The key point in gaining relief from afflictive emotional states like anger, depression, and anxiety, is learning to whittle away at, and gradually lessen, the habits of mind that normally define our response to the world. This is also the key point in realizing spiritual awakening. There are very old habits of mind that define our response to life in such a way that we are trapped in samsara.
We each have our own constellations of habits of mind. By habit of mind, I mean the phenomenon whereby, a stimulus occurs – there is a sensory experience, a thought or memory, a perception, a comment from another – and the mind instantly reacts to the stimuli in old familiar ways. It dives into action along familiar lines. When we are at points in our lives where we happen to be having a struggle with anxiety, depression, or chronic irritation, we are struggling because the mind is following a well-worn path. Our response to the stimulus is automatic. There is no intentionality in it. People do not purposely choose to be depressed or anxious.
To practice mindfulness is to replace more and more of our habitual mental responses to the world with intentionality and awareness. We need to be able to experience stimuli without the kneejerk response. So, our formal meditation practice involves paying attention to what’s here in the present moment in our bodies and minds, while holding back on the urge to jump on into to it. We are strengthening a very important mental muscle that is foundational to happiness.
A simile that comes to mind for me is that of a mosquito bite. When we have an itch from a mosquito bite, scratching that bite is like the old familiar habit of mind. Usually, we find ourselves scratching without ever having consciously made the decision to do so. Often, we first become aware of the bite when we notice that we’re scratching. At other times, we are aware of the bite, and we do consciously decide to scratch. After all, initially scratching feels like the most wonderful and natural thing to do. It feels really great when you start scratching it, but you soon regret it because it only makes it itch more, and the area of the bite becomes irritated from the scratching. You resolve not to scratch it again, because you know you are preventing the bite from healing, but before you know it, you’re right back at it. Maybe this isn’t the most elegant simile – mosquito bites – but it does represent very well how our mental habits manifest. There is a stimulus. We mindlessly respond. We eventually realize that we’re doing it. Then, at that point, we either continue to charge ahead, because in that moment if feels good, or if we do decide to come out of the response, before we know it, we’re right back at it.
We can see this clearly in our meditation practice. A thought or perception arises in our minds and beckons us. We engage the thought. At first, it feels good to engage the thought, but later we regret it because we’re supposed to be meditating after all. We resolve to stay with our meditation method, but find ourselves right back at it again. With mosquito bites, we need to learn to be aware of the sensations due to the bites, without reacting to those sensations. In our meditation practice we are working at being aware of the invitation of the thought, without jumping into it. In our Mahasati practice, we use the feeling of the body movement as a tool to help us keep our awareness in the present moment – recognizing the arising of thoughts, without going into them. The arising of the thought is no different than any other sensory stimuli. We don’t have to pursue it. When we are bitten by mosquitoes, we can’t control the itch that happens, but we can exert some control over how much scratching we do. It is the same with our mental life. We don’t have control over what pops into our heads, but we can exert some control over our engagement with it – our mental scratching.
I also like this somewhat unsavory simile for one other reason. Some people tend to get frustrated by their inability to stop themselves from their mental scratching. Even when meditating, they repeatedly find themselves lost in thought and on their way to some familiar destination. People sometimes see this as evidence that their minds just aren’t capable of this practice. I’ve heard this many times. They may decide that they might as well just give up this practice – the practice of being aware of a mental itch without scratching. But, most people don’t have this black and white approach to their mosquito bites. When they catch themselves scratching their bites, they don’t say, “well I guess I can’t control myself, so I might as well just go for it.” They understand that even though they can’t stop the mindless scratching completely, they’re still better off even if they’re only able to do it some of the time. It is the same with our practice. We need to learn to have the same sort of patience and understanding with our meditation practice that we grant ourselves when we have a mosquito bite. Sometimes we scratch, and sometimes we don’t. Even though we are inconsistent, the times that we don’t scratch make a difference. Even though, sometimes we scratch, and sometimes we don’t, those times that we don’t slowly add up and gradually reduce the conditioning – laying down, and gradually deepening, a different pathway.