Taming Elephants-How To Transform Negative Habit Energies

This post is a follow-up to:

Can the Power of Love Stop an Elephant?

What do we do about our own raging “tuskers?”

One of the skillful tools used by my heart teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, is the concept of habit energies, called vasana in Sanskrit.  Habit energies, as the name implies, are the cumulative mental and emotional imprints of prior habitual thoughts and actions.  They can be positive or negative.

Negative habit energies are like ticking time bombs. These powerful imprints lie dormant in consciousness until triggered by our own or others words or actions.

Unleashed, negative habit energies tend to make us do what we don’t want to do and say what we don’t want to say.  Boom!

Doing What We Don’t Want To Do

As Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thầy as he is affectionately known by his students) writes:

“We know how strong, how powerful the habit energy is.  We notice that there are times when we are not ourselves.  We cannot be ourselves.  We are carried away by our habit energy. We did not want to say that, we knew that saying that would create damage in our relationship with the other person.”

“But finally, we said it.  We knew that we should not do it.  We knew that if we went ahead and did it we would create damage in our relationship.  But finally, we did it.  We said it was stronger than us. What is stronger? The habit energy.  So we felt helpless, powerless.”

Happily, negative habit energies can be transformed by mindfulness and compassion.  In this excerpt from a talk given at Plum Village, France, Thầy explains how.  If you are used to battling with yourself or beating yourself up over your negative habit energies, this gentle, wise approach will probably be both a surprise and a relief! Here is what Thầy says:

Transforming Negative Habit Energies – Thich Nhat Hanh

“Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on.

“Therefore, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. ‘Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.’ In recognizing it as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight it; in fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you, and you should not fight against yourself.

Embrace Your Habit Energy, Don’t Fight it!

“You have to generate the energy of mindfulness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it to transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it.”

“You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: ‘Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.’ After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed, in order to re-manifest itself later on. You have to be very alert.”

The Transforming Energy of Mindfulness

“Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will lose a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all other mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness.”

“If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, it will push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness, to recognize it, to embrace it, to take care of it, is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, non-violent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.”

Non-Duality, non-violence

“The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To meditate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield, the right fighting the wrong, the positive fighting the negative. That’s not Buddhist. That is why, based on the insight of non-duality, the practice should be non-violent.”

“Mindfulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.”

(Excerpt from a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on August 6, 1998  in Plum Village, France.)

♥♥♥

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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