We can consciously improve the quality of our lives by helping the natural self to develop healthy habits. Parents and teachers in early childhood have a powerful influence on children and the habits they form; but once the conscious self is in control, it has the primary responsibility to monitor and discipline the natural self. If the conscious self is an enlightened master, then the natural self will be a good disciple.
Loving and caring attention helps these interactions work well. Tendencies toward bad habits need to be monitored and gently redirected. Habits often are transformed into other patterns of behavior. For example, babies that have been weaned have a tendency to suck their thumbs, and parents may use a pacifier. Eventually this habit will be abandoned, but in a nervous child it could change into a tendency to bite one’s fingernails.
A teenager then might take up smoking cigarettes, a very unhealthy and addictive habit. Smokers are suckers in more ways than one. Smoking not only damages one’s own lungs and affects the brain with habit-forming patterns, it also pollutes the air that others are breathing. Good education is important in preventing young people from taking up this deadly habit. For the person who has already become addicted to nicotine, the challenge is to refrain from smoking. Obviously it is easier not to start than it is to break an addictive habit.
Yet the conscious self is in command, and no one smokes without the consent of the conscious self. Learning how to break such a habit builds character and strength of purpose, while failing to do so exposes one not only to the continuing dangers of smoke but also to a loss of self-esteem by the personal embarrassment before others. Although nicotine may stimulate the brain temporarily, in the long run the effects are harmful. The stronger the pathways in the brain are made by the drug the more difficult it becomes to break the habit. Yet many heavy smokers have completely abandoned the smoking habit.
Those selling services to help people break such habits may suggest that will power alone cannot conquer such habits, but no matter what methods are used ultimately the conscious self will decide whether to smoke or not. Because the natural self is conditioned by habits and has a tendency to repeat them, the conscious self can help retrain and reprogram the natural self by giving it clear instructions and new imagery for better habits. The stronger the habit is, the more often and urgently will the natural self tend to remind and nag at the conscious self to go back into the habit. Thus the conscious self needs to monitor the natural self and remain constantly vigilant. Self-mastery means that the conscious self stays in command. Good communication between the conscious self and the natural self is important in changing these habits. Habits are combinations of memory from prior behaviors, and so associated memories may need to be replaced with new patterns of behavior that support the new habits.
Although it is not as addictive nor as harmful as nicotine, caffeine is the drug to which the most people are addicted. Found in coffee, tea, colas, and cocoa (chocolate), caffeine is another temporary stimulant that establishes an addictive habit. Often people who are addicted wake up each morning craving caffeine and feeling they need it to get their day started, when normally the rest of sleep by itself gives a person a refreshed attitude toward life. Surveys of modern society have found that more than 80% of the people use caffeine regularly.
Alcohol is another drug that can become habit-forming.The physiological effects leave the body unless one is a heavy drinker. Thus alcohol tends to be more psychologically habit-forming because of its effects on one’s mood. Moderate drinking as a social lubricant helps many feel relaxed and at ease with other people, especially with those who are drinking. Everyone needs to make their own choices about these habits. Others find certain illegal drugs are stimulating to the mind and perceptions. Some of these are even more addicting physically than nicotine, while others such as cannabis are only psychologically addicting. Legal prohibitions make the use of these drugs much more complicated and dangerous socially.
I have found that the greatest freedom comes from not using any of these drugs. Studies have shown that meditation or other spiritual methods may stimulate the creative parts of the brain, and there are no ill effects. Certainly practicing a spiritual discipline may become a habit, and it may even seem like a dependency to some observers; but it seems to me that such habits that calm the mind and refresh the spirit and feelings are healthy habits that benefit people.
In addition to exercising our spirits, we need also to exercise our physical bodies to keep them in a healthy condition. Some may find physical work they like to do that helps keep them in shape, and those who walk often or ride a bicycle for transportation are getting exercise in a useful way. Others need to find recreational forms of exercise. Because these need to be done often and regularly, they usually become habits. People who have become too lazy will have to overcome those habit patterns by consciously exercising until new habits are developed. Everyone can choose the forms of exercise they prefer.
Yoga and other Asian disciplines such as the various martial arts may have a spiritual appeal for some. Those who love music may dance or exercise to music. People who love athletics may swim, run, or use weights, and those who like games may take up various sports. Those who like nature may go hiking and camping. Even while confined in a room or a bed one may do isometric exercises. Physical exercise has also been shown to have beneficial effects on the brain and one’s mood.
In recent decades the pharmaceutical industry has been increasingly promoting new drugs as solutions to various diagnoses. Although many of these are for physical pain, others are prescribed as treatments for psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, or various “disorders.” In extreme cases such drugs may be useful temporarily to help individuals through a difficult period, but others may eventually discover that they have become hooked on legal drugs to maintain mental stability and a moderate mood.
Yet it may be that such drugs are preventing people from learning important spiritual lessons from their experiences, and they may also be restricting their ability to experience life to its fullest extent. Studies and experiments need to be done in these new areas, but I recommend caution and self-restraint in regard to taking drugs on a regular basis for an indefinite period of time. Some of these drugs may be physically or psychologically addicting so that people feel a “need” for them if they stop taking the medication. These patterns can be insidious, and I suggest that those who want to be truly free avoid both illegal and legal drugs unless one’s health is clearly in danger.