Living Our Practice, April 2, 2008 - Class Three

Keywords and topics: mindfulness, habit energy

Aaron: I am Aaron. I began to speak without turning on the recorders; my apology. In your emails, some of you making it clear that there is discomfort when you step aside from the habit energy… So you see the habit energy arising. Regardless of whether you act it out, or not, watching it arise has made you more aware of the feeling of wanting to act it out. Wanting to and yet not wanting to. You now if you act it out it is going to be painful for you and others, so not really wanting to. But the habit energy is so strong that it's hard not to act it out and thusly obey the impulse.

How many of you have done the sipping-of-water exercise with me? Mindful watching of impulse energy with water, how many have done that? (about 1/3) We're not going to do it now, I ask you to take it home and try it.

Put a mouthful of water in your mouth and swallow it mindfully. Then take another mouthful of water and simply hold it in your mouth and watch how strong the impulse is to swallow it. There are 2 sensations that will be present: water in the mouth, just sensation, and this wanting to swallow, felt as tension. Watch the tension, wanting to swallow. After a minute or two, swallow it mindfully. Take a breath or two and then take another mouthful of water.

When the impulse energy is very strong, there's tension. It's uncomfortable. What happens to the strength of the impulse when you watch the tension and discomfort with kindness? In other words, when there's no judgment of yourself, just an open heart that says, "Oh, this is hard." Wanting to swallow, not swallowing, it's hard. There's some discomfort, not really strong physical discomfort as it's just water in your mouth, but strong impulse energy that you're not obeying.

So I'd like you to do this perhaps a half dozen times. Take a few breaths between each time you swallow. Hold it in your mouth again for a minute or two. Watch what makes it easier for the impulse energy merely to be experienced as impulse energy, not to get too caught up in it.

In your daily life, you are meeting impulses such as wanting to control, wanting to express impatience, which is one piece of wanting to control, judging others, judging yourself, feelings of shame or fear. These are also impulse energies of a sort. The impulse energy to speak up, "No, don't do that!" Or "Hurry up!" Or to yourself, "Gee, I'm stupid." See the intention to act out or articulate these impulses. Just as with the water, the impulse energy and its discomfort does not disappear because you say "Go away," it disappears because you hold a bigger space, kindness.

So I want you to do the exercise with the water perhaps tomorrow morning before you sit or some time in the next day or two. And then see what comes up in your sitting when there's an impulse, such as to scratch an itch or an impulse to return to a memory or thought. Does what helped with the water help with this present impulse? And in your daily life, when the impulse to call yourself or another by a negative name, or to try to control something, when these come up, what helps? I want you really to investigate this. What helps?

Certainly it can help simply to remember, "If I speak out in anger it's going to bear unpleasant repercussions, is this really what I want to do?" Go further. What's driving this impulse? Is it kindness and clarity, is it fear, or is it just habit?

Some of you are finding and will continue to find certain habit energies are highly repetitive, very likely the ones that you've chosen to work with in this class. Are they just driven by habit, or do they have deeper roots? Look at the energy. Be gentle with it, but also firm in the resolve not to enact it. What drives it?

To note, "If I do act or speak in this way there will be unpleasant results," can help, but there's still a subtle force saying, "So I won't do it." We can ask the question, what would acting or speaking in this way protect me from? In other words, if judgment or impatience comes up and there's a strong urge to act it out, what would it protect me from? Do you have any thoughts about this? What might it protect you from, to speak out your anger, for example?

Q: Feeling vulnerable.

Aaron: That's one, good. Others?

Q: Feeling controlled by others in control.

Aaron: Good. More.

Q: Discovering something in self that you're not ready to release or ready to face.

Aaron: Or that you're afraid you're not ready to face, yes. Others?

Ask it in a very specific way right now. This impatience or anger or judgment that I'm feeling, if I express it in this moment, what does it protect me from? What might I be feeling that I don't have to feel if I express my judgment or my impatience now? We've gotten some very accurate answers but I think you can come up with more.

Q: When I am controlling, I don't have to feel helpless.

Aaron: Yes, good one.

Q: I don't have to feel responsible for my feelings. Like knowing/noting it in myself, instead I act it out and blame it on others.

Aaron: Yes. Lots of karma in that one!

Q: Guilt?

Aaron: Yes, guilt. Some emotions are smokescreens for anger, and some of you find it difficult to feel anger because you have the idea, "If I feel anger I either need to suppress it or express it." Your experience with the expression of anger is that it's done in a hurtful way. So you have not all learned how to skillfully hold space for anger.

I asked, if you were feeling impatience or judgment—and noting that unworthiness is self-judgment—when you're judging yourself, what does it protect you from? Anger is an especially true answer for feelings of unworthiness. And for many of you, both because you are on a spiritual path, you have the idea, "I shouldn't be angry," because you were trained as children, "Now don't be angry." You're a bit uncomfortable with anger so you turn it into yourself and it comes up as feelings of unworthiness and different kinds of self-judgment.

So the work here is twofold. Work with something very simple, that swallow of water in the mouth. To feel the impulse energy and power of it and to see what opens space around it so that there can be the impulse without having to do anything about it. Find comfort with the impulse. Watch it fade.

Then, bring this experience to some of the predominant habit energies. Watch the impulse to judging the self, feeling unworthy or inadequate, or wanting to blame others, the impulse to impatience, to controlling behaviors. It's just an impulse. What happens when you note this impulse to judgment, to control, in the same way, holding it spaciously? And then ask the gentle question, what does this protect me from? The impulse is so strong, if I don't act out this impulse by allowing the fullness of the thought and its stories, what more challenging experience am I afraid I will have? Do you understand the question? Is there anyone with any questions about this assignment?

Q: I thought I understood but your last statement made me realize I don't understand exactly.

Aaron: (smiling) Nobody ever understands anything exactly, my friend!

Let me go through it again. The first assignment is with the water. Then take that experience into both your sitting and your mindfulness in daily life and especially with the habit energy you're working with. Begin to see how that habit energy is also an impulse and begin to see what makes more space around it.

Second, with that habit energy, even when there's more space around it, it's still hard not to act it out, so you can ask the question, what has this habit energy protected me from? Why am I so stuck on it? If it's just habit, it will shift very quickly and you will not feel stuck with it. So the ones that you end up coming back to again and again do so not just because of old conditioning, but because there's something stuck there, some old fear, something that you need to learn. What does this habit protect me from? If I gave in to the impulse right now, to control or to judge or to judge myself with ideas of unworthiness, what would I protect myself from? What is it I don't want to feel? Does that clarify?

Q: Yes.

Aaron: Any other questions?

Q: As you say that, I am thinking about my controlling around B taking his medicine and doing what he should do, which I know what he should do to be well. So if he doesn't, my whole world would unravel. He would die. I would be left alone. It would be…awful. So there's a big fear under the controlling.

Aaron: And have you talked about that with B?

Q: B's talked to ME about it! Let him do it!

Aaron: It is his life, D, it is his medicine, it is his choice. And if you stop pushing him about it so he has to take responsibility, perhaps he will take responsibility or he will be left having to ask himself, why am I not being responsible? That's his work.

Q: We were talking about it this evening and came to that, except for that last part. (laughter)

Aaron: Well, his work is his work; your work is your work. Your work is to watch the fear. His work is to do what he needs to do for himself or to explore why he doesn't do what he needs to do to care for himself.

Q: Sometimes he just forgets and there is an appointment and we better go because it's time, and I just push him out the door…

Aaron: And what if he misses the appointment? I know you feel you will suffer the consequences, but this is his life. It's similar to the need to allow the child to be late for school and experience the consequences rather than to nag at him daily. Find some system you both can agree upon wherein you do not need to say anything, but he sets up his various medications early in the day so he can see what's what.

Q: He does that…

Aaron: He must take responsibility for himself. This is hard for you, though, because the two of you have established a relationship of so many years wherein you have often taken responsibility for him.

Q: Yes…talk about habits!

Aaron: If once he experiences some unpleasant consequences because he has not been responsible and you have not pushed him, I'm not meaning by unpleasant consequences that he dies, simply that he has some pain or feels ill for a few days, that will help him learn.

Q: It's very hard to be quiet.

Aaron: When I ask, what are the consequences, the fear, "I will lose him. I love him so I have to take care of him," well, you DO take care of the ones you love, but there's a difference between taking care of in a sense in which you let the other be responsible and you simply love them, and the sense in which you mother them, in the sense of the overbearing mother. Your partners do not need to be mothered in that way. Yes, if he is sick, he might appreciate you bringing him the chicken soup. But not the constant monitoring. It's not helpful.

Q: So when that energy impulse arises, I look at my fear? Where do I go with it then, if I want to take charge?

Aaron: My guess, D, is that there's anger underneath…

Q: Anger!

Aaron:… yes, that you're not looking at. Anger at him for not taking care of himself, and anger at your own feelings of helplessness, not just with B, but with all the world's suffering. And instead of acknowledging the anger and just holding space for the anger until it dissolves, you're pushing the anger aside and just flowing with the impulse, "I want to tell him;" you're seeing the control but not the anger; you're seeing the fear, perhaps, but not the anger. Can you see that there's anger there?

Q: Yeah…

Aaron: We're going to talk some more but first I want to do an exercise with you. This is going to require you pushing the chairs and cushions back and sitting on the floor in a large circle, coming all the way around to me…

For the recording, this is going to be the Ball Exercise. I'm not going to attempt to record it all. I will record just a little bit.

The group has formed a circle on the floor. Aaron has brought out about 24 brightly colored plastic balls, and tossed them out to the group. They are instructed to mindfully participate, to catch and roll the balls, to watch the impulse to roll a ball, or to hold on to it.

Aaron: At whatever pace you wish, take the ball and then roll it across the room, anywhere else in the circle. Keep them going. Watch mindfully. What's happening to you as you get a ball? What happens when you throw it? Take your time with it, you don't have to go too fast.


Some of you might have feelings about, "I'm not getting enough balls," or "I'm getting too many balls," or "Am I throwing it too hard? I don't want to hurt anybody." How does it feel to pick up the ball and aim at somebody and toss it?


What happens when your neighbor is getting all the balls? What happens when you are getting them all? What comes up? How do you relate to it? What habits do you see.

Watch what happens as the balls come towards you. Take the balls as they come. (period of doing the exercise)

All right, let's pause for a minute here. Take a deep breath. Center yourself. Be aware of how the energy field feels. Is it open or is it closed? Some of you were laughing, fun to do this. Some of you were a bit more withdrawn. Watch the subtle impulse energy when you pick up a ball and throw it. Are you directing it straight at somebody or simply random? Are you rolling it softly or throwing it hard? Watch the whole movement of receiving the ball, picking it up, and releasing it again. Go ahead, resume.

(pause, several minutes)

Is there any attachment to getting more balls? Is there any attachment to not getting balls?

(pause; exercise resumes)

Okay. Let's pause again. Return the balls to the bag and take your seats.


So let's hear a bit about this, what you experienced. Was it fun?

Q: Yes.

Aaron: What made it fun?

Q: It was non-threatening.

Aaron: And to some degree, no self. Many of you seemed to be in a place where there was not much self, just movement.

Q: The interaction between people.

Aaron: Playful interaction. Like energy. What else?

Q: It was child-like. Two weeks ago we were with our 2-year-old grandson who did nothing but play with balls. And they would come out of nowhere.

Q: Exercise.

Aaron: Body activity. Were you able to watch mindfully any impulse energy that was there, or was there very little impulse energy?

Q: I did have a touch in the beginning of "they're not coming to me" but it disappeared very quickly.

Aaron: Did anyone else feel that? What I saw of your energy fields was, at first there was very much a self in most of you, watching, just as I started the game, "Do I understand the rules? Am I going to do this right? Will I make a mistake?" And then you completely relaxed and opened up and just played.

Note how it felt to play in that way. There is no reason why most of your life cannot feel that way. Even in situations that bring up tension or in which people have various emotions. The tension comes up from the ego, and with the ego comes the habit energies. When you shift into this very openhearted space, there's just movement, just play.

Barbara did not attend the art workshops that D and D offered, but I imagine that people expressed and you taught some of this with the art, moving out of that ego place and simply letting creativity happen. You've got to stay alert. If you're driving on the interstate highway, you can't just be playful and in a state of abandon, you've got to watch. But there's no reason for the ego to come up with fear, trying to control everything. If you're at a meeting with a number of people with different opinions, also. The opinions are just balls coming at you. Pick them up and roll them back. Can there be a relaxation that doesn't take the self so seriously?

So this is another part of the impulse energy exercise. First in drinking the water, watching the impulse energy and asking, "If I were not experiencing this now, what might I experience? What does this protect me from?" And next, who is feeling this fear or other feeling? Is there really a solid self or can I move into that place that is empty of self that can just roll balls back and forth?

Sometimes when you do an exercise like this, you can easily remember how it felt. Take a deep breath and see whatever the object is, such as your husband not taking his pills. Tension, ah, it's just a ball coming at me. Toss it back. By tossing it back, I don't mean necessarily tossing a ball at [the husband], but you could. In the middle of the afternoon when he has not taken his medicine, you could say, "Hey B, (tosses ball?)" Let him know ahead of time what it means. Just a playful reminder. And then if he does not get up to take his pills, you drop it. It's up to him.

Try to create playfulness with these habit energies, and ease.

Q: Can I say something? It reminds me of something. I came up with a new name for a very old mind state which I call Worst Case Scenario Mind. When I noted it during meditation I thought it was really funny.

Aaron: That Worst Case Scenario Mind is familiar to so many of you. And this is a playful name that releases fear. How do others of you work with that? Worst Case Scenario Mind, the stories that start coming. If you name it in such a way, does that help remind you not to take the thought so seriously?

Q: (inaudible) I cancel…

Aaron: Do you bring awareness to the fear that prompted that Worst Case Scenario story?

Q: Sometimes, and sometimes I (inaudible) to help me to choose something else and I see it going to Best Case Scenario.

Aaron: Ahh; another story.

There's something interesting here. There are rooted stories and rootless stories. There are those stories that come up just based on sheer habit energy. There may not be any ground for it anymore, so as soon as you say that little, "Is that so?" it goes. Mind doesn't dwell on it and keep repeating it, just habit. And then there are those stories that still have some roots. And those, when you say, "Is that so?" something deep inside says, "Yeah, maybe it is" and starts to spin out the story. Then some of these practices can be helpful to reease the hold of the fear..

Note, "There is some attachment to this, I'm getting something out of keeping this story going, I feel some protection from it." Or, "I'm afraid of where I would be if I let it go." You can watch the impulse energy of it from a place that does not need to enact the impulse, watching how strong it is. Fear, tension. And you can be aware of it as with the balls. Be aware, this is a solid self I'm building here. Who is so attached? Who is so afraid? Maybe the 3 year old that you were, maybe nobody.

So it gives you some sense of where this particular habit energy is coming from. And it just gives you more space for it. Basically you need to trust your practice that as you bring the feelings back into your formal sitting practice, as your mind and body states arise and the stories start to come, that your practice is going to reveal what you need to know. This is so both in terms of the reality of emptiness of self, that this particular state is just arising from conditions and is impermanent, is not self, and also that you will begin to see any old conditioning and understand the impulse better, and therefore be able to bring more kindness to this human who keeps repeating this particular habit energy.

I'd like to look at feelings of unworthiness here because so many of you experience these, if not often, at least occasionally. It's a habit. When you ask, "What is this protecting me from?" often it's anger. Not always, but often. For many people, the idea of unworthiness of the self is displacement of anger at another person, perhaps from a childhood habit. You were told, "Do this! Do that! Don't be angry. Follow orders." and so forth. "Be good." And you felt you couldn't be good enough and you were never able to please the person telling you what to do, never to completely please them. And anger came up but it wasn't safe to express that anger, so you turned it on yourself.

So when you investigate this, it needs to be in a lighthearted way. Not, "I've got to fix this. Finally Aaron is giving me some tools, and I'm going to get out there and I'm going to fix it." No. Just, "Ah, here is this habit energy again and again. Maybe if it comes up twice I can juggle with it." Play with it a bit. Don't take yourself so seriously.

This is where it starts to break open and you come to that point where you do not believe it just because you have thought it. The thought comes up, "I'm unworthy." "Oh yeah? I don't believe you." Play with it. Relax, play with it. But if there is some very deep pain under there that needs to be felt, now is the time to feel it. And if there's rage, it's safe to feel the rage. You're not going to go take a hatchet and knock over the person who scolded you as a child. But, here is a place where compassion and forgiveness can come, and healing.

Are there questions?

We're going to sit for 5 minutes, then, just let you re-center yourselves here. And then stretch for 5 minutes and then hear from some of you about what's happening in meditation practice. I'm going to leave the body know as we sit.

(recording ends; practice discussion not recorded)

Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Brodsky