How Do Bad Habits Work?

Our habits are very strong. For example, if you have a killing habit, it’s hard to stop, isn’t it? We may have a very strong habit of killing mosquitos. Even if someone has been a Buddhist for many years, if a mosquito comes and lands on the arm: Slap! We don’t even think–it’s habit.

Therefore, these habits are something we have acquired over time. In India, for example, there are many people chewing tobacco. When I was little I thought it looked like a lot of fun. Until I tried it once. I became dizzy and threw up, and had many other interesting experiences.

You may go through many such unpleasant experiences but continue to do it over time until, after a while, you find you have become habituated in doing it. Then wow, it’s so important. Like coffee. “I can’t function without coffee.” Right? We may become habituated to coffee, cigarettes, liquor, weed, or just about anything.

So you can see that our habits are acquired. Smoking, for example, is not natural for us. The first time you take a puff, you stop smoking. And the first time I saw a beer, I thought it looked like horse pee. Really, that was my first thought. My father was drinking beer and I thought it looked exactly like horse pee. It smells bad and everything.

But after you’ve acquired those habits they seem so good. Beer smells so good. Even at midnight you’ll drive to 7-11 for a pack of cigarettes. Why not? American Spirit cigarettes are organic, natural, right?

At some point, these habits kind of take us over. And the environment of engaging in that habit becomes our reality. Those cigarette breaks you take outside, talking to friends––it almost becomes a part of you.

Once these habits are firmly established, they seem to be true and real, and certainly necessary. Sometimes you can even become the servant of our habits–the servant of alcohol, the servant of tobacco, and so on. Then you have to work very, very hard because tobacco, with all of the taxes on it, is very expensive.

In much the same way, we have become habituated to, and fixated on, our physical body and its true existence. But in reality, our body seems to be in the nature of emptiness. But in reality, our body is not as solid, not as real, as we usually observe it or feel that it is.

When you don’t analyze, or look closer, then everything appears to be real, or solidly existent. But when you really start looking with mindfulness and turn your attention inward, if you look closer, you find less and less of what we usually think of as being something solid and real. It appears that even science, modern physics, is getting closer and closer to acknowledging that reality of no true existence. We may call it different things: quark, string, string theory, and so forth. And in Buddhist teachings we say it’s emptiness.

This is what we find, ultimately, through our mindfulness practice. The more and more we look, the less and less we find. That’s what one Zen master said in his teaching, “When I don’t look, it’s there. When I look, it’s not there. What is it?”

Mindful Body: an Exercise

1. When you look to find your “body,” try to see it just as it is, without too much extra embellishment of thoughts, labels and concepts, and also without too much denial of the way it is.

2. When you start to look at your body in this way, already there is some lessening of confusion. We can see that we don’t need to turn this body into something else, and we don’t have to deny it, either. We can just experience it as it is, without thinking too much about it. And that’s fine, right there.

3. With this sense of simply being in your body, continue to be aware of your physical senses. Notice the feeling of your weight on the chair, notice how the breath is going in and out, and also check to see if you feel any tension anywhere.

4. Stay with this multifaceted experience. Not one of these experiences by itself could be called your “body” and yet this is the reality of your embodied experience.

5. Maintaining this awareness, remember that there is openness and wisdom right within your ordinary physical experience. Simply take a moment to rest in that openness and see what it’s like. Just for a moment, give it a shot.

6. When you get up from your chair or cushion, remember to return to this close awareness of the different aspects of your physical experience. As you go through your day, you can simply pause every now and then to practice mindfulness of the body.

7. As you move, you can notice the weight of your body shifting. As you speak, you can pay attention to sounds forming and words being said. Taking a walk outside, you can notice the experience of hearing sounds all around you. Notice how your eyes and ears move toward certain sounds to try to see where they’re coming from.

8. All of these experiences are part of having a “body.” As you practice mindfulness of the body, remember to pay attention to your physical experience again and again, just as it is. You don’t need to interpret it or judge it in any way. You can simply pause and practice resting in that awareness for a moment, and then resume your ordinary activity. 

As you practice mindfulness of the different experiences of the body––without adding thoughts, labels or judgements to these physical experiences––you begin to loosen the habit of being fixated on the body as being “you” or being the center of your world. With this loosening we can discover how our experience of life is actually quite multifaceted, always changing from moment to moment, and in so many ways. As we begin to let go of our habit of seeing the body as solid and truly existent, we may also find it becomes possible to let go of other habits that do not serve us.


The teachings in this article were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock, New York in April 2014.