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Power of Habits – Bring Forth Your Best Self

Videos / July 17, 2019

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”  - Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are what we repeatedly do – for better or for worse, it is our habits that define us.  Habits, once formed, work in a very subtle manner to condition us and our mind.  Some cannot get out of bed without a cup of tea in hand, while others cannot have dinner without a glass of wine.  Effortlessly, our mind is being programmed by the cycle of identifying with an external stimulus, sending a response to it, and being satisfied by the reward upon fulfillment of the desire.  This cycle is the formation of a habit.  Essentially, first, we mold our habits, and later our habits mold us. 

Without conscious awareness, our thoughts take the form of habits in our subconscious mind.  Our principles and values are behind the thoughts that we harbor, and these thoughts further fashion our response to situations or changes in the environment.  Every thought pattern correlates to a neural circuit in the brain, and when a thought is intensely engraved in the brain, it comes more easily to the mind and becomes a thinking habit.  The science of Neurology defines this phenomenon as “neuroplasticity.”

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist demonstrated this effect in his famous experiment with dogs.  He initially began his study to gather information on the digestive system of dogs.  With the help of his laboratory assistants, he would document the amount dogs would salivate, since mammals produce saliva to help them break down food.  The lab assistants who fed the dogs would wear white coats.  However, Pavlov soon noticed that, even without being presented with the food, the dogs began drooling simply on seeing the white-coated assistants.  He then conducted a study in which he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs.  Soon, just ringing the bell made the dogs salivate.  The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food, and so ringing the bell evoked the same response as the food itself.  This led to the theory of “Classical Conditioning,” which shed new light on human behavior.

A repetitive thought etches a deep groove in the neural network of the brain, making the recurrence of that thought very easy.  Therefore, habits exert a gravitational pull upon our behavior that becomes difficult to break. 

Much of our everyday attitudes come from mental habits. If we have developed the habit of seeing the positive side of things, we will most likely remain cheerful and optimistic even when difficult situations arise.  If we have accustomed our mind to doubt or to see the worst in others, we will habitually suspect even their best-intentioned actions.  Similarly, thoughts of kindness, generosity, empathy, worry, anxiety, fear, hatred, and envy also come to us from habitual thought patterns. 

It is said that bad habits are easy to create, but hard to live with.  Good habits are an austerity to establish, but easy to live with.  The advantage of creating good habits within ourselves is that they enable us to upgrade the quality of our life without much of a drain on our willpower.  But, to be able to do that, we need to first invest our willpower and engage in the austerity required for creating a good habit.  Just like some people live from paycheck to paycheck, spending all that they earn, others who are wiser save a bit of their income, and invest it for a comfortable future.  In the same way, you have the choice to keep exerting and draining your willpower to refrain from temptations or investing your willpower in self-control to create beneficial habits within yourself. 

So, how do we make good, beneficial, and productive habits, and discard the bad ones?  The good news is that habits can be learned and unlearned.  When a rocket is shot into space, the first few seconds need the maximum fuel.  This force of gravitation has to be broken with a tremendous force.  Similarly, we all have the force of habits within ourselves.  These habits are material habits; our repeated thinking has created these channels in the brain and given rise to unproductive habits such as negative thinking, blaming, procrastination, etc.

Since a habit is extremely strong, it must be broken with patience, commitment, and understanding.  If we can convince ourselves of the harm our bad habits cause to us, and the pain they inflict upon us, we will find it much easier to renounce them.  But this is only half the story.  The deep-rooted truth is that we will find it much easier to develop good habits when we become convinced that they will increase our happiness. 

The Vedas speak about two kinds of pleasure: śhreya and preya.  Śhreya is that pleasure which seems bitter in the beginning, but it becomes very sweet in the long run.  Preya is that pleasure which seems pleasant in the beginning but causes great pain later.  They can be thought of as akin to delayed gratification versus immediate gratification.

With the help of this understanding, we get a lever for modifying habits.  To change old habits, we must repeatedly convince ourselves of the benefits that will accrue from changing. We must also reflect deeply about the pain that will be caused by not changing. 

Enumerate all the pleasures and pains, benefits and harms, advantages and disadvantages.  For example, if you wish to break from the habit of indulging in junk food, you create two lists – one that lists the long-term happiness/benefits from breaking the habit eating junk food (e.g. reduced risk of heart disease, weight loss, etc.), and the other of long-term pain from not breaking the habit (e.g. obesity, reduced energy for work, etc.). 

Once we develop clarity about the advantages and disadvantages of the different kinds of behavior, we should practice becoming deeply convinced about the happiness they will bring us.  This requires repeatedly reflecting on the benefits and harms, pleasures and pains, and advantages and disadvantages from the habit or lack of it. 

When we develop a deep conviction about the benefits and the resulting happiness of a certain thought pattern or action, we naturally try practicing it.  And every time we practice, it begins to grow on us.  With sufficient repetition, the new thought or behavior grows into a new habit, replacing the old one.  Then, one day, like the firm rope made from puny blades of straw, the new behavior slowly becomes an integral part of our personality.  This is how one develops a great personality, with a shining character, forged from virtuous habits. 

Having said this, a word of caution is necessary, for changing habits is never easy.  Even when the change seems to have been affected, there is always a danger of falling back into old behaviors and thought patterns.  During the transition phase, one must avoid the context that triggers the old habit.  With sufficient repetition, the new behavior or thought will develop into a new habit, replacing the old one.  

Now that we have learned the art of creating productive habits, implement this in your life today.  Exert your inner strength and endeavor to inculcate habits that will foster a life of increased productivity, inner resilience, enhanced emotional and physical stamina, bringing forth the best in yourself.

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