From Thought to Destiny: Habits in Context

Uposatha Teaching: FullMoon, September 23, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”

“Sow an act and reap a habit.” We read last week about this very comprehensible model of skill acquisition, that forms the basis of most Buddhist practice. Through repeated acts we develop habits; those habits reveal to a high degree what we have become. Before turning to the other aspects of human character I want to expand the scope of the discussion a bit by asking two questions. First, given that from repeated acts habits will arise, is there anything else that habits arise from? Second, given that our habits are a major influence in our external behaviors, what are the influences of our habits in the internal, emotive and cognitive, realms? Answering these questions will reveal additional points of Buddhist practice.

Whence: Non-karmic Roots of Habit Patterns

Habit patterns seem to arise rather spontaneously, especially in early life. Some children are easy to anger, others are very possessive, jealous, or generous. Some are sociable, some are shy. We might suppose these arose from repeated acts, but then what caused the acts to repeat in the first place, that is, before the habit had established itself? The easy answer has been that habit patterns carry over that were learned or transmitted in a previous life. Rebirth provides this elegant answer, if that mechanism itself is accepted. However, a variety of other factors explain the spontaneous arising of many of these habit patterns, entirely independently of rebirth. Some of these factors have become known only in modern times.

Genetics. We know certain genetic encodings are responsible for the arising of certain behavioral patterns or at least play an enabling role. Most fundamental are those patterns that we all share as a species (human), or as a zoological order (mammal). For instance affection, anger, friendship, even revenge are habit patterns that have been passed on generation to generations not just in humans but in mammals for millions of years. From a Buddhist perspective these nevertheless have unskillful elements. Other behavioral patterns that run in families may be genetically determined. Certain people are even genetically predisposed to certain habit patterns, such as alcoholism, such that they go from act to habit particularly fast.

The general lesson here for practice is that challenges run very deep; Buddhist practice requires corresponding effort. Sometimes I hear someone teach that Buddhism is about being natural. It is not. It is about looking from outside the box and seeing how what comes naturally gets us into trouble, no matter how deep-seated, and about developing new skills accordingly. Its tools, however, are natural to the human psyche, and its approach gentle, for the most part.

Role Models. We readily acquire behavioral patterns from those we respect: a bigger brother, a mother, a golf pro, a teacher. An easy explanation is that we simply copy their actions, and pretty soon we’ve given rise to their habits. Recent research however indicates that neural mechanisms actually short-cut this process; that simply by observing another person, say, serving in a tennis game, activates many of the same brain patterns that would arise if the subject were serving the ball herself. In fact roll models play an important part in Buddhism:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path. SN 45.2

This is a strong endorsement. The monastic Sangha in Buddhism even institutionalizes this as one of its functions. Many Burmese Buddhists seek out the company of monastics at every opportunity, generally reserving free Uposatha Days for that purpose.

The general lesson here for practice is to seek out the inspiration of strong practitioners and regard them with respect (Some of the ritual aspects of Buddhism in fact function to encourage feelings of respect). You will, sponge-like, begin to slurp up their skillful habits.

Social Circumstances. Your family relations, social status, livelihood, the values and behaviors of the culture in which you are embedded, and prevailing governmental and (in modern times) corporate behaviors all influence one’s habit patterns because we begin to respond to manifestations of these circumstances in predictable ways. For instance, others’ greed or anger raises your level of fear. Someone steals from you and you seek revenge. You are oppressed by those more powerful and you begin to lie and steal to mitigate the harm to yourself. Your livelihood demands of you that you kill or cheat. You join a street gang for protection, then seeking status in that street gang, emulate its characteristic behaviors, and maybe even discover a role model in the gang’s leader. Hectic, complex, demanding circumstances obstruct stillness of mind. Favorable circumstances are conducive to the practice of developing skillful habit patterns, unfavorable circumstances can overwhelm any attempts to shape your habit patterns through Buddhist practice, even with a strong meditation practice.

The lesson here for practice is to seek favorable circumstances. Many circumstances simply overwhelm the practice of even the most zealous. Choice of livelihood is highlighted in the Noble Eightfold Path, but many other factors are often subject to control, even if temporarily. Meditation retreats are routinely organized to remove participants from unfavorable social pressures, as is the monastic lifestyle. A Buddhist temple or center or community generally forms a safe environment that stands apart from prevailing social conditions. And most people have many choices of where to spend their time or who to hang with.

The Media. Digital computer and communication technology is a particularly vexing concern for those who would like to develop skillful habit patterns. In the use of a large part of the media you are basically turning your mind over to corporate manipulation, exposing it to the relentless stimulation of greed for consumer products and services, through the incessant appeal to the addictive qualities of violence, lust and fear and to the hate mongering of politicians and pundits. You are presented with false role models often promoting, not humility or renunciation or compassion, but strong individualism and remarkable consumer needs.

The imperative here is to practice moderation in the use of the commercial media. The media can of course be used wisely and productively, but is enormously seductive. I am pretty certain that it is almost impossible to make significant progress in Buddhist practice if your viewing and interacting habits are those of typical Americans, even if you have a strong meditation practice. Making the media, in its common manifestations, an integral part of your life is like propelling yourself into the most unconducive social conditions for Buddhist practice.

Whither: Experiencing Habit Patterns.

An unskillful thought, for instance a craving or a fright, is painful to some degree. An unskillful habit pattern is the habitual arising, acting out and further reinforcement of the tendency toward that thought. So whereas the single thought might be compared to experiencing a small scratch or a pin prick, the habit is experiencing the ache of an open wound that is continually being scratched and pricked. With changes, even day-to-day changes, one might cease to manifest one habit and take up another for awhile. But where a particular habit pattern has taken on a dominant role in one’s karmic life, the overwhelming emotional tenor of that life will be that For skillful karmic patterns, such as generosity, the opposite will pertain: Each skillful thought is experienced as uplifting and healing. The cumulative experience brings an abiding joy. into one’s life. This abiding emotional tenor is a ripening of one’s karma visible in the here and now.

Ripening (vipaka) is an important aspect of karma that will be discussed in detail in terms of Character and Destiny in the course of this series. This is our first mention of it. The way it is traditionally described is that every karmic act is like a seed that grows into a fruit waiting to ripen at some time in the future. Of course our actions of body or speech produce consequences in the external world, but the fruit remains as an internal possession of the actor, even carried, it is said, into future lives. The ripening is experienced by the actor. If the original seed was skillful, the ripening will be felicitous. If the original seed was unskillful the ripening will be unfortunate. Often this is called the Law of Karma. The phrase, “I believe in karma,” is often taken to mean not, “I believe in volitional action,” but rather, “I believe that my volitional actions eventually ripen in my own experience.” In short, Ripening is a kind of payback mechanism. It is often regarded in modern commentary as somewhat mysterious and metaphysical, but need not be.

Mind overcome with unskillful qualities borne of greed aversion delusion his mind consumed, dwells in suffering right in the here and now, feeling threatened, turbulent, feverish, and at the breadup of the body, after death, can expect a bad destination. AN 3.69

The abiding emotional tenor of one’s life as a result of one’s habitual karmic acts is probably the primary example of the ripening of karma observable in the here and now. It is not at all mysterious or metaphysical. I already explained how it works above and every step of the process is subject to introspection. In this case the individual acts do not have individuated ripenings, rather there is a cumulative and abiding ripening. Think of the individual act as like a dust particle that might jump out of a cushion when you sit down in a chair. It will not noticeably make a room dusty, but a roomful of people sitting down and getting up over a period of time will produce an ever thickening layer of dust on the wooden floor, on the window sills, on shelves, on books, and on bald heads of old men who don’t move a lot. The ripening of our habitual karma is like this. In fact, not only one’s emotional tenor, but one’s whole perception of reality may be altered. For instance, the world and the people in it will actually seem kind or harsh depending on one’s karmic habits.

A man who is greedy for fields, land, gold, cattle, horses, servants, employees, women, relatives, many sensual pleasures, is overpowered with weakness and trampled by trouble, for pain invades him as water, a cracked boat. Snp 4.1 Kama Sutta

When combined with the idea of rebirth it often appears in the Suttas that karma ripens at the time of rebirth as one is reborn in Heaven, in Hell, as an Animal, as an Angry Titan, as a Hungry Ghost or as another Human. Modern commentary often points out that these Six Realms have clear psychological counterparts observable in the here and now. And in fact they provide a very effective way to describe the abiding emotional tenor of one’s present life or even of a day or an afternoon in one’s present life. It is interesting that English uses some of the same metaphors to describe the emotional tenor one experiences, for instance, “I am in Hell,” “I am in Heaven,” and “He is an animal.” The karmic sources of these states are roughly as follows:

  • Animal Realm. This is the somewhat frantic, restless state that arises in response to the habit of turning all impulses (lust, greed, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, torpor, etc.) into action without reflection. A person of a passionate disposition lives in a world which pulls him this way, then that way, keeping him forever restless, unable to get his coordinates.

    Hungry Ghost Realm (click to enlarge)

  • Hungry Ghost Realm. This is a state of constant lack or dissatisfaction that arises from the habit of trying to satisfy greed. A person of greedy disposition likewise lives in a miserly world, one that withholds what she seeks, who can never get enough.
  • Angry Titan Realm. This is the state of fury directed at all obstacles that arises from the habit of acting out of anger. A person of angry disposition, who thinks angry thoughts, who acts repeatedly on his anger, lives in a world that is increasingly threatening, that is frightening and uncooperative or specifically conspires against him, and encourages even more anger in response.
  • Hell Realm. This is the extreme, overwhelming state in which greedy or hateful impulses have completely lost any bounds. A person who has committed egregious acts of violence to others lives in hell, where everything seems painful.

    Hell Realm (click to enlarge)

  • Deva Realm. This is the comfortable, often complacent state relatively untouched by greed or hatred, in which one’s needs are satisfied. A person of a kindly disposition lives in a world of ease, where no personal needs are unmet, where others, even if not acting in an ideal manner, are forgivable.
  • Human Realm. This is a mixed state in which greed or hatred are present, but in which deliberate mastery of one’s emotional states are also possibilities. This is the best realm for Buddhist practice.

Not only do habit patterns shape the emotional tenor of one’s life, but they actually begin to impact health and physical appearance. We are all aware that habitually angry people (titans) are subject to heart disease and other stess-related illnesses. They also take on the characteristic appearance of angry people; they enter a cocktail party and people immediately begin shuffling over to the other side of the room. For denizens of Hell this is all the more so. Animals and hungry ghosts take on the effects of overconsumption. These habit patterns begin also to shape the successes and failures in one’s life; people would rather do business with a deva than an animal, a human is more likely to have her act together than a hungry ghost. These habit patterns even to a large extent determine who your friends are; people attract others like themselves, or sometimes repel those unlike themselves.

The general lesson here for practice is that:

Your habitual actions in a very real sense make the world in which you live.

Your life will be painful or joyful accordingly. And there is a kind of justice in this, since your world will probably correspond roughly to the amount of external benefit or harm you have brought into others’ worlds through the skillful or unskillful acts that gave rise to the habits that then gave rise to the world in which you live. Understanding karma underscores the urgency of Buddhist practice. You’d better get it together! Secondarily, when you begin to recognize the nature of the world they probably live in, your are more likely to experience compassion for those that have done you harm.

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