Habit & Ritual: The Work Is In Your Habits
“No other human factor is such an aid to success as our firm and steady resolve and a carefully worked-out regime....It is incontrovertible proof that regulation in life is the main factor in spiritual progress” ~ St. Joseph the Hesychast. “The more you understand the power of a habit, the more should you endeavor to be rid of a bad habit and change yourself over to a good one." ~ St. John Chrysostom 1. We Are Stuck…How Do We Move Forward? Christ summed up the goal of the Christian life: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37). Everyone who has gone to Sunday School or sat through a sermon knows this verse, and most of us find comfort in it. However, few of us ever grasp its implications. To love God with this kind of all-encompassing intensity is huge. It is nothing less than total death to self, total abandonment to Christ, an absolute and radical plunge into the ocean of God. This ocean is majestic, beautiful, and invigorating. It is also dark, mysterious, and daunting. How can we dare to take the dive? How can we swim futher out and deeper in? The journey is faced with no end of temptations. When we dare to take on the real meaning of Christ’s words, we usually fall into one of two errors: apathy or despair. On the one hand, we are faced with a feeling of indifference. Life is hard enough as it is. How can we find extra strength to pray more, to love more, or to die to self more? It is much easier to simply settle. On the other hand, we may dare to look at the real state of our soul, with all its gigantuous shortcomings, and simply despair. We think, “I can never make it. I might as well quit.” Apathy and despair way on the Christian’s souls like the chains of Jacob Marley. A third temptation hits most of us: laziness. We have all kinds of lofty intentions. As our mind wonders, we picture ourselves making all night vigils, saying a hundred “Hail Marys’” and praying with tears. These thoughts sure feel good…then you snap out of it, and find yourself turning on the TV and cracking open a coke. “Maybe tomorrow…” We are stuck. So how to get out of it? How do we break lose from our good ole, normal self and start walking the walk of the saints? Habits 2. Habits: Where It Really Lies
The Church Fathers knew what it meant to be stuck. They experienced the temptations and pits basic to all of us. What makes them saints is that they broke through it. How? It is no secret. It is very simple. They created the right kind of habits. We think spirituality is big and lofty. In reality, it comes down to little routines that we build through the day, yes, what we do when we wake up, the way we prepare our meals, our schedules, and all those seemingly meaningless habits that we hardly even notice. Here is the key to spiritual life: dare to confront your habits. 3. Gathering Honey From Flowers: Orthodoxy and Modern Psychology
Some students approached St. Basil with a question. How should we deal with secular wisdom? Basil referred them to the bees. Bees soar all across the meadows in their endeavor to make honey They fly from flower to flower, seeking out good nectar, and leaving behind the bad. We should do the same. Truth, wherever it is found, comes from Jesus Christ. We should not wholeheartedly embrace the wisdom of the world. Neither should we disdain it and cloisture ourselves behind the walls of the Church. Should open our hearts, ignore that which is ugly and absorb that which is beautiful. This is the Orthodox attitude towards psychology. Some of it is a load of bunk. Some of it is profound and life-changing. So let’s turn to the psychologists and hear what they have to say about habit.
For the next few weeks, we will be looking at the works of Charles Duhigg. In his best-selling book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” this author launches into an indepth study of habit. He offers invaluable advice on how we can break bad habits and start new habits. Like the industrious bee, our job will be to seize his advice and apply it in our day-to-day relationship with Jesus Christ.
How a Decision Becomes Automatic Behavior
Lisa was overweight, depressed, and addicted to cigarettes. After a divorce, she made a reckless decision to travel to Egypt. She wanted to see the pyramids. A few minutes into our tour ride, she discovered, with dismay, that she was not allowed to bring along her cigarettes. Should she turn back or go on? So determined to accomplish her goal, she decided to go on. That split second decision changed her life.
She fixed her heart on a goal. Seeing the pyramids were more important to her than smoking. That was the incentive for one new habit, which lead to a cycle of more good habit-making. “Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on” (Duhigg xiv). Psychologists were fascinated with her story. Her brain studies were even more astounding. The habit cycle changed her neural activity. “As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain” (xiv). One new habit lead to a complete new lifestyle and new neurological pathways.
One new habit lead to a new lifestyle. What does that mean for us in our life for Christ? With each good habit that we build, it becomes easier to build more good habits. We need a focus. “By focusing on one pattern — what is known as a ‘keystone habit’ — Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life, as well” (Duhigg xv). When you start looking at your bad habits, you can feel like you have hit a wall. Where do you start? The good news is, you really can change. Your thought patterns, your addictions, your indifference and apathy — all of these can be transformed.
Further Reflections on Habits
“The more you understand the power of a habit, the more should you endeavor to be rid of a bad habit and change yourself over to a good one." ~ St. John Chrysostom
All of Life is Habits -“All our life…is but a mass of habits” (WIlliam James 1892). -Duke University research study in 2006 revealed: 40% of actions are not decisions, but habits -Habits can be changed if we understand them -Definition of Habit: “The choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day” (Duhigg, xvii). -Power of Habits: “[Habits] are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense” (Duhigg 25).
Basal Ganglia: The Brain’s Habit Building Center -Basal Ganglia stores habits even while the brain sleeps -“The basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep” (Duhigg 15). Chunking -Chunking: the process in which the brain converts sequence of actions into automatic routine -Ex. putting toothpaste on toothbrush before brushing -Habits - form because the brain is constantly trying to chunk — form automatic routines -“Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often” (Duhigg 18).
Being Intentional -When habits begin, the brain stops making decisions -Changing lifestyle requires intentional fighting of habit -“Unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new routines — the pattern will unfold automatically” (Duhigg 20) -You never really lose bad habits — they are encoded permanently in the brain — but new neurological routines overpower those encodings. -So how do you beat a bad habit? You set to work in building new, good habits.
Observe Your Habit Loops -Cue —> Routine —> Reward -You do what you do for a reason. It starts with a cue. The cue leads to action, a routine, and that action is rewarded with pleasure. -The first step in tackling habits is knowing your Habit Loop. Pay attention to yourself. What are your cues? What are your routines and rewards. How can you replace them with new routines and new rewards? -Start with one habit at a time.
Final Thought -Oftentimes, we are prevented from replacing bad habits because…we simply don’t want to change them. We like our bad habits. Our lack of desire to change, in itself, can be overwhelming and enough to quit. What can we do? Our desires, what we want or do not want, should not be our focus. Our focus should be on starting the right kind of habits, and our desires and pleasures will follow. In other words, focus on righteous behavior and you will eventually grow to like it :)