Who’s in charge here,

and why are habits so difficult to change?

Graphic of skull, brain, machine cogs

We are what we think,
Having become what we thought.
Just as a fletcher straightens an arrow shaft,
even so the discerning man straightens his mind;
so fickle and unsteady, so difficult to guard.

The more attention we pay to the play of cause and effect in our lives, the more we come to appreciate how much of what we do and think is determined by habits we establish and reinforce over time. When we first begin to work with our patterns of behavior, we usually operate out of the conventional view of a self (however hazy that concept may be) that makes choices, resists or succumbs to temptation, and then has to deal with the consequences of those choices.

When we’re in the midst of our own struggle to live up to our values and to meet the expectations of others, it is often baffling and discouraging to find that, again and again, we fall short of our intentions. How is it that, although we see quite clearly what we intend to do—to meditate every day, to exercise more, or eat less, or refrain from anger, or make it to appointments on time, or keep our house in order, or any of the endless number of behaviors that would make our lives better—we fall short.

Is the problem a defect in character? Is it just that we’re weak-willed and feckless? Or setting aside the idea of a moral failing, are we in the grips of some sort of disease process, a true addiction as in the AA model of alcoholism? What’s going on? What’s wrong with us?

It’s not that there’s no truth in these ways of looking at our problem. It’s not totally ridiculous to work at strengthening will power. Nevertheless, there’s a flaw in our conventional and simplistic way of framing our struggle. There isn’t some independent self, some guy or gal in the control tower negotiating a world of threats and temptations. The Buddha rejected this notion thousands of years ago, and psychologists and neuroscientists today have come to a similar conclusion.

In his book, Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright lays out the case for the “modular theory of mind.” Rather than positing some sort of Chief Executive Officer who chooses among possible behaviors, a growing number of psychologists, especially those who study how the process of evolution has shaped us, explain the mind as a mix of modules—rather like computer sub-routines—that have developed in human beings to handle situations that affect our chances of passing on our genes. So you can have a “mate acquisition” module—unconscious behaviors that kick in when there’s a possibility of securing a mate—or a “self-protection” module that activates when danger is perceived.

In modern life, these modules are not always as helpful or appropriate as they were when we lived in small hunter-gatherer communities. That mismatch between our ancient programming and the life we live today is one reason for our epidemic of depression, addiction, and anxiety. Our minds weren’t designed to keep us happy or to negotiate 21st century life. They were designed to keep us alive, and if, in the hunter-gatherer societies where humanity evolved, the price of staying alive and passing on our genes was to worry about potential threats and cheating mates, that’s the way our minds were formed. The driver who cuts me off in traffic or the potentially unpleasant phone call I have to make aren’t existential threats, but they can certainly feel that way and then call up behaviors that don’t fit the situation.

The most important point for our purposes, though, is that there’s no top-down control that determines when, say, a flight-or-fight response is triggered. It’s initiated outside of our conscious awareness. And this process of modules calling the shots isn’t necessarily limited to those created over the course of human evolution for survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychologists argue that it makes sense that the mind is “massively modular,” and that the brain switches from one module to another as we negotiate every aspect of our lives.

The interesting proposition here is that there’s no “self” choosing one module over another. A better model for what’s going on is that modules compete for temporary dominance based on feelings that arise, or as people talking about habitual behavior would say, “triggers.” Robin Wright puts it this way: “It’s feelings that ‘decide’ which module will be in charge for the time being, and it’s modules that then decide what you’ll actually do during that time.” Over time, modules which are activated more frequently and lead to some sort of reward become stronger, more readily activated next time. The reward can be something obvious, like an orgasm or a sugar-high, but it can also be something as simple as numbing out a feeling of discomfort or uncertainty.

Scientists observing brain activity find that choices are made and actions initiated before we “make the decision” to do them. The neurological processes necessary to jumping off a diving board are already in gear when we make our conscious decision to dive. In one study done at the Max Plank Institute in Leipzig, subjects were given the simple choice of pushing a button with their left hand or their right. Observers watching their brain activity could predict their choice 7 seconds before they were conscious of making it.

We have, perhaps, a little veto power over what feelings impel us to do, but the idea of some rational decision maker who’s in charge seems to be a fiction of the mind designed, Robert Wright argues, to help us maintain the confidence of others and have confidence in ourselves. In experimental studies, when subjects are responding to subconscious input (for example, an image flashed so quickly on a screen that it isn’t consciously apprehended), they’ll make up a story to explain what they’re doing. As Wright puts it, it makes sense from the point of view of natural selection “to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational self-aware actor.” The guy who says, “Sometimes I just do stuff for reasons that make no sense to me,” isn’t as likely to succeed in passing his genes along as the fellow who claims to know what he’s doing.

Roshi Kapleau was fond of saying, “The reasons people give for what they do are never the real reasons.” I always took that to mean that people are hiding their real motivation—sometimes from others and sometimes from themselves. I see now that the “real reason” is often a mystery.

From the point of view of practice, the important aspect of all this is that noticing feelings, as they arise and without attaching to them, has the potential to help us avoid falling into what would otherwise be unwanted automatic behaviors. Without awareness, we feel the discomfort of desire or aversion, and before even recognizing what we’re feeling, we’re off to the races. When we’re awake to what’s arising, we have a little space.

Speaking from my own experience, this doesn’t guarantee that we won’t follow through with whatever pattern of behavior has been triggered. I can know that I’m reaching for food because I feel anxiety, still the chocolate goes from hand to mouth. But even if we do “succumb,” we can develop the intention to observe the process, to learn what the reward is and see the consequences clearly. Over time, just noticing how the mind works will weaken habits that have grown strong outside our conscious awareness. It may take a while and many “failures,” but if we keep at it, patterns will change.

Bear in mind, no habit that’s been established ever disappears completely. Alcoholics who’ve been sober for years and fall back into drinking again find they pick right back up where they left off. Refraining from a habit doesn’t confer immunity. Long-lasting change comes from establishing new behaviors—new responses to the old cues. An alcoholic stays sober by not picking up that first drink. When feelings of loneliness, or frustration, or boredom, or even success cue the urge to drink, they can choose to call their sponsor or get to a meeting. The trigger for drinking is still there, but it becomes a trigger for a different and healthier habit.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of a reader who shared with him the struggle he’d had quitting smoking. Willpower hadn’t gotten the job done, and so, after reading Duhigg’s book, he experimented with replacing smoking with other activities. Running worked for a while but eventually failed for him. Taking a sauna seemed promising, but it was often inconvenient. What he finally hit on was meditation: “If you’re standing in line or suddenly feel stressed—the times I would normally crave a cigarette—you can close your eyes and take a moment to breathe, and you can feel yourself calm down.”

Duhigg comments that experimentation and failure are critical for changing long-time habits. He quotes a researcher, James Prochaska at the University of Rhode Island, who’s studied the process smokers go through when they quit. In trying and failing, he says, we learn our patterns. “We learn about ourselves sometimes without knowing we’re learning. That’s why failure is so valuable. It forces us to learn even if we don’t want to.”

There’s a lot of room for creativity when you’re looking for something to replace your habit. Carl Richards is a certified financial planner and author of “The Behavior Gap” who writes in the New York Times (March 19, 2018):

When the urge comes to do the counterproductive thing, don’t resist. Instead, replace.

Let me explain with an example. I had a friend that had an urge-based habit he wanted to break. He fought with it for years using the resist, resist, resist method with predictable results. Finally, he decided to try something different. Every time he felt that urge, instead of trying to fight it he replaced resistance with, drumroll, please…

A drink of water. That’s right: A drink of water. After a while, he found that the urge slowly started to fade in intensity, until he forgot that it was ever a thing.

I love this little bait and switch because it feels like a Jedi mind trick. And getting a drink is just one idea. Peel an orange, go outside, do a push up, sing a song. Whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter what you do instead of resisting the behavior, just so long as you do something else.

We can safely say that the vast majority of human behavior is habitual, and that covers a lot. Besides classic addictions like drinking or smoking or overeating, there are emotional or feeling states we fall into—habitual anger or worry or numbness. And these, of course, will be cues for further addictive behaviors. Sometimes the habit is an avoidance: something we don’t do rather than something we do. For instance, we can develop the habit of avoiding intimacy or zoning out—shutting down to blunt our discomfort without being aware that that’s what we’re doing.

In fact, our tendency to zone out, to let the mind wander when we’re trying to focus, is the key habit that anyone who practices Zen or any other spiritual discipline needs to work on. There is a network in the brain called the default mode network or DMN that kicks in when we’re unfocused (as, alas, we often are). There’s a second network of coordinated brain structures called the task-positive network or TPN that’s activated when we concentrate. Brain scans show that the two modes are exclusive. When one is activated, the other is quiet. Nature didn’t design the DMN for no reason. It’s useful for sifting through memories and anticipating threats or rewards. Not surprisingly, however, over-activation of the DMN is associated with depression, anxiety, and a strong sense of a separate self. Every time we catch the mind wandering and return to practice we weaken the power of our default mode and learn more about how our mind works.

Practice is a life-long exercise in establishing the habit of awareness, of being awake. And that means weakening our patterns of inattention. There isn’t any other work more important, more beneficial, or more rewarding. In our daily life, we’re easily caught up in deadlines and distractions, and it’s easy to see practice as something we add in when we have a chance. That’s not how it is. In reality, we have a chance to come awake in any moment no matter what we’re doing. Once awareness begins to take hold, everything changes. Things get done and patterns change without our even knowing how. What once seemed difficult becomes our refuge—the place where the world opens up to us and we open up to the world.

In the end, what else is there? “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”—Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” / / /

John PulleynJohn Pulleyn

is Head of Zendo at the Rochester Zen Center and a creature of habit.