Chains of habits are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. – Warren Buffet
We all know how hard it is to break old habits. There are times when we are able to temporarily stop doing them, but like holding down an apple under water, the urge to repeat the old habit comes to the surface again and we give in to it.
Why are habits hard to break?
There are two reasons:
- Habits are subconscious tendencies.
- We often try to overcome these tendencies by attacking their outer expressions and not the tendencies themselves.
Subtle Tendencies Determine Behavior
If habits were merely actions, we would have very little difficulty controlling them. But the problem is that habits are subtler. They are subconscious patterns of thinking and behaving that prompt actions.
To overcome habits, it’s important to first understand how those subtle patterns are formed.
Let’s say you light a stick of incense. Its fragrance will linger in the room long after the incense has burnt away. If you enjoyed it, a mental impression that incense is something enjoyable is imprinted in your mind. Or, if you are turned off by the smell, a mental impression that incense is not something that you like is created.
When the impressions are repeated, they deepen into strong likes or dislikes. These then become tendencies that prompt similar actions in the future. Taking the example of the incense above, if you enjoyed it, the favorable impressions would create a tendency to light another stick. Similarly, if you decided that incense was not something you like, you will stay away from it.
Vedanta, the spiritual science of life, calls these tendencies, vasanas (pronounced vaa-sa-naa). Vasana means ‘fragrance’ in Sanskrit. Vasana-s are tendencies left behind as a result of our actions. They create our habits.
It is not easy to overcome our subtle tendencies. We can’t simply ‘pluck’ them out, or will them to change. And, we cannot change a tendency by refraining from repeating the habit. This would be merely suppressing the urge. Tendencies are naturally laid down in our subconscious as a result of our own actions.
Since actions create the tendencies, we can use the right actions to purposefully re-write our tendencies. What we need is a carefully thought out plan of action.
Re-Writing Old Tendencies
My Guru, Swami Chinmayananda, explained how to overcome deep-seated, old tendencies with a simple example.
He told story of someone living in the U.S. who owned a piece of property in his homeland of India. He paid no attention to his land for many years. When it was time to retire, the man decided he would return to India, build a house on his property and live there.
When he arrived, he was shocked to see that in the middle of the property was a huge canal. It had formed from years of rainwater constantly streaming into it.
To regain the land so he could build his house on it, the first thing he had to do was to stop the flow of rainwater into the main canal. He did this by digging out several smaller channels to divert the rainwater. Then, when the main channel was no longer active, he built a wall at the end of the canal to close it off and filled it with soil.
Now, even though the main canal was dry and filled in, it was still not yet suitable to build on. The land had to sit and settle down for some time.
The deep canal can be compared to a deep-seated, old tendency. It is carved out of years of habitually following the same pattern of behavior. To overcome such a habit, we have to take away its power by cultivating new and positive channels of habits.
For example, let’s say Terry has the habit of staying up very late watching TV, surfing the Internet and connecting with her friends on social media. She rarely goes to sleep before 1.30 a.m. Then, when she wakes up at 7.30 a.m. to go to work, she’s dead tired and cranky. She feels she only comes awake at night and drags herself through the rest of the day.
Terry realizes that she needs to sleep earlier so she can function better during the day, but can’t seem to do break her late night habit.
One day, she firmly resolves to change. She sets her clock to wake her up 30 minutes early, so she is more tired at night and can go to sleep earlier. She puts a timer next to her computer, which reminds her to stop and turn it off after an hour and a half. She cuts back on her weekday TV watching by recording the shows she likes and watching them on Sunday mornings. Instead, she takes up some quiet reading that relaxes her and makes her mind more conducive to sleeping earlier.
As she implements the new habits, Terry is slowly able to overcome her old habit of staying up late. She gradually moves her bedtime earlier and earlier until, in about a year, she able to sleep at 11 p.m.
Patience & Commitment
Implementing a new habit takes time, determination, commitment and patience. Just as the land which needed to settle down before a house could be built, we need to give ourselves some time to settle into the new habits and lifestyle that we cultivate. Then, as we stay firm in our new habits, we break free from the chains of our old ones.
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