Memories, Conditioning, and Habits

Lately there’s been – what feels like – deep Kamma/Karma bubbling up. I say deep because in spite of insights that usually release energy and create a sense of lightness, I keep finding myself back in dense energy. In other words, the brevity of joy that usually accompanies an insight, healing, and freedom cycle of death and rebirth leads me to guess that this is long standing Kamma (and probably multiple lifetimes). Regardless of whether it’s deep or I’m just dense, what’s catching my attention is the process we use to create and sustain habits formed by our mental and emotional reaction to experience and memories.

Recently, I listened to a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Viradhammo titled: Perceptions, Memories, Lived Experience. In the talk Ajahn Viradhammo uses an example of being outdoors and getting bit by Deer flies. As he looked out his window the next morning (after a night of itching), he noticed aversion to going outside rising. He continued by pointing out the choice we can make to observe and not buy into a memory verses utilizing the memory to reinforce fear and a sense of threat. It is a regular practice of mine to try to simply observe and not get involved with conditioned responses by recognizing it as just habit. However, I think my awareness was leaving memory in the closet.

According to Oxford Dictionary, a habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously. Built into habits is a system of reinforcement (whether healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional, and so on) that serves to maintain a conditioned response. Habits are something that we become so accustom to that the denial or potential loss of a habit can lead to extreme discomfort (aka, Dukkha). Hence, the difficulty in changing behavior once it becomes routine or habitualized.

spider defines memory as the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions, etc., or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences. Words like “impressions”, “reviving”, and “recognizing” clearly show that memory is tainted with personal points of view. For me, that means that memories are clearly not a reliable representation of reality. And, as many of us are forced to admit, it becomes less and less reliable once we are past our teens, let alone our senior years! No wonder continual reinforcement of a memory can lead to delusion and phobias.

This leads to my question: How often are we creating and sustaining habits simply based on a memory that doesn’t even represent the present reality? We have a reaction to causes based on conditioning, we fire a habitual response based on a memory of – or attempt to revive – something that seems similar and familiar, and we engage that memory through the action of habit. Naturally, most of this happens unconsciously at the speed of light making it challenging to alter once it’s set in motion.

What I realize as I process the above, is that habits are an attempt to hold on to a fixed point of view. Maybe that’s more obvious when examining “bad” habits. Like, the ones we are endlessly trying to stop or change and that serve as coping mechanisms to avoid or run from something. Now the question I am asking myself is: What memory am I trying to avoid that is stirring aversion, delusion, doubt, and craving? The actual memory is not what’s important. It’s the current response to some perception of an experience that has already happened that matters.

Delusion tricks us by suggesting that the current circumstances are the same as our memory and mind want us to revive. For me, doubt is usually along for the ride. As my mind and body react to the suggestion of a threat, instead of cultivating patience, I can be easily swayed to run by engaging a familiar habit.
Image by Ken Piorkowski

What about cultivating “good” and healthy new habits? Why does it seem so easy to attach to an unskillful habit, yet so challenging to create a skillful one? Again, I go back to memory. Some how, some where, there probably is a memory that conditioned the unconscious to believe that a possible new behavior will be too hard, difficult, uncomfortable, and the list runs on. In spite of good intentions, a fixed point of view is lurking in the closet. Turns out that creating a new healthy habit may not be that different from letting go of a bad one.

As a Buddhist, my practice is to embody and embrace Anicca (impermanence), Anatta (not personalizing everything including the ego), and Dukkha (stress or suffering). In doing so, I try to remember (no pun intended) that underneath a habit is uncertainty, impermanence, and an ability to not personalize what is happening. Perhaps then I can crack open the closet door, let go of the old baggage, and break free of the attachment that keeps attempting to revive or hold onto that which is no longer relevant or useful. I can change the Kamma of the moment by responding differently.


© Sallie Odenthal 2016

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