Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dealing with habitual emotional patterns

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • Looking at the kinds of actions we do habitually
  • How we react to criticism or things we don’t like
  • Using introspective awareness to change these habits

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: Dealing with habitual emotional patterns (download)

We were talking about the six factors that make afflictions arise. We finished the first five. Can you remember them? The seed, the object, inappropriate attention, detrimental influences (bad friends), verbal stimuli (media), and this one is habit. Habitual thinking, and habitual action. Both of them.

We see this one a lot. We’re so much creatures of habit. It’s very interesting to trace in your meditation (especially since we’ve been having teachings on karma recently) to see what kinds of actions we do habitually, and what kinds of mental attitudes we habitually have. And it’s really remarkable, when you start to see the patterns in your life and how much you run on automatic.

Some people, the moment somebody says something in the tiniest way critical. Or maybe they’re not even critical, they’re just giving some feedback. What you wanted to hear…. You wanted to hear praise and they’re saying “improve this, improve that….” Then some people’s habit? (crushed) “People don’t appreciate me. They just don’t appreciate me.” Or other people’s habit? “I can’t do anything right. I’m wrong. Again.” Other people’s habit? “I put in so much effort, how dare they say that to me!” And then there are probably several more.

Here’s a situation, it comes up very often in our lives. We do something and…. We put the glass upside-down, they want it right-side-up, and we take it personally, and we feel exasperated, angry, resentful, depressed, running completely on automatic. We never stop to think, “Well, what was the content of what the person said? Can I respond to the content?” But instead, immediately we take everything as a personal comment on who we are. And then self-grasping flares up. Self-centeredness flares up. And we run out our usual pattern of emotional response, which of course triggers our usual pattern of verbal response. Which is we back away and feel sorry for ourselves. We criticize the other person. We talk about the other person behind his back to vent whatever we’re feeling.

Do you see this in yourselves? Same situation. When is this situation ever going to end in our lives? The external situation. When is it ever going to end where everyone approves 105% of everything we did? When is that going to happen? We’re always going to hear remarks about how to improve, or what people found inconvenient. We have a choice. We can continue to run on our self-centered automatic, or we can rev up our introspective awareness and try and change these habits.

It’s very, very helpful, in your meditation, to look at what emotional habits you have. One way to do that is to see what distracts you. Where does your mind go? When you’re not on the object of meditation, what is your mind thinking about? Initially you’ll say, “Well, I was thinking about that project that I was doing.” You weren’t thinking about the project. You were thinking about what someone else said about the project, and what that meant for you and your value as a human being. But initially we don’t even realize what we’re thinking about. We think we’re thinking about the project. We’re actually thinking about ourselves. We have to look at these things and learn to recognize. It’s very helpful, make a list if you have to. In case you forget. Other people’s faults we don’t need to make a list of, we always remember those. But these kinds of things we tend to forget. We have problem with it. But it can be really helpful.

Just look at situations that happen, often in your life. Maybe it’s another situation of somebody compliments you for something. They say, “Oh, good job, well done.” Then immediately what’s your habit? “I’m the best one in the world.” And again, instead of just saying “thank you,” or thinking to ourselves, “I was able to do that because of all the people who taught me and encouraged me….” Instead of that we again take it personally and puff ourselves up, and think that we’re somebody special, and that people should treat us in a certain way. And again, without even realizing it, that we’ve become rather arrogant. Then, of course, when we become arrogant we’re the perfect target for other people to shoot down, because nobody likes somebody who’s arrogant. Then other people get angry at us, or they get jealous of us.

That’s their pattern: “Every time somebody does something better than I do… Or gets credit for something that I don’t get credit for…. It’s not fair….” And we get jealous. That’s that person’s habit. Again, there’s not awareness that this is a habit, that I get jealous. What we think is, “That person had success that wasn’t deserved.” And that’s an objective reality. We don’t think, “My subjective habit is ‘every time somebody has some success or gets to do something I don’t get to do, that then I get jealous.'” But look at it and watch how much it comes up. That’s that person, running on automatic, getting jealous.

Then every time somebody’s jealous of us, what do we do? We resent. “Why are you jealous of me? I’m not doing anything to try and be extra special, why are you criticizing me and being jealous of me?” Again, what’s functioning, what’s our habit? Self-centered mind taking everything everybody does as a personal comment on who we are. And then we’re resentful.

People have different habits, what they do when they’re resentful. Some people when they’re resentful they get very quiet. Other people, when they’re resentful, they let the whole world know. Some people compete. Some people back away. We all have different habitual patterns that are motivated by our resentment.

We’re operating on habit, the other person’s operating on habit. And then we wonder why we have problems. It’s very helpful just to look at these habits we have.

Part of it is habitual ways of interpreting things. That refers to the inappropriate awareness, how I always interpret certain things to mean this and such. This and such about me, or this and such that’s that person’s motivation. Patterns of interpretation. Then patterns of emotional response to whatever we interpreted. There are two kinds of patterns there. Plus a third pattern, how we act after that habitual emotional response comes.

Can anybody offhand think of an example you want to share? Or even you don’t want to share but you’re going to be brave and share it?

[In response to audience] Her pattern is whenever somebody asks a question about what she’s doing when she’s in a position of leadership (or whatever) instructing people what to do, then her habitual interpretation is they’re questioning my smarts and my capabilities, without just realizing they’re asking a question for information. She turns it into “they think I’m stupid, they think I don’t know,” and then the emotional response is self-doubt, defensiveness. The words come out as defensive. And then the people stop asking because they’re just asking a question and they’re meeting with “whow” and then people don’t ask questions for the information they need and then things get all messed up when you’re trying to work together. [To audience] Living here at the Abbey helps you to see that, doesn’t it?

[In response to audience] This is a good way to show how to remedy that kind of thing. Your thing is when you have a good motivation and you do something and it doesn’t turn out as you expected, and other people let you know, and then your immediate response is, “They don’t appreciate me! I’m working so hard, and they don’t appreciate what I’m doing. I can’t stand them. I’m going to withdraw.” [laughter] [To audience] You very much withdraw from the community. What you’re learning is, okay, you see that habit, with the interpretation, the emotion, and the behavior, and then to realize that it’s not a question of “those people not appreciating you,” and your not being appreciated, it’s a question of we’re ordinary sentient beings and we don’t have all the wisdom necessary to make a fantastic plan that everything goes well. And you know what? I bet you even if the Buddha were here and made this fantastic plan with a good motivation, somebody else is still going to gripe. But to realize that I lack the wisdom, nothing wrong with me, I’m not claiming to be a buddha. I should try thinking about some of the things coming afterwards. Also recognize that whatever I do somebody is going to not like it. It’s not a personal thing. In fact, when people criticize they’re usually saying more about themselves then they are about you. If we can listen to the content of the criticism we might learn something that’s valuable to us. But we don’t listen to the content, we just blank that out, and immediately go into inappropriate attention and emotional stuff. But if we can stop and listen we might learn something. And then also learn that it’s nothing personal. And that whatever we do, it’s just the way it is.

[In response to audience] It’s interesting. First the anger to the other person, then the shame of how you behaved? Or the shame of having such a big bowl full of food? Both.

[In response to audience] That’s another habit, isn’t it? We ruminate. Who else ruminates? Ruminating is the path to misery. We just go round and round. We say the same thing to ourselves every time. We’re really stuck. And just ruminate and ruminate, and feel worse and feel more angry.

[To audience] And now you want to defend yourself about the comment. [laughter] What did I just say? That when somebody criticizes they’re saying more about themselves than they are about you.

[In response to audience] They don’t understand me. That’s her one. They don’t understand me and now I’m going to go withdraw.

That’s the nice thing about living together, we all know each other’s habits better than we know our own habits, don’t we?

[In response to audience] Your habit is to interpret whatever somebody’s feeling as, “Oh, I caused it.” (She’s so important she can cause everybody to feel everything. That’s how important she is.) So she’s responsible for our emotions. And then when she realizes that she’s responsible, she feels lousy, she feels guilty, and she also resents us like all get out. And then she writes me long, long (notes).

These kinds of habits are quite good to look at, to realize. Because chances are we’ve been doing them for most of our lives and we’ve been quite miserable due to these habits. Quite miserable. Good to notice them, try and change them.

[In response to audience] They’re coming from innate, but maybe the particular context depends on a habit developed in this life. The context may be the conditions that reappear in our lives, but it’s coming from innate self-grasping, and anger, and these kinds of things.

[In response to audience] That requires more building up a habit in our Dharma practice. You can see the gross affliction when it’s there, but you don’t stop and think, “Oh, there’s grasping at inherent existence going on right now.” Those are the times that they always recommend to stop and look at how the “I” is appearing to us at that time. But we usually forget. So if you hear it enough times and you try and make it a habit, “Oh, I’m feeling a strong emotion, let’s stop and look at how the ‘I’ appears,” that’s building a new habit. Or at least identify, “Oh, this is self-grasping that’s causing this.” Or at least identify, “I’m having an affliction that’s caused by self-grasping.”

[In response to audience] All of the afflictions are erroneous minds. They’re mistaken and they’re erroneous, because they’re not apprehending their object correctly. There’s some kind of exaggeration. Even though we think we’re seeing things right!

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.