Meditation Can Be Habit Forming

My daughter, in her usual thoughtful way, gave me a book for my birthday on the nature of habits. It is called “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”.

The word “habit” is one way to describe what we are up against in Buddhist practice. Something happens, a feeling, a thought, an emotion, and we react in a habitual way. One of the purposes of mindfulness is to become aware of these habits, and eventually to be able to intervene and respond more skillfully. Another purpose of practice is to retrain ourselves, substituting more wholesome habits for less wholesome ones.

The Buddha compared habit energy to the ruts created by a cart. Every time a behavior manifests, it makes the ruts deeper, just as every time a cart travels on the same road the ruts get deeper. So a bad habit at the age of 20 is twice as ingrained at 30 and twice as ingrained again at 40. The importance of mindfulness in this context is clear. Awareness is the only way to put the brakes on this process.

In “The Power of Habit” they describe several decades of research into the nature of habits. Some of this has to do with what happens in the brain. A particularly interesting case is that of a man code named “Eugene”. Eugene is one of the most famous people in the history of the study of habits. He suffered brain damage from an infection. He lost a lot of his memory, as well as his capacity to remember. He could not remember his children.

Nonetheless Eugene was capable of remembering some things. He started taking walks, and no one could figure out how he knew how to get home. If you asked him the route he took, he couldn’t tell you what it was. Nonetheless, like clockwork he would take his walk and find his way home.

There were exceptions. If something changed on his route, if there was something like construction going on, he would get lost and couldn’t find his way back.

The book goes into some detail on Eugene’s case, but what struck me most was a brief anecdote about what happened the day he died.

Eugene’s daughter, judging by the accounts in the book, was nothing short of a saint. She really cared for her father in a loving and disarmingly charming way. There was very little in it for her short of her own gratification. He couldn’t remember her from one day to the next, much less the many kindnesses that she showed him.

Still, on the day he died, just as the sun was setting, in a rare lucid moment he looked at his daughter and said, “I’m lucky to have a daughter like you.” He died several hours later.

It is a touching story, especially for me because of the way I feel about my own daughter. And I am sure that for Eugene’s daughter, it was probably a single moment that made up for years and years of what must have seemed like thankless effort and attention.

But what really stands out to me is the implications for the relationship between “mind” and “brain”. People who do neurological research love to study meditators. Meditators brains change over time. The pleasure center at the top center of the brain can go into overdrive, especially in people who do jhana (tranquility) practice. Neurologists also see changes in the main center of activity in the brain. Meditators have a center of energy in the left frontal lobe. Negative energy tends to be located in the right frontal lobe. The fact that meditation can change the nature of brain activity is itself pretty interesting.

But there is a significant difference between how science views the relationship between “Mind” and “brain” and how Buddhism views this relationship. Scientists would typically say that “mind” is a manifestation of the brain. Buddhism would say the opposite, that the brain is a physical manifestation of something greater, what we call “mind”.

In the West we have a particular reverence for science. Calling something “scientific” is to give it merit and substance.

But we are discovering serious limits to science. Science itself has begun to stumble onto what used to be the realm of mystics. Science now says, for example, that The Big Bang was just One Big Bang, one in a never-ending cycle of birth, expansion, contraction, and “death” of the universe.

Science also has embraced to some extent some very mystical ideas, such as the fact that the physical universe only comprises about 5% of the whole of reality, and that the physical universe itself exists in dependence on consciousness. The latter is the kind of thing you only used to hear from skinny guys sitting in a lotus position on some mountaintop in India.

It is also very interesting to hear someone like Stephen Hawking grapple with the limits of science. He gets to a point in his own thinking where he reverts to being an English Christian, allocating certain unexplainable phenomena to God for lack of any better understanding.

Buddhism understands that there is some process that we call “me”. This process takes physical form in a body at birth, then moves to another realm – possibly this one once again – when the body dies. This process carries impressions and imprints, sometimes even actual memories, from one lifetime to the next. Young children are known to be particularly prone to remembering events from previous lives.

In Buddhism there is the especially compelling case of Dhammaruwan, who as a young boy started spontaneously chanting Buddhist suttas. His father recorded them and they can be heard here:

At the other end of the life spectrum is Near Death Experiences, where there are people who for a short time are brain dead. There is no measureable neurological activity, and yet they have clear memories of what was going on around them.

Another example is people in comas. People who come out of comas can have clear memories of people reading to them or singing to them or simply talking. It is one reason why people who take care of patients like this – including people who do end-of-life (palliative) care – have become increasingly sensitive to the kind of environment they create for comatose people.

Many years ago I worked at the Pennhurst State School, an enormous – 2,000 resident – institution for the mentally disabled. I worked in a unit where the residents were at all levels of mental disability, and also had additional handicaps. One ward, for example, had quadriplegic and paraplegic residents. Some of them were at a very poor level of function. All they could manage was to sit in a chair and rock. But even then, at a young age, I could see that while their intellectual capacity was quite limited, they had an awareness of their situation. They knew, for example, that they were not the same as “normal” people. It is an interesting distinction, the difference between intellectual capacity and awareness. While we all differ in intellectual capacity, our capacity for awareness is the same. We are in that sense equal, and it is one of many reasons to treat all people with dignity and respect.

In the case of Eugene, despite the fact that on the surface he could not remember his daughter on a mundane day-to-day level, clearly there was some awareness that kept track of what was happening. And on that last day when he was preparing to cross over, his mind was momentarily freed from its bondage to the damaged brain, long enough to express his gratitude for the kindness of his daughter.

In Buddhism the idea of mind is more like “heart-mind”. The word in Pali is citta. It is a more expressive term about what is going on here. When Eugene told his daughter how grateful he was, he was truly expressing citta. It wasn’t just an intellectual awareness of what she had done for him, but a heart-felt appreciation for her kindness. While intellectual capacities differ, the capacity for citta is a level playing field. It is all a question of who we choose to be and what we choose to cultivate.

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