French-born Buddhist teacher Martine Batchelor spent ten years in a Korean monastery studying Zen. As a lecturer and spiritual advisor, her interests are wide-ranging—from meditation in daily life and Buddhist social action to religion and the history of Zen. Her books include Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits, Principles of Zen, Walking on Lotus Flowers, Buddhism and Ecology, Meditation for Life, Path of Compassion, and Women in Korean Zen. She lives in the south of France with her husband, Stephen Batchelor. To learn about her teaching and writing, go to www.martinebatchelor.org. Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Kevin Griffin were delighted to meet with Batchelor in San Francisco in September 2009.
Inquiring Mind: In your book Let Go, you talk about habits, addiction and meditation as patterns. Please set a frame for us, a way of understanding patterns as a context for our exploration of addiction and for the workings of meditation in letting go of habits.
Martine Batchelor: It’s important to understand that if there were no stable patterns, it would be impossible for any creature to continue in a consistent form. At the same time, if there were only repetition and no possibility of variation, a living system would be unable to adapt to change. If a pattern is too fixed, then it causes stasis, which only chaos will be able to change. Only a very heavy break could change a very fixed pattern. This suggests that we look at a pattern and try to see where there might be variation before it becomes so stuck that only a major shift is going to transform it.
What I am talking about is stability and openness, which to me is what we practice in meditation; that’s what we are trying to develop. Meditation is a pattern in which we are fixed enough to create stability of ground, and at the same time open enough so that we can shift. In other words, so that transformation is possible.
IM: A pattern that has become so rigid that only chaos can break it is very much an image of recovering from addiction. When someone is caught in an addiction because the habit is so fixed, something really disruptive has to happen for that person to break out. Someone has to hit a bottom or experience a big breakthrough moment.
MB: Exactly! But that scenario can be so painful. We can also try not to drop so far down; then we’ll have less distance to climb back up. We can use meditation to work with habits before they become too entrenched.
I like to talk about habits in terms of creative functions. For example, planning is a way of functioning; it is something we need to do to survive. Fear is a way of functioning; it is also something we need to experience to survive. Because they have worked for us, planning and feeling fear have often become habituated as methods of survival, methods of coping. They’ve become repetitive; they’ve become habits.
When a habit becomes too fixed, the intensity of the habit can become a problem. For example, if somebody who has a tendency to plan encounters a stressful situation, then she is going to plan obsessively—planning the planning, remembering the planning of the planning, etc. That generally serves to increase stress and has quite an effect physiologically.
So you have the function; then because it has worked for you, it becomes a little habituated. In other words, it is helpful, so you do it. Next, for whatever inner or outer condition, it becomes more fixed, more repetitive. This happens even more intensely when there is difficulty.
With a habit, I see three levels: light, habitual and intense. Let’s take judging. A lot of people have a habit of judging. In fact, you need to judge; you need to discriminate. The first level is light judging. You feel cold air on your cheeks; you judge it is cold outside. You see somebody; you like the look of them. This is the easiest level to work with habits through meditation. Second is the habitual level. Beginning with a tendency toward judging, you start to judge repetitively. You pass judgments all the time, remaining above experience and looking down on it: “This is right; that is wrong.” The habitual level is still quite workable in meditation.
The third is the intense level. There has been a shock to the system, and you have an intense reaction and develop a deep habituation. For example, a student I was working with on retreat had an intense pattern of self-judgment for seemingly minor things—in fact, for just about everything he did. “That was so terrible. I was so bad. I shouldn’t have done that.” His habit of judging had become deeply entrenched. At that level, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to work with because the habit involves obsessive feeling and thinking. That is why I suggest that people work at the light and habitual levels and don’t wait until a habit is intense, causing them intense suffering.
Let’s imagine you have a habit of drinking when you can’t tolerate certain feelings. In meditation, you might notice a funny feeling. You experience it, and you sense that you can cope with it. You tell yourself: “It’s okay, it’s okay.” You might not feel the need to drink yet to cope with this feeling. But then the feeling gets a little more intense. Again, you tell yourself, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Then the feeling gets really strong. This time you experience the need to drink so as not to feel that feeling. But if you start to work with yourself when you first notice the funny feeling, you can find a way to be with the feeling differently. Then that difficult feeling might not become so intense that you can’t stand to be with it, and so you won’t feel driven to drink in order to get rid of it.
IM: What led you to start addressing habits in your teaching?
MB: I became interested in habits when I noticed that some people could have lots of fantastic meditation experiences, yet they did not seem to be able to change very much in the way they lived their lives. I wondered, What’s going on? When some meditation students talked to me during interviews, I saw that they did not have any problem with meditation; they had a problem with their habits. They could meditate easily, but they were quite stuck in their habits.
IM: So how can we use meditation to work with our habits?
MB: It’s crucial to practice both concentration and vipassana (looking deeply) together in order to work with habits. We begin with concentration. When we practice sati, or mindfulness, we practice recollection; we come back to our object of meditation. Over time, I have seen through my own practice that when we come back to the breath, when we come back to sensation or sounds, we do two things in connection with habits: first, we don’t feed them, and thus don’t make them more solid, and second, we diminish their power.
Let’s take the habit of daydreaming. We often daydream when we meditate as well as in daily life. This can become frustrating when the daydream or fantasy does not match what’s really going on in our lives. In meditation, I used to go into fantasy a lot. I would daydream about being a kung fu specialist. When I saw this, my first step was to practice awareness of the breath. This allowed me to see, I am not on the breath. Then I saw that I was daydreaming, and I came back to the breath. Each time I came back, I didn’t feed the daydream. Over time that habit became much smaller. With concentration, we can drop the habit of daydreaming halfway through our fantasy instead of drifting through the whole cycle of our beautiful film; it becomes more of a “short.” So concentration is the first step, and it generally brings more spaciousness around sensation, feeling or thought. Thoughts and feelings appear, but we do not grasp at them to the same degree.
The second step is the vipassana aspect, which involves looking deeply. When we look deeply, we see that our fantasy—about having the perfect husband or children, or about being a kung fu specialist—is just a thought. Then, “I am not my thought; I am not my daydream.” This insight is very important in working with feelings. A lot of people who are addicted can’t handle their feelings. They are sensitive to their feelings, but they don’t have the tools to be with those feelings.
We generally assign a meaning to our feelings. Then we create a story around the meaning and tell ourselves that the feeling and the story line will always be like this. We think, “This feeling is terrible; it’s going to get me,” because we lose what I would call discrimination power. In French we have the saying that “a cat scalded by hot water is afraid of cold water.” I think that’s often what happens to us. We might have had an intensely painful feeling in the past, and then, because we associate that feeling with pain, we cannot discriminate between a slight manifestation of that feeling and a much more intense feeling. We flee from the light one when we could have been comfortable with it.
When we look deeply into a feeling, we don’t think about it; we are inside it, experiencing the feeling. Often the first thing we see is, “It’s not me. I am not just my feeling.” We start to see, “Oh, yes, it’s a feeling. It’s a little unpleasant, but it’s changing. It’s not going to last forever; it’s not going to kill me.” When we recognize this, we become less fearful of the feeling. Then we are less likely to either express it unwisely or mask it by getting angry at someone, or planning obsessively, or drinking.
IM: We began our discussion with the light level of a habit and then looked at the habitual level. When you talk about the third “intense level,” you seem to be discussing what is generally called addiction.
MB: Partly. Addiction can be a way to cope with intense feeling. When something is intensely painful, then people have different ways of coping. Often drugs, alcohol or some other substance or habit will be used to “resolve” the problem—to not feel it, to not feel intensely. I think about this in terms of a baseline. For some people—and this is also societal—the baseline is very high up. They are convinced that they should be feeling happy—seven out of ten—most of the time, and that anything less will be uncomfortable or intolerable. Meditation helps us to bring the baseline to neutral. Then we can go up and down, and it’s a little more reasonable. A baseline will generally determine how much of a feeling we can stand, because a lot of what addiction is about is what we cannot stand. I cannot stand the pain, so I will get high or eat. Not doing a habit requires more courage, more steadiness and a capacity to endure difficulties.
With addiction there is also often a feeling of “What’s the point? It doesn’t matter what I do, nothing will get better. I might as well drink.” So many people have a problem with “totalizing.” I think that’s why a lot of people in recovery need to go through all of the twelve steps before they really recover. At any beginning step, if something goes wrong, they will think, “This is not working. What’s the point?” Then they’ll go back to the habit because it’s more familiar. It appears to be easier to give up than not to give up.
So you have to develop the muscle of courage, the muscle of “I can do this even if I have a little backsliding.” I think we develop this muscle—the power of creative awareness—in meditation. A regular meditation practice is a good way to build the power of awareness, a power that can eventually grow stronger than the power of negative habits. The power of awareness gives us the strength to do things differently and the courage to go beyond our habitual limitations.
People who think, “Oh, I am an addict, a terrible person, what’s the point?” need to reconnect with the goodness within themselves. In meditation, you know if you have a moment when you’re not afraid, when you are not depressed, when you feel peaceful—whether it’s for two minutes or five minutes. You’re able to recognize that you can feel differently. There’s a project at Oxford University that uses yoga and meditation to work with prisoners, many of whom are alcoholics and drug addicts. Many heavy-duty prisoners have said: “I didn’t know I could feel peaceful. I didn’t know I could feel compassion.” So this is also another element in recovery. Overcoming addiction does not simply depend on strength; it doesn’t happen through fighting. You work with the negative, but you also work with the positive. Through contacting your capacity for peace and kindness, you recognize that you can feel differently.
IM: That vision of something to work for, a sense of what is possible, is so important because many addicts get into a state where they don’t think that any other life is possible. They continue to get loaded all the time because that seems better than anything they can imagine.
MB: We prefer the pain of the known to the pain of the unknown. That’s the difficulty with habituation—even if it is painful, it is comfortable.
IM: Overcoming the pull of habituation takes tremendous power, and it means doing things in a new way. But in the vipassana world, there is often a misperception that mindfulness is just about noticing: just sit there and breathe, but don’t do anything.
MB: Yes, we have to be careful with the idea that the only thing you can do is notice and accept. I am very careful with the teachings around “acceptance.” I would say that acceptance is about knowing the way things appear. It’s kind of like awareness; you need acceptance to see what is really going on. But you don’t stay there. You say, “Okay, that’s what is going on. But what are the limits? What are the possibilities? What do I need to accept because there is not much I can do about it? And what is it I can transform?”
Acceptance is just the beginning. In meditation, we are not trying to stare at reality. We are developing our creative awareness so we can bring a creative response. To let go of any habitual pattern and to work with addiction, we creatively engage.