The Power of Habits

Our destiny in our life is controlled by our habits in a very major way. Unless we master our own habits, they will control our lives.

Let us take health as an example. People get healthy or sick by the health habits that they have developed. The moment health breaks down, then practically everything stops. One may resign from work, no longer be able to travel, and dreams and ambitions can no longer be pursued. If they smoke, eat a lot of meat, drink liquor, sleep late, don’t exercise, etc., all of which are habits, what will they expect after the age of 40? I know of people who are already taking heart maintenance medicine at 40 years old, or has high sugar level, kidney problem, etc. All these are largely preventable. How? By forming the right health habits early in life.

Let us take happiness as another example. Some people have grown up developing the habit of being angry when there are problems. A few people don’t have that habit. What is the effect? Those prone to anger will have problems in their family life, work relationship and their state of happiness or unhappiness. Some are in prison right now for acts they did during moments of rage. They know that they want to be happy. Yet they cannot help but be overcome by the habit of anger. The older we are, the more difficult to change our habits.

But the good news is that habits can be changed. How can we do so?

We must be clear first about the kind of life that we would like to live. Do we wish to be loving towards our family and other people? Is this really important to us? Then make a decision that we will practice daily habits of being kind or using positive words when we interact with members of our family or co-workers. In this example of one’s goal, here are suggested steps:

1. Decide on behaviors that you will do every day, such as smiling, saying thank you, saying neutral or positive words at least 95% of the time.

2. Create a powerful leverage so that you will be motivated to develop this habit. For example, (a) tell your wife or husband about your decision, and ask him or her to give you feedback if you are not being kind and positive. Ask them to remind you. (b) Visualize yourself constantly being positive, smiling and cheerful. It may feel awkward at the beginning. But remember that you are battling a negative habit that had been formed for 10, 20 or 30 years. (c) List down the advantages if you are successful in becoming a cheerful and positive person. Then make another list of consequences if you continue to be prone to anger, resentment or being critical. This will encourage you to persevere even if there is difficulty.

3. Give it at least three weeks of constant practice. Do it every day. When the behavior is repeated for three straight weeks, you will notice a change. You no longer need to exert effort in order to be positive and cheerful. The habit has taken over and your spontaneous behavior has changed. But it must be sustained consciously even after it has become a habit.

4. Then choose another set of habits that you would like to develop in yourself, such as exercising everyday, stopping smoking, reading books regularly, etc. Do such habit development program one at a time. Make sure you succeed each time. Then you will gain confidence and your personality will become obedient to your decisions.

Remember that our body, emotions and ordinary mind are like automatons. They follow the grooves of habit — how you think, feel and act. They behave unthinkingly out of habit. They determine in a significant manner the destiny of our life. We have higher levels of consciousness beyond habits, but many people have not sufficiently developed the powers of these higher levels, and hence are more subject to the control of habits.
Take charge of your habits. You take charge of your life.

Attaining Peace

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John was stressed. When he came home one night, he felt upset and unhappy. The children were playing and noisy, and he got irritated and shouted at them. The dinner food was not to his taste, so he snapped at his wife with critical words. The wife left the dining table and went to her room, not finishing her dinner. The next day, when John went to the office, he did not respond to greetings and got impatient with his office mate. Then late in the morning, his boss reprimanded him. He automatically shouted back. He was fired that day. He felt so angry that when he drove back home in his car, he drove so fast that he rammed his car to a vehicle in front which was slower and blocking him.
The state of harmony in John’s family, workplace and community, was being disturbed by the agitated state of John’s mind, emotions and stress. Had he been more cheerful, none of the unpleasant things around him might have happened.

There are two kinds of peace: inner peace and social peace. The first one is more important than the second one because it is inner conflict that causes outer conflict. When individuals have inner peace and harmony, then he will inevitably contribute to social peace, whether it is in his family, his company, in the community or in the world. He will not tend to commit acts of aggression, injustice, oppression or violence.

When we look at the various dimensions of social peace, we will find the same pattern. When people have fear and insecurity towards another group of people, there is a tendency to be hostile towards the other group. This hostility leads to words and actions that will only worsen the mutual hostility, such as creation of restrictive policies or barriers to trade. Untoward incidents may arise that may eventually lead to violence, conflicts and wars.

This was what happened between Pakistan and India, Israel and the Arab countries, Mexico and the United States. In Ireland, the dislike and insecurity was between Catholics and Protestants, both Christians, which led to violence and bombings between them.

How can these be prevented in the future? Through education. When children are taught to understand other groups without prejudice, whether between nations or religions, then they tend to feel more harmonious towards other groups. I have lived with families who belong to various nationalities and religions, and I find that people are more or less the same — kind, hospitable and friendly. But when they have been taught biases against other groups, then they unconsciously develop hostility.

Schools should be encouraged to teach the histories, cultures and religions of other people with an open mind. We must teach young people to become world citizens and not just citizens of a particular country. Due to ease of travel and communication, the earth has become a small place of 7 billion people, sharing the same resources, the same air and oceans and the same dangers. We must learn how to live as one family regardless of our culture and religion. But because of insecurity and mutual hostilities, countries spend so much money on weapons and defense systems instead of channeling those funds to fight hunger and poverty.

The top five countries in military budget (US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India) spend a total of more than one trillion US dollars per year on weapons and defense systems. The United Nations estimated that it will only need US$116 billion a year, or just about ten percent of what these five countries spend for defense, to eradicate hunger in the world and even remove global poverty.

But such military buildup will continue so long as people distrust and dislike each other. We must build a world where people will no longer think in terms of national boundaries and self-interests. The example of Costa Rica is worthwhile to emulate. It has no armed forces and hence no military expenditures according to its constitutional provision in 1949. It has never been at war with any other country since then and has been one of the most stable and progressive nations in Latin America despite the fact that it is neighbor to countries that have suffered from political turbulence, high crime rate and social violence in the past half century, namely, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

We need to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters living on one earth — the only habitable globe that we know.

The Ageless Wisdom

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There is an ageless wisdom of life. It does not belong to any single religion, philosophy, culture or tradition. It is the accumulated wisdom of sages and enlightened people throughout history. It contains an understanding of nature, human nature, society and about the self. Because it does not belong to any group, there is no dogma that is imposed upon anyone. One takes the truth that one discovers. The famous writer, Aldous Huxley, wrote of this wisdom:

“Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.” (Perennial Philosophy, p. 1)

The principles of the wisdom are available for anyone to study and apply, although parts of it are necessarily hidden from the average person. It has been validated by thousands of years of experience as well as by modern research. Unfortunately, much of it is not well-known and not being taught in schools in view of powerful prevailing religious beliefs or societal culture. It is sometimes referred to as the Perennial Philosophy, Prisca Theologia or Theosophy. Elements of it are found in mystical Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, Sufism, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, etc. It covers important essential knowledge that we need in order to navigate life wisely, whether in mundane living or in the higher spiritual life. It has important impact on parenting and education as well as social and political developments.

Some people are afraid to study these things because they think it goes against their religious beliefs. This is an unfounded fear. One is free to reject any theory or proposition if it does not ring true to oneself. But if it does, then we must not be afraid to acknowledge it even if it goes contrary to something that we were taught since childhood. The object of learning is to find truth, regardless of the name or label through which we discover it.

What are important elements of this ageless wisdom that are useful for the average person?

First is a knowledge of who we are. Many people think that we are just this body, that our thoughts are the chemical or electrical byproducts of our brain, and that after death, we turn to dust and nothing else. This is almost certainly untrue, and there are evidences for it.

Second is our origin and destiny. Where did we come from and where are we going after death? Insights into this question will help explain why we are here and what we are supposed to do. But how do we know with some degree of certainty that the answer to this difficult question is true or not? We initially study about alternative doctrines or theories, weigh their reasonableness, and see if there are researches and reliable evidences regarding this matter. Is the soul created at birth as Christians believe or have we lived before in previous lives as eastern religions assert? Do we go to heaven and hell after death or are we born into a future body and face the consequences of our previous actions? This and other related questions are things we must think about deeply, because it will affect the way that we plan our lives.

Third is, after we have assessed the maps of life and believe that we have a better understanding of life’s terrain, then we now decide on what kind of a life we should live, what are the values and principles that should guide us. We clarify what will be our priorities in our lives. These will serve as our life compass. It gives us confidence in our life directions especially during times of doubt and confusion. Such an assessment will affect the way we live and the way we look at money, business or profession.

Finally, once we are clearer about how to live and what to live for, then we must answer the question: how do we carry them out in our life effectively? This is about self-mastery — the development of habits, capacities and skills that will enable us to achieve our highest values and goals.

When life is effectively guided by the above principles, then our thoughts and actions will produce consequences characterized by inner peace, happiness and meaningfulness.

Being Effective With People Without Anger

In the previous article, the way to dissipate past accumulated anger through breathing and self-awareness was discussed. A second aspect of this issue is to find a more effective approach in dealing with problems with people without the use of anger.
Anger is not a good or effective habit. When we have problems or conflicts, the best way to approach the issues is through reason and compassion. Not only is the rational approach more effective, but it brings about an inner calm after an issue is resolved. This is the way to approach people issues whether one is a parent, businessperson, teacher, professional, politician, etc. I know of people who are very effective in their work without having to resort to anger. One businessman, for example, who runs two companies which are among the largest in the Philippines, is very effective not only in business (which are profitable) but in personnel management. In the more thirty years that I have observed him very closely, I have never seen him get angry or even irritated. Yet he solves each problem swiftly and effectively through a rational approach.
In Golden Link College, teachers are trained so that they are effective in handling students without having to resort to anger or punishment. There are many parents who have brought their children up in a wholesome way without the use of anger, threats and punishment.
Below are two suggested steps in becoming more effective in dealing with people in situations of conflict.
First is to nurture self-awareness in one’s daily life. Every time that there is a problem, a threat or a crisis, we will notice that the body reacts in tension. Energy surges within which wants to act in an aggressive and violent way. Be aware of this, and feel these physical tensions (chest, head, shoulder, stomach, etc.) as we do deep breathing, and we will notice that they subside after a few minutes. By being constantly aware, this habit to burst in anger will disappear.
Second is to have a effective rational approach in problem solving that will be a substitute to anger. For example, you have a newly hired assistant to do certain task and to report to you regularly. You teach him how to do the task. Tomorrow, he fails to report or makes a mistaken report. No need to get angry. Consider that this failure may be due to inadequate training by you or a misunderstanding of your instruction. Devote a certain time to re-train this assistant and double check if he has understood your instruction by asking him to re-explain the procedure. The next time he reports, he commits the same mistake. If you are sure that your training was adequate, then it means that the assistant has a problem. Tell him that it seems that he is not prepared to do the task that you are asking him to do. Ask him if he has any problem about it. If he says that there is none, and that he promises to be accurate, then tell him that he will be given another chance but that he may have to be transferred or relieved if he makes the same mistake. Later, he makes again the same mistake. Then sit down and discuss with him that he will have to be transferred or he will have to resign because he is finding it difficult to do the task he is assigned to. The assistant will not complain or feel bad because you have been very reasonable and supportive. Then act on his transfer or termination. All these are done without anger or frustration.
Dealing with children is similar. Talk to your child without threat or anger. Explain with kindness and patience. Help them succeed in doing what needs to be done.
A rational and compassionate approach is perhaps the most effective approach to handling people problems, including issues in the family. It requires a clear mind and a firm will. It elicits respect, it is not offensive or degrading and fosters long-term loyalty and a loving relationship.

Managing Anger

Anger is one of the most destructive among human emotions. It creates problems in relationship, especially in the family. It also affects one’s soundness of judgment. It is the cause of most homicidal crimes. It is the emotion that prevents one’s capacity to love.

Many people don’t realize that when they are angry, they cannot love. The reason is simple: what do you want to do to someone whom you are angry with? You want to hurt him or her. It does not matter if the person is your husband, wife, child or parent. You want to hurt them either physically, emotionally or psychologically. How can we love someone whom we want to hurt? At the moment of anger, we are incapable of loving.

This tendency to want to hurt has instinctive roots. Animals feel this surge of aggressive energy throughout its body when it has to defend itself or to attack. We will notice that when we are angry, we too feel an energy surge within us. It is felt in the head as heat. In the body, arms and legs, the energy surge wants to come out, sometimes causing the body to tremble. The arms and hands want to hit something. That’s why some people punch the wall or kick a table because they need to release the energy. When they speak they tend to raise their voice or shout because of the need to express this energy.

Unfortunately, this instinctive reaction, while important for survival among animals, is highly destructive in human beings. It prevents us from being rational in the way we handle conflicts and problems. By being aggressive, we create more conflicts and problems in our family, workplace and relationships. It also harms our health because anger produces toxic substances within our system that lowers our immune system.

How do we handle this energy called anger? There are two aspects to it: past accumulated anger, and present anger. The latter is often the triggering of the former. So it is important to remove past accumulated anger. Since the ancient times, many people have known how to release this in a non-destructive manner. It is done this way.
When you think of a person or event that had caused you anger before, you will notice this surge of energy within you. Your heartbeat may become faster, your chest may feel heavy (like a ball or a flat board), or you may feel pressure in your head. When you feel these, go into deep abdominal breathing (about 5 seconds breathing in, and 6 seconds breathing out). When you breathe in, feel the pressure on your chest or head or any other uncomfortable sensation that you may feel. When you breathe out, feel or be aware of your arms and legs. Do not try to remove or push away the discomfort. Just feel it. You will notice that the energy begins to flow by itself and then you may feel tingling sensations or numbness on your fingers or feet. This means it is now releasing. It may take 5 minutes or 30 minutes to release this fully, depending upon the situation. While doing the deep breathing, do not think of the person or event anymore. Just be aware of your bodily sensations, until the entire discomfort disappears. This brings you back to a restful or relaxed state after it is released. You may feel sleepy or tired after you have released it, then just rest. You can repeat this exercise until you don’t feel any uncomfortable reaction anymore when you think of the person or event.

 

Insights on Life

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LIFE is broad, deep and complex. We need to understand nature, human beings, society and, most of all, our own selves. We are born into a maze without a map, not knowing about its rules. The elders who are around us often teach us things that are inadequate, narrow or even downright wrong. Thus we are often misled into wrong pathways as we grow up.

I had to discover the rules of living by reading, asking and experimenting. I have found certain guidelines to be extremely helpful. They were the light posts that showed me the paths out of despondency, pessimism and even unhappiness. They are rooted in an ageless wisdom that belonged to no single culture, religion or organization. For most of my adult life, I have been guided by these time-tested principles, and I am grateful that I encountered them early in life.

The editors of a national newspaper encouraged me to write short essays about insights on living. I did, and afterwards they encouraged me to put up a blog site.  So here I am.

I would like to thank Wesley Chua for translating the essays into Chinese.