Thursday, September 6, 2007

On habit as a factor of Will

"The law of the harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny" -- G. D. Boardman

When most people hear the word habit in reference to behavior, it is not unusual that it is associated with a negative connotation: what people refer to as a BAD habit.

But what is habit?

Merriam-Webster defines this context as: a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance, an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.

So why would there be good and bad habits? And what are good and bad habits?

It seems to me that a habit (however you spin its alignment) is just a repetitious behavior. A pattern, as the definition states. So when we talk about "good" habits, we mean things with positive consequences or ultimately positive returns. Things that bring us joy, or work to make our lives easier, etc. "Bad" habits lead to negative consequences, or otherwise unproductive or unhealthy returns. But good or bad, its a pattern. Habit is a pattern that is generally created by the repetition of an action that produces a momentary psychological or physiological pay-off. It's the cumulative consequence of our repetitive action that prompts us to define it as good or bad. But how we define it doesn't change the basic mechanisms.

So how are habits built?

Typically, there are two means by which habits arrive. Either as a somewhat inadvertent perception of an agreeable payoff to an action, or as a deliberate action derived to an expected result. But both involve that momentary pay-off or result. And again, either of these could result in what could be considered good or bad habits.

So what is the implication of habit with regards to the mind?

The human brain is the most sophisticated pattern recognition computer in existence. There is no other means by which data can be processed as efficiently. From the sounds we hear, to the things we see, to any other means by which we receive information, we infer things constantly as a function of pattern. The brain was built for patterns. It likes patterns. Similar patterns are easy. Things that do not seem to form a pattern are not so easy. Think of how we deal with day to day things. Music is a pattern of sounds. Things we consider good music has rhythm and beat, and musical progression.. all of which are patterns. Patterns we understand. Sounds that do not seem to have any set beat or rhythm are generally not considered musical, or perhaps fall into a fringe perception of music because they have patterns we do not understand. And learning to appreciate various types of music comes from learning to understand the inherent patterns.

So what does that all mean?

It means that the mind loves patterns.. Habits are patterns. So the mind loves habits. And this is the biggest reason why habits are difficult to change once they are set. This goes for good and bad habits.

So how does this pertain to Will?

Habits, in any of their forms can interfere with Will. The mind seeks to find the easiest route through the use of habits, and can sometimes pre-empt our conscious choices. How many times have you intended to make a stop along an oft traveled driving route (say, the route you take to work), during a time when you were not normally traveling to work, and in the course of your driving, you completely forgot to stop? This is habit vs Will in action.

The bulk of this battle isn't what to do with good or bad habits, but learning what our habits are. You can't change or improve what you don't even consciously know about. And even though we may consider things good habits, it's important to recognize that life changes, and the habits may require change as well. This is why it is important to be introspective of your actions. Learn your motivations. Understand what drives your life's habits and use that information not only to mold better habits, but just to continue to be willful about your choices. We are not truly living our Will if we run through life on autopilot. Even if the plane appears to be on a good course.

We must be mindful of our actions. Habits, when used for positive means, are good tools in doing our Will, but it is vital that we guide these habits with our Will and not expect them to live our Will for itself.

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