QA 4. (May 08) How to stop doing what you don’t want to do (Or, how to be at one with oneself)

At heart, desire is pretty simple: we want pleasure and we don’t want pain. To act on our desire is just as simple. It doesn’t take any effort to delight in the laughter of a child or to spit out a mouthful of sour milk. But pleasure and pain are not always so immediate and unmixed. Some pain is bittersweet; some pleasure burns. Over time, we pass from dislike to like or from love to fear. We willingly endure some sufferings for the sake of another or as means to a desired end. Or we may be bound up in unavoidable pain in a relationship or a job, or living with physical illness and deterioration. The varieties of desire that inspire our acts become more complex – and offer greater opportunity for error – but there’s still a coherent connection.

So what does it mean when we find ourselves persistently doing what we don’t want to do? Or not doing what we want to do, when we certainly could? What of those times when my deeds and my desire – surely one’s hallmarks as an individual – seem to divide “me” against “myself”?

We could talk about this conflict in terms of sin, or addictions, or drives – but let’s not, and see how far we get. Why not, you ask? I could appeal to the scientific principle known as “Occam’s razor”, that “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything” (i.e. keep it simple). But, more importantly, these explanations tend to exacerbate the inherent violence of being at war with oneself. “I just can’t help myself… I don’t know what comes over me… I hate myself when I…

If I believe that I have both an angelic and a beastly nature and that one must be master over the other, or that I’m possessed by something foreign or hidden to me that must be exorcised or exposed, I can either become a kind of crusader against myself, or else abandon myself. Is this compulsory? I don’t think so. When the basic experience is I don’t like what I’m doing, I also have two basic ways to make peace with/in myself: either stop doing it or stop disliking it. Either change my behaviour or admit the complexity of desire it expresses.

To recognise our behaviour as an expression of desire first of all respects and preserves our autonomy. And the very naturalness of understanding desire as action-directing suggests that we might stop these self-divisive acts as readily as spitting out sour milk, without violence or great drama. Metanoia is a Greek term for the kind of spiritual remorse or sensible realisation that causes one to simply stop and to turn away from an old way of living.

Realise. Stop. And turn.

That’s it.

(For sure, the first step is a doozy.)

© 2008

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3 responses to “QA 4. (May 08) How to stop doing what you don’t want to do (Or, how to be at one with oneself)

  1. Your construction—-realise; stop; and turn—-mirrors a slogan or maxim contained in a body of Buddhist teaching known as lojong, or “mind training”. The slogan is “Practise the three difficulties”. These are (1) recognising the habitual reactivity as it arises (a doozy, as you say, but no more so than 2 or 3, in my experience); (2) doing something different; and (3) making this practice a lifestyle—-i.e., refraining from getting yanked back into the old pattern.

    I’d like to expand a little on your suggested perceptual shift, “stop disliking it”. There are actually behavioural supports for this approach, again, from the Buddhist perspective. The suggestion, in this case, is to go beyond simply not disliking any given experience to actually embracing it. The notion here is that since it is what it is, it deserves respect and attention. It has something of value to impart, and that something is embedded in the energy driving it (in this case, desire; but it could as easily be aggression or denial). The only way to tap that energy as a resource is to drop down below our stories about like/dislike and feel the experience as raw, nonconceptual.

    What say The Philosopher about that?

  2. Received the following note from Leon Redler; posted here with his permission:

    Hi, Helen.
    Re your: “…Realise. Stop. And turn.”: Perhaps for many of us, much of the time, Stop comes *first*, or at least it helps to stop to realise… whether we consciously intentionally stop or whether circumstances (whatever they are) force us to stop.
    Like at the (old) railway crossings: Stop, Look and Listen.
    If the train is coming, it gives me a chance to realise that is the case and decide to wait until it passes before I continue… or not. Or even decide to turn around!
    I might have to slow down, almost to a stop of sorts, to give a time/space for…aha! or just ha! Ah, so!

    Wishing you all manner of (continued) good turns and good turnings,
    Leon

  3. Jennifer,

    Sounds good, but maybe we should get more specific? I can think of a variety of different sorts of behaviour someone could dislike themselves for doing (or not doing, as the case may be)…

    … always being attracted to the “wrong” person

    … not sticking up for oneself… or someone else

    … attacking (verbally, physically) anyone who is weaker (maybe even oneself)

    … buying too many things you can’t afford

    … drinking too much

    … failing to get along somehow

    It seems that, if it were me, some of these contradictory or perverse behaviours are things I would want to stop doing and others I’d be happy to carry on with – without disliking it.

    I wonder: are habits just a bad idea in general? Mostly, I think, but not entirely.

    I wonder if I would distinguish, as you seem to, aggression and ‘denial’ (better: fear?) apart from desire? Dunno.

    Leon’s comment about changing circumstances reminds me of a quote I found recently, along the lines of “Our vices come and go in their own time, and then we take credit for having mastered them.” Ha.

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