How We Make Habits – An Understanding
Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha reportedly taught how humans make habits. The insights of this earliest Buddhist Psychology sheds shame on the West, with its almost-the-same version of this view in the 20th century. One must wonder if B. F. Skinner or N. Chomsky knew about Buddhist Psychology. Whereas the Buddha presented the psychology of habit formation, Skinner presented the science for it. So the ancient teaching goes, we make habits by being conscious of the concretely noticed consequences of sense-door perceptions, leading to actions of mind and body. In other words when we use senses to perceive (make contact with) something we want, we activate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to obtain it. The subject of “I” makes contact with the object of thing/experience; if consequences are pleasant, we repeat the same sequence over and over again. Consequences, however, can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We make habits chasing pleasant consequences
(reinforcement – positive in nature), and also by avoiding unpleasant consequences (negative reinforcement). Humans, therefore, learn by experience what to approach (pleasant consequences) and what to avoid (unpleasant consequences). Neutral consequences do not motivate us to repeat behaviors of mind, body, thought, speech and action. Thus we make our habits by repeated behaviors aimed at achieving desired (attached to) pleasant consequences as well as avoiding the unpleasant ones. This is a mind-body process, and it is registered internally by emotions in the body – feeling sensations. The ultimate catch, however, remains that since the positive/pleasant outcomes of our repeated behaviors are impermanent – we cannot hold on to the desired, attached positive behavioral outcomes. Nothing lasts for ever. Nothing! So, no matter what we do to continue the cycles of chasing pleasant outcomes, we end up with dissatisfaction – suffering. Think alcoholism or drug addiction – any addiction for that matter. Humans will self-medicate for short-term gains, almost always leading to long-term problems (suffering).
This does NOT mean that we cannot be happy. In fact when joy and happiness are experienced BEST we fully encounter them with deep gratitude and by using all our sensory organs (including thought according to Buddhism). We just cannot make the happiness last as long as we wish it to last. So, nothing is ever enough to fully satisfy us for long. Not even great wealth related to great greed. We always want more, or we fear we may lose what we now have. This is the true story of samsara. It is also support for the statement that intrinsic, long-lasting happiness is an inside job. It depends on how we respond to conditioning in life.
The Alaya Treatise noted that humans possess a very strong sense of self – the subjective “I/Me/My” self that registers the pleasant or unpleasant consequences noted above. If we like the outcomes of intentional contact with sense-objects and experiences, we feel GOOD and repeat the behaviors over and over again. We cling to the desired outcome; this is true even though we have no control over what the future will bring. The past is over -let it go. The future has not yet happened – you cannot control it. Humans, however, fail to learn these most basic lessons of life. In situations where our self-cherishing subjective SELF sees either a threat to survival or a loss of the desired sense-object pleasant consequence of behavior, we react quite strongly. Some believe that the dependent arising of human experience rests in the connection of causes and conditions related to making sense contact with objects and experiences leading to pleasant consequences. We get attached; we desire; we grasp; and, we cling to what we WANT. What we like!
In worse-case scenarios, human attachment to being attached to desired consequences of behavior can lead to deadly violence. We sometimes act as if we are simply wild animals seeking what we want when we want it. We will fight or oppose anything in our way. The tendencies of such learned – possibly genetic – behaviors is transferred via familial, group, racial, ethnic and national identifications. The culture of imperialism – taking what you want from others – may be deeply ingrained in the human psyche or even in our genes regarding survival. When such tendencies are related to wealth and sacred belief systems, we may even kill others to protect our desired processes and beliefs. This is a cultural reality. To a lesser degree the levels of self-centered entitlement today suggest the extreme egoism of the “I/Me”My” realities of life in samsara – searching for happiness in all the same ways and wrong places without really finding it OUT THERE. So, if you understand the early Buddhist teaching about causes and conditions associated with attachment desire, you may be able to achieve more lasting happiness via the Four Noble Truths and The Eight Fold Path. We on the Path are approaching Nirvana, Enlightenment – one small step at one small time. The Path is experienced well only if we use dharma wisdom, strong compassion, and the foundations of Buddhist Psychology.
For more information refer to Nanamoli, B. and Bodhi, B. (Trans.). (1997). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications. See also Waldron, W.S. Indian Thought and Social Science on the Travails of Self-Identity. Middlebury, VT: Middleburg College. For a more complex interpretation refer to the Alaya Treatise.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
Author of Mindful Happiness
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