Breaking A Bad Habit The Buddha Way
The Buddha uses the image of bait to help us break those bad habits that spring from our unhealthy, destructive drives and motivations. Once we recognize that there’s a hook in there the bait ceases to tempt us, even though its outside appearance remains unchanged. When we employ our human reason we have the chance to dig below the superficial, to see the true nature of what we’re dealing with. When we see the hook we’re suddenly liberated from that which imprisoned us.
While most of us are aware that certain life habits are bad for us we haven’t done the proper amount of investigation to clearly and unequivocally recognize the hook in there. We know at the theoretical level that a certain pattern of behavior is hindering rather than helping our growth and self-actualization but at the practical level we continue to ignore or minimize the hook while focusing out attention on that seemingly tasty worm instead.
If we experienced no pleasure or any other benefits whatsoever from the bait we wouldn’t continually clamp our jaws around the bait in the first place. If we experienced no guilt, no shame, and no destructive societal, psychological, emotional, or material consequences whatsoever we’d have little reason to think what we were doing was a bad habit. The fact that we experience both at the same time points to unconscious conflict, it points to ambivalence.
To resolve the inner conflict, to resolve the ambivalence around some bad habit we’ve got to seek to be totally honest with ourselves about both the benefits and the drawbacks of that bad habit. Most of us focus too much on one side while giving short shrift to the other. We either focus all our attention on the undesirable side without bringing the desirable elements fully into our conscious awareness or we focus all our attention on the desirable side without bringing the undesirable elements fully into our conscious awareness.
The first step in breaking a bad habit the Buddha way is making an exhaustive as possible t-chart with ‘desirable elements of my habit’ on one side and ‘undesirable elements of my habit’ on the other. Of course we have to remember that in a humanistic sense what is ‘desirable’ is not always ‘good’ and what is ‘undesirable’ is not always ‘bad’. We call ‘good’ all that which aids in growth and well-being and ‘bad’ all that hinders growth and well-being. But pleasant and desirable versus unpleasant and undesirable remains the best place to start because we experience pleasant and desirable and unpleasant and undesirable in an immediate, visceral way.
The fact is that if, objectively speaking, there really is no hook in there then the worm is safe to eat, regardless of the cultural or societal pressure claiming otherwise. If there is a hook in there then the worm is unsafe to eat, regardless of the cultural or societal pressure claiming otherwise. Society does not have the final say on what’s good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy. The individual does. This call must be made on the phenomenological experience of living life, of experiencing for oneself the psychological, emotional, and practical fruits of a habit. When it becomes obvious that a hook is hidden in a habit, a hook that hinders rather than helps growth and well-being, it becomes obvious that habit is a bad habit and there’s no doubt around whether or not it should be broken.