Patterns part 3 - the habits we are

Karla Alexander

Karla Alexander

A pattern of habits

Over the last two posts we’ve been looking at this idea that everything is a pattern, a composition of elements.
 Patterns part 1 – leaning into emptiness
Patterns part 2 - being shown a secret
So much for the outside world, what about us, are we too a pattern? I guess we could find various patterns whilst looking for 'me', a pattern of limbs, a pattern of relationships maybe and many more. One thing that we do seem to be is a patten of habits. 

The shoes put on each time
first left, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings – no fewer, no more –
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

How intimate and unthinking
the way the toothbrush is shaken dry after use,
the part we wash first in the bath.

Which habits we learned from others
and which are ours alone we may never know.
Unbearable to acknowledge
how much they are themselves our fated life.

Open the traveling suitcase –

There the beloved red sweater,
bright tangle of necklace, earrings of amber.
Each confirming: I choose these, I.

But habit is different: it chooses.
And we, it’s good horse,
opening our mouths at even the sight of the bit.
— Jane Hirshfield


The Buddhist tradition uses the word samskaras to talk about these habits or tendencies. It is a good word to know. It translates as formations and is one of those words that describes both a process and the result of a process. Just like in English we talk of the process of building and then the 'building' that is a result of that process. 

So samskaras, habits or tendencies, are the process of forming ourselves, as well as the selves we seem to be

For example, we have a habit of being a bit tight with money, maybe we worry that we don’t have enough. So, we don’t practice generosity,  therefore we develop a habit of being ‘tight’. And so the cycle continues. 

It seems a little fatalistic, no? How do we break out of our habits? 

Angelina Litvin

Angelina Litvin

How to change a habit

If we take a closer look we see there are two aspects to every moment of experience –

1.    The content, what we are aware of. What is happening or has already happened. 
2.    The intention, our emotional response to what we are experiencing. 

Number one is pretty much irrelevant, number two is of utmost importance. 

Let’s look at the habit of being a bit tight - 
We find ourselves in the café with our friend, ordering lunch and we're thinking, I don’t want to pay for their lunch too. There is a sense of contraction in our bodies.

As we notice what is happening in that moment, of course it has already happened, there is no rewind, there is nothing we can do about it.

It comes from the past, it is the fruits of our past actions, our karma, you could say. 

But the future starts now! And now, and now, and now!
How are we going to respond to these thoughts and sensations, ‘I don’t want to pay for their lunch’,  and the contractions in the body?

Often, we do, what I call, a double whammy!
We notice our lack of generosity, and then we increase that tendency with an ungenerous response towards ourselves. ‘God, I’m so tight, I should be more generous …’

I notice that I can do this double whammy quite a lot. I notice I'm irritated with the kids, so I get irritated with myself for being irritable. What if noticing any painful state could become a trigger for kindness? 

To change a habit, we have to change the response.
What would it mean to have a generous response in that moment?

'Wow, I seem really anxious about not having much money, that's understandable. Maybe there are other ways I can be generous, I don't have much money but I have some spare time.' 

Experience, or consciousness, is constructed anew in every moment. Part of consciousness is that we are constantly forming a response to what is happening, these are those formations, the samskaras. 

Karma is made and passed on by these formations.

Every emotional response is a form of action and every action has a consequence. We are shaped not by what we do but by how we engage with what we do, not what is happening but how we respond to what’s happening. 

We are literally building ourselves and our world upon our own emotional responses. Yes we have habits, but in each moment we have the opportunity to influence the future, just by effecting our response to whatever is happening. 

My action is my possession,
My action is my inheritance,
My action is the womb, which bears me,
My action is my refuge.    
— The Buddha in the Anguttara Nikaya