The Juggernaut of Habit

There is a Hindu festival were a massive cart bearing a statue of the Hindu god Krishna (Jagannath – “world lord”) is paraded through town. In the 1300s, a Brit (Mandeville) alleged that devotees of this god would sometimes throw themselves under the wheels of the rolling cart and sacrifice themselves to the god. The cart, because of its momentum, was unable to stop and the ecstatic devotee is crushed. Thus, by metaphor, a “juggernaut” has come to mean a merciless, destructive, unstoppable force.

Our everyday life is composed of almost entirely unconscious reflexes or routines. We confuse this reflexive living for being conscious. Instead, we are simply riding the juggernaut of habit that we call “me” — it is our ‘natural’ unfolding. We blossom in an almost predestined manner.

Marvel Juggernaut

I don’t have an opinion about free will except to say that if there is any free-will, we use precious little of it.  In another post, I wondered out loud if saying “No” is the only way we can actually be conscious and thus establish a hint of free will.

One way to practice saying “no” is a type of Buddhist meditation called “samatha” (in Pāli) or “shi-né” (in Tibetan) which means “calm abiding” where the mind is quieted by not following daydreams and staying alert.  To me, this certainly counts as a concentrated practice of “saying no”.

Today while reading “Roaring Silence” I found this line which seems to confirm what I have said above:

“If we do not practice shi-né, our lives continue to live us.”

Is meditation all we got?  Perhaps a less exclusive (albeit less eloquent) way to say the same is: “By practicing shin-né, we can better live our lives than have them live us.”  And certainly we can practice awareness-of-habit without crossing our legs in meditation or learning lots of foreign terms.

Question to Readers:  What are the other ways do you think may help to live your own life rather than passively being lived out?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “The Juggernaut of Habit

  1. Something cute about shi-né meditation.

    To answer your question, Sabio, I strongly believe in my morning coffee, watching the clouds and talking to friends.

  2. “What are the other ways do you think may help to live your own life rather than passively being lived out?”

    In some ways, education — formal or otherwise — seems to be liberating. Although, I suppose it could be argued that, in the grand view, education is merely another kind of conditioning. Still, education is a bit like getting a set of maps to places you might not otherwise know of, and thus cannot previously have set your course for.

    I don’t have much confidence in the existence of free will, but whether a “No” can be free is an interesting question.

  3. You can also say “yes”, to things you’d habitually pass over.

    In the semde ngondro system presented in Roaring Silence, shi-ne is functionally equivalent to Sutra, or renunciation. You refrain from involvement with whatever happens. There’s a “no” to that, and to renunciation generally.

    In that system, lhatong is functionally equivalent to Tantra, or transformation. You dive into whatever happens, even if it’s horrifying. There’s a “yes” in that, and in Tantra generally.

    Saying “yes” to everything can get you in deep trouble, but will definitely explode your habits.

  4. Plan to be spontaneous? Choose not to scratch an itch?

    But seriously, one way you may approach the issue is to wait, or pause. In the instant you decide to do something, but before you have taken any action to do it, sit there for 15-60 seconds and think about it. Ask if it is really what you want? Will it make a difference? Does it need to be done? Etc. Taking an extra moment to re-evaluate your decisions may just give you the sense, and quite possibly the reality, of living a less passive life.

  5. BTW, everyone, my final question was a bit rhetorical. I think many people stop and watch without interference and watch their habits and yet know nothing about Buddhism yet alone meditate. I just think meditation is a refined way to strengthen that skill.

    @ Roni:
    The blank YouTube was ‘cute’. And watching clouds, talking with paused reflexes to friends and coffee are great!

    @ Paul Sunstone:
    Unfortunately, studies have verified that the greater a person’s ‘education’ the greater their self-deception. Insightful education is tough to come by — but as you say, worth pursuing.

    @ David:
    Indeed. I think that “No” would be better translated as “Not”. So NOT doing what you habitually do may mean “Yes” in some cases “No” in others. That way Tantra (lhatong) and Sutra (shi-ne) are dynamic.

    Exploding habits with out other checks sounds dangerous not only to the practitioner but also to others, to the group and more. Careful guidance would be nice at that time, eh?

    @ Wise Fool:
    Yes, choose not to scratch an itch.
    Waiting is great advice — Jefferson said:

    When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.”

  6. @ Sabio: Yes, Tantra is dangerous, and yes having a capable teacher is important for that reason.

  7. @ Sabio: Blank? (Supposed to be an animation about the shi-né path with the elephant and all.)

    I interpreted your question as ‘What makes you stop and reflect on your life?’, and I had the feeling that in my case these things do.

  8. @ Roni
    Ah, the video worked today for me. Must say, it doesn’t match my temperament and had too much magic/mystery idealist fluff for me. But I could see how some would like it.
    Concerning the “stop and reflect” — you are right. I meant, “What can serve the same purpose of “Shi-né” besides “Shi-né”. My point was that “Shi-né” is merely a concentrated, devoted period of practicing what can happen in many activities and moments — as you illustrate. Thank you.

  9. Bart

    I’ve done quite a bit of reading and thinking about free will. I’ve come to the conclusion that freewill, in the moment, simply doesn’t exist. Our bodies simply react to stimuli.

    Where it gets tricky is our ability to predict the future. Not prediction like Silvia Brown, but prediction like Isaac Newton. We can measure the velocity and direction of a ballistic object, and accurately predict where it will land. Even when were firing it from Earth and sending it to Mars.

    In that same vein, we can predict the trajectory of a life. If we give a life access to education, resources, art and culture, we can pretty much predict that the person will grow to be an enlightened individual. Likewise if we raise a person in ignorance, fear and dogma, the results are quite predictable.

    An even better example is breakfast. When I wake up tomorrow, I will simply react to the environment. I will eat what is available, and if there are more than one choice, what appeals to me. But today, I can influence my choices for breakfast by going to the store and buying different types of food.

    I think that free will exists in this future prediction ability. We make conscious choices that will impact out future. Only in that way can we truly direct our lives.

  10. I have a strong suspicion that “habit” is wholly orthogonal to “samatha”. The two are on different axes, but related through a separate concept.

    For much of my life, I was incapable of forming any habits — no consistency in how the toilet paper roll went on; no consistency in which part of the bed was head or foot from day to day, or even whether I slept on the bed, or in my own house for that matter; no consistent route to or from work, mode of transportation, or chosen work venue (office, client site, coffee shop, home); and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    I wouldn’t associate my failure at habit-formation with “samatha”. At best, it was severe ADHD. More likely, a severe psychological aversion to routine. I used to feel (involuntarily, and against my best attempts to change) that routine was worse than death. I’m better at it now, but routine still carries the stink of death for me.

    Perhaps the link between “habit” and “samatha” is what we see in “Simulated Annealing” (David Chapman will understand the reference immediately, and can probably explain better than me). Annealing refers to the way that metals are made stronger by heating them to a high temperature and then cooling them down slowly. In math, we sometimes use a process called “Simulated Annealing” to find the best solution to a problem. We know that if we follow an entirely consistent routine when searching for the solution, we can easily get stuck in a rut (i.e. local optimum) and never find the best solution. So we introduce some chaos and randomness (like heating up metal), to shake ourselves out of the rut. It might knock us backwards a few pegs and force us to do extra work, but we have a better chance of eventually finding the global optimum, and not just getting stuck in some local backwater. Over time, we need to cool things down, so we don’t wander around the solution space randomly forever, but heating things up initially is very important.

    IMO, exploding our habits by saying “not”, or heating things up by saying a tantric “yes”, is a lot like “raising the temperature” in SA parlance. Conversely, “samatha” roughly means “cooling down”. So maybe it’s a sequential thing — establishing “samatha” as a habit is a good thing, but only after you’ve already heated things up by exploding your other habits.

  11. @ Bart
    I think some, using your same deterministic model, would say that “planning” is equally susceptible to determined outcomes. What makes you any freer to plan for tomorrows breakfast than to ‘choose’ tomorrow to eat eggs, cereal, go to a restaurant or fast? I agree that in common sense notions, thinking about tomorrow and planning seems a deeper level of participation that the decision of the moment. But I am not sure it is — both can become reflexive.
    But “have you experimented with silent sitting”? Have you experimented with anything to say, “not that” to reflexes?

    @JS Allen
    I like the analogy of tantra and simulated annealing. I think the practice of silent sitting and drawing mind back to silence when it wants to day dream (samatha) is another good way to break habit.

    Breaking habit, however, is not enough. I am not sure about the rest, but without some other components, I feel that temporary broken habits can make a new person but there is not guarantee about the quality of that person — that is another conversation.

    Oh, BTW, I am sure you know the saying:
    “The difference between the hunter and the hunted is that the hunted has habits(patterns).”

  12. i am a creature of habit. but when an break happens in the ritual, i treat it as a break, a chance for wonder and awe to break it. it is NOT an interruption. that’s my thoughts on it. i like what has been said here though, very cool stuff… esp. the “The difference between the hunter and the hunted is that the hunted has habits(patterns).”

  13. Fascinating and important topic, Sabio. I think of it a little this way: how can . . . er, “one” enable a smaller/newer inertia (habit-energy) to . . . derail the older/stronger inertia. Does “quieting the mind” bring greater equality to ideas/impulses? By quieting down, do we allow neurotransmitters to filter out of those flooded synapses that slant the playing field (badly mixing metaphors here)?
    Removing myself from social situations can help. Focused aerobic exercise. Reading material that energizes the smaller inertia. Or is it anti-inertia? Or is it a small, good inertia that is necessary to counter-act the bigger bad? So to speak.
    One final note: It is so refreshing to find other skeptically inclined individuals that can both find merit in meditation (and the culture it is encouraged by) and critically analyze it.

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