The power of a habit is enormous. It can propel you forward incredibly or it can block any change for the better, depending on whether it as a good or a bad habit.
The one habit that counts the most, I think, is not a specific thing that you do, but rather the way in which you respond to the world. Some of it is a part of your temperament, of course. You can’t do much about the temperament you were born with. But a great part of the way you react is actually a habit, an acquired pattern of behavior, that was shaped by your past experiences.
If, for whatever reason, you were conditioned to react strongly to certain people or situations in the past, you may have to deal with a lot of stress throughout your entire life, whenever you encounter similar situations. Your acquired pattern of behavior will make you overreact even to a normal, everyday situation, because some tiny aspect of it is perhaps similar to the original bad situation and therefore triggers the same reaction.
If this becomes your primary mode of living, it can make your life full of stress, mess up your relationships and health, and decrease your productivity. Going on vacations or becoming a recluse on a desert island will only partially and temporarily solve some of the problems. Sometimes running away is necessary, but you will have to return eventually or some other problem will pop in.
The only permanent way of solving the problem is to unwire the triggers and the learned response. One of the best ways you can do this is to pay attention to your breathing whenever you detect your old unwanted patterns to emerge. Just put your attention on your breath and observe it. If this doesn’t help, then go a step further and intentionally make your breathing deeper and slower and also make sure you inhale and exhale at a regular pace. This will automatically calm you down and divert your attention away from the problematic situation.
However, you will not want to divert your attention away unless you first – at least to some extent – accept the present moment and the situation at hand, because otherwise you will have a feeling that by not reacting the usual way, you are capitulating and letting the other person take advantage of you. Of course, you are not. All you are doing is breaking the chain of automated reaction that you habituated in the past. By focusing your attention on your breathing for a few seconds you are allowing yourself some time before you can intentionally respond to the situation. It may be that the situation demands a fierce response, but you will do it on purpose, and not because you are reacting blindly. (Some emergency situations may be exempt from what I just described).
Of course, this is easier said than done. Old habits are really, really persistent, and before you have had a chance to think about it you are already reacting. Therefore, I have chosen my own personal mantra (inspired by Eckhart Tolle) that I repeat over and over again, and it helps me remind myself about what needs to be done:
Breathe. Allow this moment to be
I have written this on a piece of paper and I usually carry it in my pocket, looking at it many times a day, so that I will really internalize it. When some difficult situation presents itself I try to repeat this mantra in my mind and then actually live it. By allowing the present moment to be as it is (and not as I wish it would have been) I undermine the need to react immediately, which gives me some time to focus on my breathing instead, and this enables me to respond to the situation calmly.
It doesn’t always work, but then again I only recently put this into practice. Years of habitual agitated reactions to certain situations, people and events cannot be changed overnight. I stay optimistic that in a year or so, my new mantra will fully become part of my life, and I won’t even have to think about it anymore.
The whole essence of Zen consists in walking along the razor’s edge of Now – to be so utterly, so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now.
– Eckhart Tolle, The Power Of Now
Since I first stumbled upon the concept of Zen I have realized that there is something profound in it, but I had never quite understood it. I haven’t really committed to find out what Zen is all about, however I put a mental note in the back of my mind that I need to explore it someday.
And then, one day, I read a book written by Eckhart Tolle – The Power Of Now. I had mixed feelings after reading it: on one hand, I realized that it is a profound book on spirituality, but on the other hand I was turned off by some New Age terminology and concepts that I could not connect with. So after I read it, I put it away and didn’t think much about it.
Until last month, that is. I decided to have a second look at The Power Of Now and this time I actually experienced some of the things that Tolle talks about in the text. There is a big difference between reading about presence and actually being present. Only when you experience for yourself the things that Tolle describes in his books (he also wrote a sequel: A New Earth) you can really understand how powerful his message is. I guess I wasn’t ready yet, the first time I read it.
I still don’t buy into everything he teaches. I still cannot connect with – what I see as – New Age nonsense – like when he talks about different worlds (or interpretations of reality): a human world (with its many sub-worlds), an ant world, a dolphin world, etc. He then says that all these worlds are interconnected, so “when collective human consciousness becomes transformed, nature and the animal kingdom will reflect that transformation. Hence the statement in the Bible that in the coming age “The lion shall lie down with the lamb.” This points to the possibility of a completely different order of reality.”
I just cannot comprehend how enlightenment of humanity could possibly make lions vegetarian, although even today there are rare instances of the predators and the prey living together for a while – for example, when maternal instinct prevails (A lioness adopts a baby antelope).
Nevertheless, I highly recommend The Power Of Now to anyone who is interested in living more at ease, being present, and in the moment. You may not connect with it the first time you read it. That is OK. Put it away, just as I did, and revisit at a later time. If you cannot connect with a certain concept or a word that he uses, just ignore it and continue reading. View The Power Of Now as a guided meditation, not as a book of absolute truths. Tolle himself states, that every word that comes out of him is just a pointer, a signpost that points towards a certain state of being. He actually did a pretty good job with describing something that ultimately cannot be described with words. Don’t get attached to concepts and words – in fact, the whole point of this book is to get you beyond your mind with its little concepts and thoughts.
The mind, while being a useful tool, is also the source of all suffering in life. Suffering is the result of mind dwelling on the future and worry about problems, or dwelling on the past and deriving identity out of it (for example a victim identity). This is what Tolle describes as “psychological time” (as opposed to “clock time”); you are creating psychological time whenever you are putting your attention on past or future, although you haven’t had any practical reason to do so (at that particular time). If, on the other hand, your attention is on the present moment, there can be no suffering for you, no problems, no worry. Only situations to be accepted and then dealt with or left alone. If you have a hard time understanding this, then contemplate The Most Zen Chart Ever until you do understand.
Pain in life is inevitable; suffering is optional. The power of now will set you free.