Monday, February 05, 2007

Habits of Mind

In the pantheon of the parenting Olympics taking young children to Disney World is definitely in the running for best time, worst food, and most physically demanding. It is also a time in my family when I and several generations gather around and try to make decisions. It’s as if Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, were all living in the same retirement home forming the old alliances, airing the same grievances. Hitler would invade everybody’s space, Churchill would make speeches about fighting him in the hallways, the anterooms, the bathrooms. Mussolini would be trounced by a maid while coming to Hitler’s aid, Stalin would do all of the real fighting, and Roosevelt would jump in at the last minute and make it possible for them all to get to lunch on time. Only in my family they would do it day after day year after year.

The great saint Ramana maharshi was once asked what causes human suffering, his reply was short and to the point, “Habits of the mind.” The Buddha described suffering as being stuck in our point of view like a wheel stuck in mud. Some of this stuckness gets externalized in the form of addictive behavior like smoking or drinking which makes it readily identifiable and treatable but most of it is seen “as just the way things are.” There is a famous scene in “Archie Bunker” in which Archie argues with “Meathead” about whether or not you put on both socks then your shoes, or you put on one sock one shoe then the other sock then the other shoe; neither Archie nor “Meathead” can imagine that there could possibly be another way of seeing things. As someone who worked for years as an addictions counselor and now for years as a Yoga teacher I honestly believe that we are far too identified with the mental habits that cause suffering to be able to effectively deconstruct them intellectually. The habits of mind that cause our suffering are embedded in the logic with which we make sense of our world.

Then we go to Yoga class or sit in meditation and for a time we suspend compulsive thought. Compulsive thinking is like the scroll of “News” at the bottom of a “News” broadcast repeating the same stories over and over again coming to the same unhappy ending over and over again. Time on the mat or the meditation cushion wakes us from the spell. We start to spend moments out of the trance, out of the matrix. It may be barely perceptible, we may only know that our day is better if we get to yoga or if we spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation. But it is better. We find that we are able to get unstuck. We find that we are able to see our life with new eyes. Over time we learn to distrust the stories, the beliefs, the fears that make us unhappy. If we find ourselves in a conversation about socks and shoes we are open to new information and, once in a while, are able to refrain from defending our point of view. We have this new freedom because we are coming to understand that the love and peace we seek has nothing to do with intellectual positions or external circumstances.

I grew up going to Disney World because we have family in the area. One day it rained and everybody left. We came back a couple hours later and had the Magic Kingdom to ourselves. That night we watched the fireworks. It was a warm summer evening after a perfect day. Thirty years later there are many more “Kingdoms.” Dino Land is in Animal Kingdom and was a big hit. They have a play ground there designed like an archeological dig complete with bones to be dug up. My daughter showed me how she can climb up a rope bridge all by herself. At the top there was a rubber pad as long as she is tall. It gave her no traction and as she paused to negotiate it I was afraid for her. She hesitated for only a second then scrambled across it with the same skill she displayed climbing across the ropes. She is three and a half and could almost fit into a detergent bottle. I am now forty three and will never forget that moment. Thank you Disney World and thank you Jasmine for reminding me that life is too beautiful to be afraid to change your mind.


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