Chunks of Transformation

The Point of Power Practice is designed to begin the process of replacing old habits with conscious choices, replacing reactions with responses. It would be helpful to understand some of the details of the psychological process of habit creation and habit function. Quotes in this essay are from an excerpt in the The New York Times Magazine from his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

To understand habit formation it helps to understand how brains function and to understand how the human brain works researchers have been watching and manipulating rats for a long time. Do we mean that humans behave like rats? Oh yea! For example, as rats learned how to negotiate a maze they could zip through it faster and faster and the probes monitoring the rats brain revealed that the better the rats learned the maze the less thinking they did. By the way chocolate was the reward. See what I mean!

To transfer the behavior of lab rats to human beings is not difficult when we are operating from the context of P-A. We benefit from a perspective that behavioral scientists do not have, that is to say we already have profound insights into human behavior. We just have to make the connections.

While lab rats were running mazes soon after they were born, all human brains were concocting a false-self survival strategy running a social and instinct-driven maze as soon as they were born. The brains of both species were engaged in an activity “creating a sequence of actions into an automatic routine…called ‘chunking.’”  The brain wants to “chunk” as many of our activities as possible, to make them automatic because that saves the brain energy, it can do them without thinking.

Have you been driving across town and realize that you haven’t been consciously aware for some time when you have stopped, braked, slowed down, accelerated or made a dozen turns. All of those actions and hundreds of others are done every day automatically, on auto-pilot if you will. Of course, our brain will come back “on line” if anything out of the ordinary occurs in our environment like a siren or a speeding driver.

Behaviorists have identified a three-step loop involved in creating habits. First there is the cue or trigger (rat smells chocolate) which tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use (start running the maze), and then the routine which can be physical, mental or emotional (sound familiar), and finally the reward (yum). At this point the brain will decide if this routine is worth remembering for the future (Oh my, yes!).

Now the plot thickens. After repeating many, many cue, routine, reward loops the cue and the reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. This connection is part of the insight (right view) that Buddha had during his famous breakthrough meditation.

“Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.”  We could also characterize most of these behaviors as unconscious.

Here is where we revisit the survival strategy that all humans have in common. Back to the routine mentioned above and we recognize that the physical, mental or emotional routine becomes the heart of human identity. We have learned that identifying with the body, mind and afflictive emotions is also the genesis of the craving and aversion taught by Buddha as the origin of human suffering.

So “chunking” a necessary and normal human behavior will lead to dissatisfaction with life if it remains unconscious. Meditation is the practice that will help us intervene and stop deriving our identity from the body, mind and emotions by becoming the observer of our chunking process.  In meditation we awaken the observer, the true self, and it then becomes possible to choose to stop identifying with the false self habitual reactions.

What about changing our maze-running conditioning? Are we doomed to seek chocolate all of our lives? “Habits aren’t destiny—they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new cues and rewards—the old pattern will unfold automatically.”  

The Point of Power Practice is the antidote to reactive or habitual self-destructive behavior. When we are triggered and find ourselves about to react, we intervene, stop the automatic behavior, breathe, and bring the brain back on line. The breathing buys us time to choose a different routine or response that is not identified with the body, mind or emotions but is instead a new routine in which the compassion, the feeling response of the observer, provides the reward. New neurological conditioning related to conscious, healthy behavior will become stronger than the unconscious, automatic reactions.

Coming back to the present moment allows us to create a radically new three-step loop that is conscious and begins to extinguish the old reactive habit patterns. We have begun our self-transformation one chunk at a time.


References and notes are available for this essay.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read  Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival,  by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.

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