My granddaughter learned to walk early. We have a picture of her at 6 months, standing unsupported in the middle of the living room. Within a month she was walking freely. During this process she was completely obsessed. You could have strewn toys all over the living room, and she would have honed in on the chair she needed to pull herself up, the coffee table she needed to pull herself along. She never thought: I know, I should learn how to walk, and I’m going to do it, I promise, I’ll start next week, really …
I’m thinking about this because it’s a new year and lots of us make resolutions which somehow are supposed to change our lives. More power to you if this works, but it never worked for me. I suspect it doesn’t work for most people.
Not that my life hasn’t had some striking changes. I quit smoking. I stopped eating meat. I stopped biting my nails. Many — most? — people have made some kind of striking change like that. But change has always struck me out of the blue. Like my granddaughter learning how to walk, it happened because I couldn’t help myself. Like a drunk throwing up on the sidewalk, or an out-of-shape person gasping on the stairs, I saw, really saw, that I couldn’t go on the way I’d been going. So I didn’t.
You have to be alert to the moment of change. You can’t dismiss it. Sometimes social pressure supports you (think: smoking). More often it doesn’t. You see that you need to eat right and exercise and your friends say “but you don’t look fat!” Which misses the point, and before you know it you’re sliding back into habit because it’s so, you know, habitual.
That’s the thing about habits: We don’t notice them. It took me 57 years to stop biting my nails because I never really noticed what I was doing. Sure, I knew in my frontal lobes what I was doing. If Facebook had been around I could have written lots of status updates: biting my nails again! But I didn’t really see what I was doing. The idea of anything is always different from the reality of it. We spend too much time perceiving our ideas about things and not the things themselves. That’s especially true of habits. Brushing your teeth is a really good habit. But when you do it, do you actually pay attention?
So here’s the secret to getting rid of bad habits and starting good habits. In fact, here’s the secret to just about everything: pay attention. Pay attention and you’ve might see what’s actually going on. Pay attention and you might see what helps and what hinders. Pay attention and you might notice the people around you. Pay attention, and it’s a lot easier to do what’s right.
Don’t pay attention and you might as well be sleeping.
A student asked Zen master Ikkyu to write something wise. “Attention,” Ikkyu wrote. “That’s it?” the student asked. So Ikkyu wrote, “Attention, attention, attention.” That’s it.