When I think about habits (my unthinking routines), I tend to focus on my “bad” habits and why I can’t seem to break them. I spend a lot of time berating myself for being so mentally weak, and then find myself repeating those same habits. Forming new “good” habits seems perpetually impossible; ones like diet and exercise in particular.
It led me to think about Buddhist monks and how, from what I have read, they appear to lead a relatively regimented life. Every day they meditate at a certain time, do chores at a certain time, eat and bathe at a certain time, and go to sleep at a certain time. I imagine the purpose behind the repetitive schedule is to develop “good” habits.
But isn’t there a contradiction between being mindful and having any habits at all? Aren’t habits things we do with very little, if any, mindfulness involved? Do not the precepts of Zen exhort people to be deliberative and conscious in all that they do?
So I googled Buddhism and habits and one of the blogs I read referred to a paper from the Department of Psychology at Duke University about habits.
Based on experience-sampling diary studies, it was found that approximately 45% of everyday behaviors tended to be repeated in the same location almost every day; whether it was reading the newspaper, exercising, eating fast food, morning coffee or watching TV.
Some of our habits have been formed to more predictably accomplish practical goals, such as getting ourselves fed and dressed and to work on time. But if, for example, I wake up on a Saturday and am thinking it’s Friday, I’ll likely launch into my work week routine and be all the way through the list to the drink coffee item before something like the date on my computer tells me it’s the weekend. I’ve gone on autopilot even though the goal is not valid for a Saturday! So we know that, after a time, habits can be triggered from the context of a situation. In this case, the context of simply waking up.
Psychological science (the Duke article) says that habit performance does not depend on us intending to activate a goal, and neuroscience shows that the goal-related neural structure of our brain’s prefrontal cortex is less involved once a behavior comes under habitual control.
So there’s one problem with replacing bad habits with good ones: habits, whether we define them as good or bad, require very little mindful input on our part to repeat themselves. Environmental clues as simple as the sun coming up or going down can trigger the habit response with limited conscious control to complete them.
In one respect it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think negatively about “good” habits. But the caveat may be that, once activated, circumstances may change which could change the goal, and the habit may no longer be considered “good” in that particular circumstance.
I had an embarrassing episode last fall where I got home from work, exhausted, and went to bed and to sleep almost immediately. A couple of hours later I woke up, and seeing that it was after 8:00, jumped in the car and headed to work. At that particular time of year, the light was similar at both 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. and I was groggy enough to not notice that the direction of the sun was from the west instead of from the east. I got to work and the gate was locked, so I called a coworker to find out if work had been cancelled for some reason. After a pause, they said hey you better check your clock again…!
I haven’t followed this thought process about habits through to the end, but it’s made me think about habits, and maybe that’s a good start. Being mindful requires some vigilance, I believe. And our brains are wired as such that it backs away from mindfulness as the behavior becomes habituated.
We live in a structured world where events are scheduled to the calendar and to the clock. The more we interact with others on a repetitive basis, the more useful and efficient schedules are as a tool. But as I contemplate that, I realize that we necessarily reduce our capacity for mindfulness when we establish schedules and habits. Even at a Zen monastery I would think.