this habit, or itís too hard, or I have to have it. But if we can just be, allowing this resistance to be there and pass through us without our acting on it, we have a chance. After all, these are just thoughts and emotions and physical urges. They are not us and they do not speak for us, unless we let them. We do not need to fight them or stop them. We just notice them come and go, while we continue to be, continue on the course we have chosen. And after a time, it gets easier. The habit has changed.

Another aspect of dealing with strong, destructive habits involves the strategy of minimizing resistance. If we raise a strong active intention to change an entrenched habit, that very act raises a strong resistance to that change. Instead we look for a third force, a quieter intention that accomplishes the result, perhaps gradually, but effectively. For example, if we are in the habit of overeating and find that it detracts from our inner work, we might be tempted to go on a diet. But diets notoriously fail in the long run [1]. We might stay on the diet for a while, but eventually, in most cases, we lose that battle. Now if instead of adopting a strictly-defined and overarching new regime for eating, we only try to effect small changes, we may be more successful. Those small changes can slip by our bodyís resistance to dieting. We might try limiting or stopping eating between meals, we might try reducing our carb intake, limiting or giving up sodas or desserts, being fully aware of the taste and texture of each bite of food, and so on. But we only add one of these at a time, over time, flexibly and not stringently, and let them accumulate gradually, until they build up to eliminate our habit of overeating. In this way we avoid the diet-and-binge cycle.

With a habit like excessive alcohol drinking, we need to assess the strength of its hold on us. If very strong, we may need to go cold turkey, quit drinking completely and permanently, and join Alcoholics Anonymous. If less severe, we can adopt simpler controls. For example, never drinking on two successive days and never drinking more than one normal-sized drink on any given day. For tobacco use, we do whatever we can to stop completely, a difficult proposition given the highly addictive nature of tobacco. We might watch anti-smoking videos to engage our mind and emotions more fully. We might attend a stop-smoking class, look into the pros and cons of using nicotine patches or lozenges or electronic cigarettes, exercise more, chew gum, and immediately start over if we fail ó in short, whatever it takes. Tobacco harms our energies and our body and hinders our soul development. Similarly, the use of marijuana and other recreational drugs needs to be stopped completely, for they burn up the very energies we need for our inner work and for our soul.

What about the habit of gossiping, when it involves negative judgments about people? How does that affect your inner work, your conscience, your relationships?

For this week, please examine your habits. Work to create a good one or eliminate a bad one.

[1] Baumeister, Roy F. and Tierney, John; Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength; Penguin Press, 2011. An excellent and practical overview of psychological research into the type of will needed for self-regulation, for control of habits.


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