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Habit and Freedom

November 19th, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago that greed, ignorance and aggression stoked by our habits are our problem. He described habits as forming skandhas or “heaps” and said that the ego was made of five of these heaps of habits. The choice of the word heap was fundamental to his understanding: Habit piles on habit so that we no longer really understand why we do anything with clarity. Our habits, of body, feelings, perception, will and consciousness, dictate our responses for us.

The western scientific mistake in understanding the unconscious mind is first and foremost a mistake due to our misunderstanding of the conscious mind. The mind has been taken to be a self-existing entity, assuming the mental person is a cogent whole. We then have to explain where things come to that whole from that do not fit comfortably with the rest. The unconscious is pitted as another whole entity existing within and from which spring forth these uncomfortable facts. All of these errors result from the egotistic western religions that say god made man and he made man the highest and like him – with a “soul”, beyond this material life. The Buddha trod on this really early: anatma, non-soul is a key component in the Buddhist metaphysical understanding of what it is to be human. There is no soul, no god, no “person” or “personality” or “ego”. There are just habits, springing forth with their self-defining existence and going back to … nowhere … if you can learn to sit and watch them and not be drawn in.

If we see the Buddhist understanding for what it is, we can see that both conscious and sub or un-conscious minds are functions of these heaps of habits. The unconscious bit is the habitual bit, the conscious bit is the one where we find ourselves doing and thinking something and then rapidly make up the logic behind it – this is known as cognitive dissonance in modern psychology. If we sit and meditate on the reality of this we can see it happening in our own minds. The Buddhist path is fundamentally about undoing the habits so we see things more clearly, in a less habitual and more realistic way. In fact, the Buddhist path is quite specific about this: a man will have attained to perfection, enlightenment, when he has undone all the habitual (conditioned) aspects of his being, such that he has extinguished the craving for being that is at the root of all this. And when he has done that he has attained to the highest, the unborn, Nirbana which means extinction – of the flame of desire not the man. The Buddha was quite clear about all of this, and yet, Buddhist love to argue about these things, they really enjoy a good debate, they love to bruise and bash their opponents ego whilst stroking and rubbing up their own. Most Buddhists have got little hope of attaining to the highest ideals of their religion because of this type of attitude: because they are human, with an ego – which will be damned if it is going to give up the great comfort of all those little habits that make us what we are. The ego even takes over our Buddhist practice it is so slippery, and has some strong parallels in Capitalism, where fashion-statement shirts sport Che Guvera’s revolutionary image and zen can be used to sell cars. So, we see the horror of who we are quite clearly: just a bunch of habits formed in reaction to the circumstances we have encountered along the way. Habits that control our body, feelings, perceptions, will and consciousness. And our Buddhism.

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