Looking At Our Habits Of Mind

POSTED September 10, 2023 IN

Tulku Thondup RinpocheRecently I was struck by the words of Tulku Thondup Rinpoche in an interview from the New Dimensions’ archive. He said that the only thing we take with us when we die are our habits of mind. I’ve heard this before, in fact I’ve heard it from various masters for more than thirty years. Yet this time the words had a visceral impact on my mind and body. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and feeling my mortality in more immediate terms. Maybe it was because I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the concepts of forgiveness and of sympathetic joy, and how far short of these feelings I so often fall.

When Rinpoche spoke about the habits of mind, I could feel the immediacy of the call, a sense that there is no time to waste because we never know the time of our deaths. Oh, I know I “should” change my habits simply because my life would be better. But somehow I felt more motivated to really do it when I heard him speak of the time when there is no longer anything we can do to alter our lives for the better. It would be great if we could show up in our afterlives saying, “Oh, I didn’t have time to really practice new habits. I intended to. Can’t I just slip this habit off and enter my new life after life with a clean slate?” Yeah, right. As they say, that and $2.50 will get you a good cup of coffee. (Note the revision to reflect the inflated cost of coffee.)

The idea of changing an ingrained habit is truly daunting. I’ve failed so many times. I really do want to change the litany of doubt, regret, mean feelings, worry, fear, and upset. So I asked myself some hard questions. How can I change my negative thoughts into loving, life enhancing ones? What is the opposite of fear? Is it love? The emotions of love and fear are so basic and so huge; it’s hard for me to come up with concrete ways to turn fear into love. So I’ve decided to start with some other malady. Maybe I’ll have an easier time with worry.

I can easily get my brain around worry. I know what it feels like; I know its content well. If worry was on one side of a coin what may be on the other side? For me it is gratitude. What if, instead of whirling my mind around with worry, I’m dancing with gratitude?

Okay, great. How do I start to make a new practice in my life? Here’s what I’ve come up with. First I need to become aware of the moments when I’m in my worry mode, those times when my brain is spinning out its tale of how bad things are, and how they have always been bad, and how they will most likely continue to be bad. As soon as I’m conscious that I’m running the worry channel I switch it—just like clicking a TV remote—to the gratitude channel, and ask myself what I am grateful for in that moment. I change my focus.

For example, I often find myself operating in that negative mode when I’m in the car. As soon as I realize I’m spinning out my worry list, I look around at the landscape as if waking from a dream. It’s a trick of the mind—it’s immediate. I switch my channel and am grateful for the miracle that other drivers are paying attention and we’re able to rip down the road at sixty-five miles an hour and not run into one another.

My prayer each morning is to become more and more aware of my habitual negative thought patterns, then practice more and more to change them. As you know, we can be in worry and not be aware of it. I have no idea what percentage of the time I’m spinning negative thoughts or positive ones. But I pray that each day I become ever more aware of my life-destructive habits of thinking, and replace them with life-enhancing ones.

I’d love to hear from any of you who try this simple technique. Does it help? Are you more relaxed? Are you happier? When is it most difficult?  If you can remember to turn a life-negating thought into a life-supporting at least once a day you are on your way to changing the habit.  Even the mere noticing that you are in gloomy state is a big step in the right direction.

by Justine Willis Toms
October, 2012

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