Is Meditation a Habituating Process?

Habituating the Dishabituation of the Habitual Cognitive Scheme

Eiji Suhara PhD
Dec 27, 2020 · 7 min read

I have “officially” practiced different kinds of meditation for 35 years. If I count “meditation-like” practices, I have been performing them for 45 years. However, I still don’t know how to practice mediation constantly.

The other day I read an article on Medium about how to habituate a meditation practice.

I left a comment to the effect that I think mediation is a dishabituation process. My point was that the core idea of mindfulness is to be aware of how we feel, think, and act, which is usually unconsciously processed through a habitual cognitive scheme. By doing so, we can be liberated from “used experiences” from the old habitual frame and watch the world with no interference from the past.

However, in this chaotic modern society full of complicated information, how can we undertake such a subtle practice? As novice meditators, we just can’t be aware of our cognitive processes to access brand new experiences from moment to moment. After many attempts, our aspiration to find the Way seems to remain buried in the subconscious realm.

What then can we do? After I posted the above comment, I had a moment to reconsider if there is any merit in repeating the practice of meditation.

Below I suggest some of the advantages in a recurrent practice of meditation under certain conditions.

Habituating to Reduce the Distraction of Mind

To begin with, what does “meditation” mean? While only one of many possible interpretations, the Sanskrit “sati,” commonly translated as “mindfulness,” also has the meaning “awareness.” Most meditators have no problem with this statement: “I meditate to expand awareness.”

However, can awareness be expanded? Can it be learned? I would say NO, it cannot.

Awareness is the mind’s original nature, which spontaneously arises when we are not distracted by objects of greed. Awareness itself can neither increase nor decrease.

Therefore, we can’t expand or habituate our awareness.

Instead, we can reduce the mind’s distraction and, as a result, become more aware.

Consequently, the only thing we can do to improve awareness is to habituate ourselves to reducing the mind’s distractions.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Habituating the Dishabituation of the Habitual Cognitive Scheme

In order to reduce distraction, we first need to understand how we come to be distracted. According to the Four Noble Truth, distraction is caused by craving, attachment, or ignorance, depending on different interpretations.

All these causes of distraction are habituated mental phenomena directly caused by the second factor of 12 links of dependent origination, saṃskāra.

Saṃskāra can be translated as karmic force or habitual force. It is much like the law of inertia described in the principle of the conservation of energy in Newtonian physics.

Because of inertia, a moving object cannot suddenly stop. It takes a while for a car to stop after we brake. In our inner psychological realm, we can’t instantly halt the same melody that continuously repeats in our minds because the habitual force is always at work.

We tend to think and act in the same way because of this karmic/habitual force. This karmic force constructs a complicated habitual cognitive scheme out of our past experiences.

According to a common Buddhist view, even a self is believed to have permanent existence due to this habitual force. Our sense of self, or even outlook, has been constantly changing since we were born. Despite this fact, we identify our selves as unchangeable substances because it is our habitual way of cognition.

Such a permanent self, as a subject, continues to attach to or crave some objects of greed. As a result, we lose awareness.

Therefore, what we can do to recover awareness is habituating ourselves to the dishabituation of the habitual cognitive scheme. How can we accomplish this task? It sounds complicated.

Photo by Chris Falter via Wikimedia Commons

Eightfold Path as Practice of Embodiment

First of all, we should remember that we can’t “intend” to achieve this task because the mental act of “intention” is already contaminated through a habitual cognitive scheme. I call this difficulty in practicing meditation the “ineffortability (noun of “unable to make an effort) of meditation.

What can we do? What kind of practice can we adopt to avoid using the habitual cognitive scheme? Whatever we try to do, we are limited to the old habitual scheme. How can we escape from this habitual trap that swiftly and profoundly catches us?

Fortunately, Buddha taught us the eightfold path. How to interpret the eightfold path varies depending on the interpreter. One is to categorize the eight paths into three categories: discipline, meditation, and wisdom.

The first category of discipline comprises the ordinary practices of “correct speech, correct action, and correct livelihood.” Only when we discipline ourselves by practicing these principles will we be ready to proceed to the next category of meditation that consists of three elements, “correct effort, correct concentration, and correct mindfulness.” In a sense, the three components of the first step are prerequisite conditions for performing these next three elements.

This method of discipline will help to resolve our issues of the “ineffortability” of meditative practice for several reasons.

First, these are imperative prescriptions that we have to follow without intention. We don’t “try” to execute these orders to achieve something, but just do them. We imitate the “models” provided by the mindfulness master, while not using our rationalization.

Does this sound passive and without autonomy? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that the essence of religion is irrationality (or a-rationality or trans-rationality). Why did God demand Abraham sacrifice his beloved son Isaac? If the story didn’t have a happy ending, was Abraham’s “faith” just a blind belief? If the will of God “makes sense” to us with our rationality, it is still part of the territory of our habitual cognitive scheme. We need something beyond our habitual scheme, however, to dishabituate the old habit.

Second, it is a physical act, not a mental act including intention. We need to practice “no lying” as a physical (or speech) act even if we want to lie for some egoistic purpose. By surrendering to such a prescribed order, we can modify our habitual way of thinking. In other words, by putting our body and acts in a particular form, we can reshape our minds.

By repeated performance of these practices as part of the discipline of the eightfold path, we become ready to step forward into the second category, meditation. In other words, we can become a meditator only after taming our mind through disciplining the body.

This discipline method is the way to embody a greed-resistant “meditation muscle.” When this meditation muscle is cultivated sufficiently, we can perform correct speech, action, and livelihood spontaneously without intentional effort so that we are less distracted and thus aware of many more things.

Then, we can go forward to the next category of meditation. In the first step, our effort becomes the correct one without distraction because it springs from our original nature, awareness. Then our mind is naturally settled, and it is possible to perform correct concentration.

Finally, in the last step of the second category, we can perform correct mindfulness only after the mind is settled with correct concentration. When the waves of the mind are rough, we can’t observe anything correctly as we can’t see the surface for the waves. The water doesn’t reflect things as they are.

In this way, by habituating our body-mind according to the discipline and forms provided by the eightfold path, we can dishabituate our old habitual cognitive scheme. After mastering the two categories of discipline and meditation, we can move to the category of wisdom (which I will not discuss here but save for another article).

Conclusion

I started by opposing the idea of habituating meditation. I suggested some possible pragmatic effects of the eightfold path for how it can help us to dishabituate our habitual cognitive scheme. In a sense, religious precepts, including the eightfold path, are methods from ancient wisdom to resolve a human psyche that is full of contradiction.

To change something, we must first carry it out with the body and not just through mental actions, e.g., only thinking and worrying. Then we can improve our mentality through experiences. Or we may not need to distinguish body and mind in such a process.

Although it, of course, doesn’t mean that you should move your body without rational thinking — our action must be the “correct one,” following the principle, whatever it is called, of awareness, mindfulness, original nature, Dao, and so on.

In order to perform such “correct” action, intention, meditation, etc., we need to be liberated from the mental distraction caused by excessive greed. Our life is itself a meditative process where we constantly habituate the dishabituation of negative habits.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Eiji Suhara PhD

Written by

College Teacher, Philosopher, Religious Studies Scholar, Martial Artists, and Drummer. “Practicing” various types of meditation for long years.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.