by Rev. Jon Turner
Every January, I notice a sudden increase in the number of runners in my neighborhood. The surrounding gyms and health clubs are also suddenly packed with nowhere to park. And then I remember that we have just celebrated New Year’s Eve. These are all the people who made resolutions to get healthy. Most will be gone by February; both the runners and the parking lots will have cleared out until next year.
This is because only about 8% of all New Year’s resolutions are actually achieved. There are two main reasons for this. First, a resolution is often goal oriented without any specific path or process defined on how to actually reach the goal. Second, the path is too difficult. Suddenly, running 5 miles a day is not enjoyable and it relies too much on sheer will power. When will power fades so too does the new behavior.
Goals are good for oriented us in the right direction and they also provide a feedback loop but they are not a good way to actually make things happen. Another approach is to focus on a process. For example, rather than vowing to get healthy, instead vow to walk your dog everyday around the block. This activity is so simple and easy that it requires very little effort. Over time this activity will naturally become a habit rather than a chore. You and your dog will want to walk rather than have to walk.
Creating new habits is actually how we change old habits. The mechanism for the solution is the same as that of the problem. When we find ourselves in the middle of a big problem, we often think that we need a big solution: a silver bullet, a home run. It is counter-intuitive, but our big problems are created over a long period of time due to very small, repeated habits. Problems sneak up on us in this way. New habits allow big solutions to also sneak up on us. Changes in behavior – both for the good and bad – occur after a behavior has become an effortless practice.
I have experienced this myself. About ten years ago, my wife Linda began going to yoga classes. She wanted me to also attend. I hesitated to go but she was so enthusiastic that I couldn’t say no. I kept attending and I did not give up. Instead of trying to do yoga, I began just doing yoga. It was then that something very interesting began to happen. When I quit trying, yoga became less frustrating. I stopped competing with the twenty year old women around me. All that was left was the activity, the process of doing yoga. I then began to enjoy it. Once this happened it became a habit. Now I would rather attend Monday night yoga at OCBC then stay at home watching reruns on TV. This was my yoga conversion from a “have to” to “want to”.
I searched around the web to see what could have caused my change of heart concerning yoga. The explanation I found was that I had unknowingly moved from a goal oriented approach to a process oriented approach; rather than trying to accomplish something I was now experiencing something.
I found this very interesting because it helps explain why seemingly trivial Buddhist practices lead to profound changes. In our tradition, we listen to the teachings, we bow, we chant and we practice gratitude. I never really understood how something as trivial as saying thank you could be profoundly transformative. But that is the key. Trivial, effortless, easy practices are the only ones that can become habits. They require little or no will power. We actual call this the Easy Path. It has to be easy or the behavior would not stick.
When I first started to attend OCBC, it took effort and sacrifice. My favorite Sunday morning activity was listening to Breakfast with the Beatles while running. It is a three-hour radio show consisting of only Beatles music. I had to give this up to attend OCBC. Some Sundays OCBC won my time and other times it was the Beatles.
But over time I found that I had a better week after attending OCBC as compared to running with the Beatles. I couldn’t explain it but it was true. Slowly, attending OCBC became as effortless as running with the Beatles. I began to see OCBC as just another activity, one comparable to any other activity. Buddhism had become a habit for me. Having to attend OCBC on Sundays is like having to brush my teeth before I go to bed. Both are ingrained, effortless practices that have profound effects over time.
I think this is why Bodhisattvas make impossible vows. It forces them to focus on process. Whether it is emptying the Pacific Ocean with a pint measure or delaying one’s awakening until all beings are awakened, all one can do is focus on the process of practice when the goal is impossible. That is what Buddhas do.
Rev Jon Turner