Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Urban Monk:The Key To Behavioural Mastery: Letting Go

In the months past, we’ve discussed how our attachments, our desires, are the root of much of our painful habits.

But what do we do, then? What if the usual methods of handling our
behaviours are making them worse? This article details some of these
errors, and provides a long-term solution, the most useful I have come
across: simply dropping the rubbish.

This article builds heavily on ideas covered in the first two posts – [1] Part One, and [2] Part Two.

The Waste Basket

Denial and Suppression

The first thing to know is that we cannot deny our desires, pretend
they don’t exist, push them down. Repressed cravings, like
emotions, will simply resurface in the future with greater intensity,
in a different form, or create psychological and physical symptoms.

A good friend of mine used to overeat compulsively, and one day
decided to stop using sheer will-power. Soon afterwards, she began
smoking heavily, but she justified it by saying it helped her lose
weight. When she decided to stop that, again using will-power, she
started drinking almost nightly.

Why was this so? She had changed her external behaviours over the
years, but the driving forces inside her remained the same. She was
shocked when she begun to practise awareness, she told me – for
she discovered the triggers for all these behaviours stemmed from the
same insecurities and fears.

Many of the ways we handle our desires and attachments are helpful,
but are merely temporary measures. I am not saying that channelling
your energy into other outlets, or quitting a bad behaviour through
force of will is wrong, if they work for you – but they are not
permanent solutions.

Further, these techniques create more inner conflict. The craving
itself is causing us pain. We are adding to it every time we fight it;
force it down; beating ourselves up or feeling guilty about indulging.

Please note that this article has a general behavioural focus; I am
not an expert on addiction. The addictions I have quit, and therefore
discuss here, are fairly minor – cigarettes, painful mental
habits (rumination), and various other unhealthy lifestyle choices. So
if you are dealing with a serious addiction, this is not a replacement
for whatever program you are on, but something that can be attempted in

Based on my research and discussions with others, the principles are
the same, regardless of the habit or behaviour you want to change.

Bringing Awareness To Your Behaviours

What then, can we do? In my experience, the best practice is to let
go of all your painful attachments, behaviours, habits, and tendencies.

To do so, we first need awareness, mindfulness. The [3] first post
of this series contains a section on analysing your negative habits.
This step alone will raise your awareness of how it manifests in your
life, the possible root causes and insecurities. This is a tremendous
step, so please take the time to try it.

The mind will often fight this exercise. This is the cutting to the
core of our suffering – and we will do anything to avoid looking
at parts of ourselves we do not want to see. The mind screams, fights,
tricks, deceives – anything to get us to avoid the pain. Some
people even begin to feel dizzy or bored.

Lorne Ladner, in [4] The Lost Art of Compassion , provides some useful questions.

Analyse your behaviours –

  • What were you feeling at the time?
  • Does it come when you are stressed or angry?
  • When you are reminded of something in your past?
  • When you are feeling lonely, unloved, insecure about something?
  • Does it come during a specific time in the day?
  • Is it associated with other feelings?
  • What were some of the triggers?

I first started smoking a while ago, for instance, when I felt
lonely. It was after a break-up, and whenever I felt insecure about my
attractiveness, or saw other happy couples, I would run and hide behind
a cigarette.

Awareness In The Moment

With this background work, it is easier to bring awareness to your
actions in the moment. Be mindful of what you are feeling; try to catch
yourself when the triggers present themselves. [5] Thich Nhat Hanh calls them habit energies, and I think that is a beautifully apt name.

Sometimes you’ll only realise what you’ve done when it
is over. Don’t make a problem out of it. Slowly, you’ll
catch yourself sooner and sooner in the habitual cycle. In time,
you’ll be able to stop yourself before the behaviour even starts.

Awareness and the habit energies that drive us are so broadly
applicable that they can be applied to almost anything. I’ve
found people tend to be “locked in” by my examples, so
I’ll select from several different examples – some
successful, some not – in the hopes it can stimulate your own

Anger Habits

The first example would be my anger habits. A few weeks ago I had a
big online argument with a close friend. I have not had reason to be so
angry for a long time, and as a result I was not actively watching out
for habit energies in that area. In addition, much of my habits around
anger have been let go of, and I thought I was done with it. I did not
realise some old and stubborn habits had remained hidden inside me.

My friend managed to press just the right buttons, and in that
moment I was overwhelmed and piled on him several abusive and
foul-mouthed messages.

As the days passed, my thoughts would flash back to the argument,
and as the anger arose again, I felt the urge to contact him again to
start another fight. Sometimes the habits got too strong, but with
awareness, I dropped many of these urges before I acted on them.

Mental Habits

Another area we can apply this to would be our mental life. When I
began personal development, I used to have a strong tendency to drift
off into painful memories, replaying them endlessly in my head. Often I
would suddenly look at the clock and realise I had spent the past two
hours reliving an old insult, fantasising about revenge. Over the
months that followed, I began to “snap out” of the reverie
sooner. In time I managed to bring awareness to the triggers that would
start such self-pity sessions, and have stopped them altogether.

Social Behaviour

The last example would be in the social world. I used to indulge in
approval seeking behaviour – trying to manipulate people into
liking me by smiling too much, showing too much false interest, or
exaggerating accomplishments. It was a deeply ingrained habit, based on
the false belief that I was not likeable simply for whom I was.

This habit was a bit more complex simply because of the countless
ways my insecurity showed up; but it is useful to note that we do not
have to be aware of them all. Start with a few – excessive
smiling, boasting – and you’ll find the others much easier.

Again, be gentle with yourself. While some people can make
tremendous progress in days or weeks, it would be more realistic to
measure your progress in months.

The Growing Awareness

Some people spontaneously drop their habit energies when they become
aware of it. But don’t make it a problem if you don’t
– simply stop and take a few deep breaths when the habits arise.

By doing so, you are interrupting the loop, and being mindful of
what it is. Thich Nhat Hanh puts it simply – smile internally. Hello, habit energy. And let it pass through.

In doing so, we disconnect with our compulsions –

“I have to make this person love me” becomes “This is my tendency to supplicate.”

“I WANT TO KILL HIM!” becomes “Hello, anger energy.”

“I need to smoke!” becomes “My insecurities have been brought up again.”

How much freedom comes from that one shift!

Letting Go

If we see our habits and compulsions are simply energy, perhaps
blocks of thoughts and feelings – we can simply let them pass
through us.

What are you thinking now? What were you thinking five minutes ago?
Where did they go, where did they come from? Thoughts and feelings
simply come and go, and that is what they are supposed to do.

Our minds have been wrongly habituated to hold on to certain
thoughts and feelings, when the natural, healthy, response is to simply
let them through. And so freedom comes in retraining our minds, to go
back to what they are supposed to do: let go.

How Do We Let Go?

So how do we release? First, feel these energies completely without
repressing them. Say hello to them; let them be there for a few
seconds. In the first two posts, we have seen that these habits,
cravings, and attachments merely cause our suffering. They don’t
satisfy us for long; at best, they are a temporary relief. And finally,
we’ve discussed that we can still enjoy what we have, in fact
enjoy them even more, without the associated cravings.

With that in mind, simply try dropping it. This can be a difficult
process to learn, because most of us have never tried it before. The
first time you do it, you probably won’t get it right. Drop it,
in the same way that we loosen our grip on a pencil and simply let it
fall to the floor. Relax, soften up internally and physically, and let
it go.

If you are having troubles with this, a technique from NLP might
help. What is your strongest sense? If you prefer seeing, try to
picture your habit energy. What colour is it? What does it look like?
Does it have a shape, a picture?

If you prefer, try hearing it. What does it sound like? Is it a voice? What is the tone? Is it a sound? An animal?

Or you can feel it – is it a tightness in your chest, a heat in your neck, or any other sensation?

Then whatever it is, try dropping that. Don’t get too caught
up in these imaginings, they are training wheels, meant to be discarded
at the right time.

Miracles May Happen, But Don’t Expect Too Much

If you do let go of the desire, you probably won’t get any
fireworks or excitement. You won’t feel any deflation or anything
negative either. You just feel the urge has lessened, or that you feel
satisfied and relaxed without having indulged in it.

The first time I heard about letting go was from a Buddhist teacher
I met a long time ago. I tried it for a day or two, didn’t feel
any different, and simply gave up on it. This is a common mistake
– while some people can drop it all immediately, many cannot. The
habits are so strong, have been there for so long, that we are dropping
bits and pieces of it.

The desire might return in the future, and it might feel just as
intense, but it doesn’t mean that you’re doing something
wrong. It just means that you haven’t dropped enough to see a
significant difference. This is especially true when we are learning
how to do it. Dropping becomes faster and easier the more we practice,
so please don’t get discouraged.

Further, realise that these desires are surface expressions of
something far deeper, something that has possibly been there for
decades. It doesn’t always go away in a few days.

If you are still having troubles, I recommend [6] The Sedona Method. While their marketing might turn off some people, the method is entirely about letting go.

There is a page on their website which provides a [7] sample of their approach
and the basic releasing questions, which invites you to let go. That
page is more focused on emotions, but the principles are the same.

In the book and the audio course, they trace all tendencies and
emotions back to the roots: the four basic wants. Wanting control,
approval, security, and separation are the master programs the Method
claims underlie all our tendencies, and I have found it tremendously
helpful to let go of those directly.

What’s Next?

As we’ve discussed, our habits are often a surface symptom of
deeper thoughts and beliefs. Future posts will go into mindfulness in
more detail, as well as challenging our stressful thoughts and beliefs.
I will also detail other measures that are more temporary in nature,
but helpful if used in conjunction with letting go.

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