The art of removing and creating habits – part 1
In this new series, DAAJI bridges the wisdom of Yoga with the way we can change our behavior patterns and habits. He challenges us to evaluate our ways of thinking and feeling in order to refine our tendencies, and to reset our compass toward a lifestyle that is noble and good.
We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny.
—19th century proverb
Thoughts, actions, habits, character and destiny
This well-known and often-quoted English proverb is based on a simple sequence of cause and effect. The same idea is also found in Chinese texts, in The Bible, and in the Buddha’s and Patanjali’s Eightfold Paths. In other words, the concept is universally appreciated across cultures.
Despite its clear message, during the last few decades character has taken a back seat in a world that has been accelerating toward corruption, fake news and misinformation, digital addiction, extremes in wealth and poverty, and unregulated destruction of the environment. Perhaps because of all these issues, there is now a significant revival of interest in values and character. One term that has been coined for this revival is “a moral revolution1.” Ethics have once more become fashionable, and books like James Clear’s Atomic Habits are bestsellers as people look for answers and ways to change. Here we will together explore the reasons for thought pollution which is created as a consequence which also becomes a cause for many other ills.
Yamas and Niyamas
Philosophers and thought leaders from ancient times to the present day have extolled the importance of character and the creation of good habits, not with the idea of judgment and condemnation, but in order to offer guidelines and inspiration, and in this series I would particularly like to focus on the age-old yogic concepts of Yama and Niyama in the light of our modern-day needs.
Thousands of years ago, in his Yoga Sutras, the great sage Patanjali presented the importance of the practices of Yama and Niyama, the first two of the eight limbs of Yoga. The idea behind these two practices is really very simple:
“Giving up untrue feelings and untrue thought is Yama. Yama means to give up. Wanting to know Reality and thinking of Reality is Niyama. Yama means not to accept gifts, not to steal, not to tell lies etc. … Yama is the giving up of unwanted things from the heart, whereas Niyama is the filling up of the required qualities in the heart.2”
In other words, certain thoughts, feelings and habits propel us toward a life of integrity, and others pull us away from it. The idea is to remove the unwanted habits that pull us away, and cultivate the evolutionary habits that propel us toward integrity. Why do I continue to struggle to get rid of the bad, and why does it feel like a torturous uphill battle in embracing what is good for me?
The impact of a great movie or a great novel depends upon how it ends, especially how good prevails over evil. Character matters, and intuitively we all know it. Whether it is in a Jane Austen novel, a Star Wars film, or a Marvel comic, we want the good guys to triumph over the bad guys. Our understanding of good versus evil is alive and well across all spectra of society. And when it comes to our children, we want them to cultivate virtues that matter, like honesty, integrity, compassion, humility, wisdom and simple kindness. Currently, character has even become a hot topic of discussion in the news, perhaps more than at any other time in recent history.
Yet, knowing all this, most of us struggle to live up to our ideals. At a very personal level, we may get angry with our loved ones and say hurtful things, or tell lies to avoid confrontation or to wriggle out of situations. We may behave selfishly, betray others, steal from them, and kill innocent creatures in the name of progress. There is also the behavior of omission, which means that we turn a blind eye and do nothing to stop unethical things from happening in our families, communities and societies.
Ethical intelligence is not just about knowing what is right or wrong – most of us know the difference deep down – it is about making wise choices in every moment of every day. It is about the things we think, feel, do and don’t do. It is in the implementation of ethics that we find character. And this covers all aspects of our behavior, both seen and unseen. The great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
Ethical intelligence is not just about knowing what is right or wrong
– most of us know the difference deep down
– it is about making wise choices in every moment of every day.
It is about the things we think, feel, do and don’t do.
It is in the implementation of ethics that we find character.
Ethics and character also cover our duty and responsibility to ourselves and others – known in Yoga as dharma. We are social creatures, and if we are interested in being an active member of the human race, we need to ask ourselves: “What sort of lifestyle is required to fulfill my responsibilities?” For a start, we have a biological duty of care to look after our children, like all adult mammals, and this is critical in humans as children need many years of care. Yet today we commonly see parents delegating that duty to professionals and teachers, so that both can work full-time. Parents and grandparents are often not the main carers of their children. I am not judging that trend, simply witnessing it, and it is worth noting that we have reached a stage where even the fundamental biological responsibility of nurturing our own young is ignored as our ethical duty. What does that say about our society? We could ask ourselves about the ethics of leaving children in the care of strangers, teachers, and digital babysitters like television and mobile devices, day in and day out.
Traditionally, we also have a responsibility to our extended family members, to our local communities, to society at large, and to our broader environment – the Earth and its atmosphere. The concept of stewardship of the Earth is valued in all religions, as well as non-sectarian groups like the current Climate Change movement, and Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.
These are just a few of the topics that fall under the heading of ethical intelligence, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. This series of articles is not intended to point fingers at anyone, whether individual or societal, but to inspire us to pause and refer to our hearts on what habits we wish to create in our day-to-day living and then bring about the change. If we are to use the current time of uncertainty wisely, this will be a very valuable exercise that may help us to adapt for the future.
The role of Yoga in creating habits
The framework for this inquiry starts with the Yamas and Niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. What did Patanjali consider to be the habits and qualities of a good life? There are no surprises in his list, as you will see. In fact, Yoga has always advocated the same core human values that we hold dear today. The corollary of this is that people back then must have been struggling with the same inadequacies, weaknesses and character flaws that we struggle with today. We may use different names for them now, but essentially our awareness of our ideal has stood the test of time.
Per contra, there have been major recent developments in how we work with these habits since Patanjali’s era. One of the most significant is that everyday family life is now considered to be a very suitable lifestyle for yogic practice, especially for the development of the Yamas and Niyamas. In Patanjali’s time, yogis were often celibate ascetics or mendicants, living in ashrams, monasteries, forests and mountains, whereas modern-day yogis can be found in cities, juggling families and careers while also following their path of enlightenment. In fact, the challenges of family life and work are a wonderful field of action for character development and habit creation. As a result, our perspective on the Yamas and Niyamas has evolved to encompass the sphere of human relationships and collective awareness. The focus has evolved from “me to we.”
is the catalyst for outer change.
But let’s first start with a summary of Patanjali’s description of the five Yamas – non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, moderation of the senses, and a non-possessive attitude.
In ancient times, the practice of these five Yamas was arduous. Seekers were expected to take them up and master them as the first steps, along with the Niyamas, before embarking on the other yogic practices. They spent countless years in penance and character building. Great willpower, patience and personal discipline were needed even to get to first base. Imagine Lord Buddha spending months living in the jungle, foraging for food, exposed to the weather, and foregoing all comforts in order to reach his goal. Are we capable of such hardship and sacrifice?
Thankfully for us, the sequence of steps in Yoga in the current era has made it so much easier for us. We first start with Heartfulness Meditation, Cleaning and Prayer – encompassing Patanjali’s final four limbs of Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi – so as to refine, regulate and purify the mind. As a result, our instrument of perception, the mind, with which to work on our character, is purer and thus more effective. Inner transformation is the catalyst for outer change. This sequence is very practical because behavioral change is much easier once the mind is refined and well-regulated. Inner transformation for someone who still has a heart full of desire, worry, anger, fear or guilt becomes a daunting task.
The neuroscience and psychology of habit formation
This evolution of approach has coincided with a growing awareness of the science of habit formation and subconscious programming, through the western disciplines of psychology and neuroscience. We know that many of our habitual patterns are formed in early childhood, and lead to automatic behaviors of which we are often not even conscious. For every conscious thought, we have at least a million subconscious thoughts, and our subconscious thoughts condition 95% of our activities3.
Unfortunately, most of the neuroscientific research has focused on the changes we see in the brain associated with happiness versus unhappiness, positivity versus negativity. In the light of ethical intelligence, however, we are looking far beyond our own self-centered need for happiness; we are rewiring for evolution not just happiness. It will be interesting to see the findings of the research currently being done with Heartfulness practitioners, whose purpose in life is evolutionary. How does rewiring for evolution affect the brain?
Many people think that meditation and Yoga are for developing well-being, health, peace and happiness, but that is just the preparation for the first step – the mastering of our desires, dislikes, and inadequacies, and the connection with our inner reservoir of stillness that is like the eye of the storm.
The yogic science of Pranahuti
The shift in approach has also coincided with extensive research in the field of Yoga during the last 100 years, the development of simple yogic practices, and the rediscovery of the ancient yogic technique of pranahuti, also known as Transmission. Pranahuti is described in the Upanishads as pranasya prana. It was utilized in ancient times, but remained largely unknown for centuries until Ram Chandra of Fatehgarh rediscovered and mastered its use in order to help others transform.
While meditation with Transmission elevates us rapidly from the inside, melting away obstacles to progress and dismantling the very roots of our subconscious mental programming, we also need to modify our habits so that this inner transformation is matched by behavioral changes, otherwise there is no harmony between inner and outer. Our inner world may expand and evolve, but if our character and lifestyle lag behind then we remain stuck, unable to move forward. And if we as individuals remain stuck, so does society.
While meditation with Transmission elevates us rapidly
from the inside, melting away obstacles to progress
and dismantling the very roots of our subconscious mental programming,
we also need to modify our habits so that
this inner transformation is matched by behavioral changes.
Becoming lotus-like – the process of removal and refinement
The word “Yama” has various meanings. In Sanskrit, it means “regulation” or “self-discipline.” In Hindu mythology, the God of Death is also called Yama. How is death intertwined with self-discipline and the refinement of lifestyle? The secret of self-transformation is to let our own entangled mental and emotional complexities die, in order to transcend ‘I’-ness and allow our consciousness to become universal. This is the death of individuality, of the ego. In meditation, we transcend the individual self, so that we merge with the universal Self and begin to resonate with the Absolute.
The idea of Yama as death may sound morbid, but there is tremendous wisdom in removing unwanted complexities and transcending the ‘I’-ness of the ego. It is the death of our self-created sense of identity – the layers of our persona. The ego can be a very restrictive force, limiting us to a very rigid belief system. It can prevent us from remaining flexible and blossoming in new and open ways. But the methods are there to help us change all that. When we are able to let go of the things that no longer serve us, transcending the limitations of our belief systems, the ego becomes our ally. We move from a limited focus on personal beliefs to being open to the universal consciousness.
In order to do this, we refine the mind, also known as the subtle body, so that it becomes pure, light, expansive and unlimited.
There are two fundamental aspects to this refinement:
1. Removal of complexities from the subtle body:
We remove any complexities and heaviness from the subtle body – the impressions we have accumulated from our past – so that it becomes light and pure. These impressions are called samskaras in Yoga. This removal leads to the death of our individual network of beliefs, emotions, fears, habits, desires and myriads of traits. Many people try to do this through psychoanalysis and personal therapy at the mental level, but that is generally a long slow process because of the depth of the subconscious roots of patterns and tendencies. In Heartfulness, the practice of Cleaning removes the root samskaras by directly cleaning the subtle body at the vibrational level. This process is so effective that the impressions from one whole lifetime can be removed in a single meditation session with a trainer.
To support this, we also need to remove the habits and behaviors that are the outer expression of the inner impressions, so that we don’t re-create the same patterns again and again. Otherwise, we are like little mice in a cage on a spinning wheel, going round and round, removing, re-creating, removing, re-creating. It is a never-ending cycle until we change our behavior and lifestyle.
When we are able to let go of things that no longer serve us,
transcending the limitations of our belief systems,
the ego becomes our ally.
We move from a limited focus on personal beliefs
to being open to the universal consciousness.
2. Ongoing refinement of the subtle body:
The second aspect is the refinement of the four main functions of the subtle body – consciousness, thinking, intellect and ego:
With meditation on the heart, the thinking function deepens and expands to include feeling, and then expands further to include states that are beyond experience. Our mental process moves toward the subtlest state possible, guided by the heart.
The intellect deepens into intelligence, and then to intuition, to wisdom and beyond – again it becomes subtler and subtler. As we remain connected with the universal consciousness, wisdom flows like a current from beyond.
The ego is redirected from a selfish focus on “I” toward a selfless focus on “we,” toward generosity of the heart, then greater humility and acceptance, and finally to the subtlest states of identity.
As these three mental functions are refined, consciousness is able to expand into its infinite state, untethered and in osmosis with the universal consciousness.
With meditation on the heart,
the thinking function deepens
and expands to include feeling,
and then expands further to include states
that are beyond experience.
If we could do all this through meditative practices alone, we would all be soaring in no time, but the ego does not move from selfishness to generosity without a fight! It is a process. And it takes time to trust our feelings and the wisdom of the heart, and to become totally dependent on something higher, ignoring the pros and cons of the rational mind that are determined by the cognates of our programmed belief systems. It requires adjustment and recalibration of character, side by side with practice.
As we continue to transcend toward lightness and freedom, we experience the real aliveness of living from the heart. We live a life connected with the universal Being. Such a life is supported by the wisdom of conducting life with the self-discipline that we know as Yama.
This state of self-discipline is beautifully described as being in this world but not of this world, symbolized by the lotus living in the mud, unpolluted by the dirt, radiating purity and beauty. I like to call these Yamas the five vows of the seeker. They are vows of self-discipline for living life bravely and not straying from the noble path. In the next articles we will explore their relevance in our daily lives.
1 Novogratz, J., 2020. Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World. Macmillan Publishers, NY, USA.
2 Ram Chandra, 2013. Complete Works of Ram Chandra,Volume 2. Shri Ram Chandra Mission, India.
3 Lipton, B. H., 2005. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Hay House, USA.
Article by DAAJI
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