Creatures of habit

A lot of what’s written about Zen is about the experience of enlightenment, also called awakening. Soto Zen is called a practice of gradual awakening and Rinzai Zen is called a practice of sudden awakening. Gradual or sudden, some elements of this experience seem to be universal. One is the feeling of a breakthrough beyond intellectual insight to include the whole organism – intellect, emotion, and body. And the ordinary boundaries and categories of perception seem to drop away, especially the sense of oneself as separate and distinct from everything else. There is a deep feeling of well-being, a feeling everything is in a profound way just as it should be, with nothing lacking.

When I first encountered Zen, I thought if I had an enlightenment experience, that would be the end of confusion and difficulty. Everything would be clear, I’d feel good, and I’d know what to do. All the time. I was pretty naïve. It’s true that Zen practice can introduce you to a distinctive experience of being awake, but the experience itself doesn’t undo your conditioning, your cravings and aversions, or your habits. It doesn’t automatically transform your character or your behavior. Unless you work actively on that kind of transformation, having some kind of awakening experience is a transitory private experience, no matter how pleasurable and profound. Enlightenment isn’t synonymous with transformation, and it really doesn’t count for much unless it manifests in behavior.

Changing behavior is hard, partly because we all spend a fair bit of time on automatic pilot. We’re creatures of habit. We have dozens, even hundreds of habits. Some habits are wholesome and help us function, some are unhelpful, even destructive, and many are unconscious. When you find yourself in a pickle asking, “Why does this keep happening to me?” it’s a safe bet that unconscious habit patterns are at work.

How do habits work? One model of habit is called the “habit loop,” a three-part pattern that starts with a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. The trigger is followed by the routine – the behavior itself. The behavior is followed by the third part – the reward – something the brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future. When a behavior has become a habit, the brain can focus on other things, which helps explain why when you’re driving a familiar route you arrive at your destination and don’t remember the drive – it happened automatically, more or less, and your brain was doing other things like talking on the phone or listening to the radio, or both.

We perform habitual, automated behaviors – like putting on shoes – more or less the same way over and over. Humans aren’t prone to precise consistency, but if you’re in the same environment, the way your Nikes go on Tuesday looks a lot like how they went on Monday. If you’re somewhere else, things change. The triggers change and the patterns are broken up. That’s one reason taking a vacation can be relaxing: It helps break some habits. And it’s why it’s easier to change a habit on a vacation. Your usual cues are gone.

If you want to create a new habit, how many tries do you need before it becomes automatic? In a 2009 paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers reported on a study of people trying to form new habits like eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15 minute run every day. Simple habits. On average, subjects reached a plateau in automaticity after a couple of months, but there was wide variation in how long habits took to form and there was one sub-group that took a lot longer than others to form habits, suggesting some people might be “habit-resistant.” Another thing the study suggested is that there’s really no such thing as a small change. Even if you want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit every day, it may take you months of daily repetitions before it becomes a habit.

What does all this have to do with Zen practice? First of all, if you accept this view, it confirms that you have at least a measure of freedom. Freedom to change your habits. Freedom to intervene in habits that are unwholesome and freedom to engineer habits that are wholesome. Of course, it’s more complex than this. It’s not just a simple mechanical matter. Many habitual ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving are conditioned from so early in life that they’re invisible and noticing them and freeing yourself from their grasp is a big undertaking. And because life is short and resources limited, some habits will never be undone. But this isn’t to say that you’re helpless. You do have power over your habits, even though it’s not complete.

Your power is fueled by the attention you cultivate in zazen. Zazen is where you can develop a bright and broad space of awareness within which you can notice your habits. If you pay close attention, longstanding habits that were invisible can become visible. And understanding the habit loop and its three parts reveals places to intervene. First you notice the routine. You notice how you think the same thought, have the same feeling, do the same thing, over and over. You see it, and you see the automaticity of it. And you see it’s not what you really want to be doing. But you keep doing it. If you pay attention, you notice the trigger. The cue. What is it that triggers the routine? It may be simple, it may be deep and complex, but if you pay attention, you notice. And you notice the reward. The reward may be obvious or hidden. It may be simple or perverse, but if you watch, you notice.

Then, if you decide that the habit isn’t aligned with how you want to live, you can intervene. You can intervene at the trigger point by changing the triggering circumstances or by seeing the trigger coming and consciously deciding not to let it launch the behavior. The former is easier than the latter, but both are possible. Or you can notice the behavior is underway and just stop. You want to quit smoking, but every time you have a cup of coffee after lunch, you light up a cigarette. You forget that the coffee triggers the cigarette and find yourself lighting up. But when you notice, even after the cigarette’s half-smoked, you can notice and put it out. Interrupt the routine. Or you can intervene at the point of reward. You feel good after the cigarette because you’ve satisfied the nicotine craving in your body, but you can also have a conversation with yourself in which you remind yourself that as good as the nicotine feels, you’re also poisoning yourself. You change the reward experience. This isn’t to suggest quitting smoking is easy. It’s not. And for many people, it’s enormously difficult and requires a more complex approach. But it’s possible.

Of course there are psychological complexities of conditioning and character that undergird some habits, but at the level of behavior it’s not always essential or even possible to penetrate them, however helpful it might be. The point is that you can spend less of your life on automatic pilot if you so choose. And understanding something about the nature of habits and paying the kind of attention zazen cultivates can give you a greater measure of freedom, some control over how you behave, empowering you to intervene and change your habits.