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Habits – The Stockholm Syndrome

In Spiritual Gems the Great Master writes:

I am well aware that you have struggles. You have some things within yourself to overcome and some things outside of yourself which must be surmounted. But you can do it. If you have full confidence in the inner Master, he will always help you. And often when you find the difficulties greatest and the hour darkest, the light will appear and you will see that you are free. Let nothing discourage you. … You are one of the lucky sons of Sat Purush, and he has chosen you to get Nam and go with the Master to Sach Khand. You must reach there. Nothing can prevent you. But you can hasten the progress or retard it, as you like.1

Here the Great Master is both encouraging us and offering us a challenge. We have to overcome both external and internal challenges during our life. External challenges could include illness, family problems, money, employment, or whatever – events that we have no control over but that we have to go through as best we can.

Our internal challenges? What are they? Lack of focus? Bad habits and their negative inclinations? All the aspects of our personality that impede our progress on the path? We have probably carried these weaknesses along with us for many years, maybe even lifetimes. They may get crystallized into bad habits if we allow them to grow deep roots. The deeper the roots of these habits, the more difficult it will be to overcome them.

There are many books and websites that deal with the subject of habits from a mental point of view – they recommend methods of strengthening the mind to overcome bad habits. Ways to break the cycles of habits. But the Masters put things in spiritual terms: they see our efforts to overcome our negative tendencies and weaknesses as part of our spiritual growth, eventually leading us to spiritual maturity.

Yes, this process involves our trying to control the mind, but our engine of control is Him – the Shabd. Our meditation. Our simran.

The Great Master says, “Let nothing discourage you.” He tells us that with the power of Nam, the strength of the Master within you, you can overcome anything. And he reminds us, “You are one of the lucky sons of Sat Purush.” The strength of the Master is our engine of control. We need to stay positive and turn to the Master, have faith in him and in his power. The Shabd is the positive power that gives us strength. So instead of focusing on the negative, ruminating over our weaknesses, we should just attend to our meditation, and repeat our simran with faith and love. If we seek his refuge, all negativity will be dispelled.

Of course, we need to recognize that our situation is desperate, and that we are trapped in our negativity. Then we can pull ourselves out of it with the strength of Shabd.

Soami Ji Maharaj put the same thought this way:

Soul, who are you?
Where have you come from?
The mind has created worldly entanglements –
  why have you strayed into this net?
You are a child of Sat Purush, the true Lord,
  and once you were a resident of the eternal
  home.
But Kal has put his noose around your neck.
Through the Master’s grace
  and the company of realized souls,
  reverse your direction
  and you will reach your home.
Listen to the boundless Shabd within.
Radha Soami has said this
  for you to understand.2

Soami Ji is saying here that the web of maya, of illusion, has entangled us in worldly attachments and desires and dragged us downwards. Yet, he insists, we can let go of negativity and reverse our direction by listening to the Shabd, under the Master’s guidance. We can take a positive approach and return home. He’s not asking us to dwell on our weaknesses – rather to focus on the positive.

So, what prevents us from doing this consistently? Why do we keep reverting to our old ways?

It is not a coincidence that we often come across the phrase “we are slave to our senses.” It is repeated many times by the Masters in their satsangs, and in the Sant Mat literature. What does it mean? It’s not just a throwaway phrase. It is not just meant for certain people. It’s all of us who remain slaves to our senses until we turn away from the illusions in which we live.

The problem is that we are fond of our illusions – we enjoy living in delusion even though we know it is not the reality.

There is a term sometimes used for a person who has been kidnapped or taken hostage, but who gives up trying to free himself. He identifies with his captor and accepts being a prisoner. In fact, he no longer sees himself as a hostage, or a prisoner. Instead, he begins to trust his captor and even feel affection for him. He mistakes his enemy for his friend. This psychological phenomenon is often referred to as the Stockholm syndrome.

And this is what happens to us when we become slaves to our senses. Maya – illusion – is our captor. We enjoy being hostage to the power of our senses. We happily live in delusion. We are reluctant to face the reality that we are prisoners and not free at all. We even get comfortable living in that state, as it is easier – great effort would be required to put up resistance and free ourselves.

Since we have internalized our weaknesses, our negative tendencies, we think that’s who we really are. We have willingly given up our independence and become slaves. Yet the Master reminds us over and over that this is not who we are. We have to take the power back! We have to empower ourselves.

That is why Soami Ji challenges us by saying: Soul, who are you? Free yourself from the noose of Kal. Listen to the Shabd under the Master’s instruction and return home!

We are slaves to our senses, to pride of intellect and knowledge, to status and wealth. We take comfort in distracting our mind through these things. The strongest chains that imprison us are our own bad habits, the negativity that dissipates our energy and which we no longer resist.

In The Path of the Masters, Dr Julian Johnson wrote quite extensively about bad habits and how we can take control. He says that any habits quickly create grooves in the mind, and that the mind enjoys the repetitive action. He writes:

Mind can never will to depart from its beaten path, any more than a locomotive can will to leave the track upon which it has been set. Habit is the chief method of mental action. Habits are likened to grooves in which actions run. … After many repetitions, the mind runs on very smoothly in its grooves and enjoys it. And it much resents being disturbed and compelled to get out of its grooves. Each time the mind is stimulated by the same thing, it will react just as it did earlier.3

The more a habit is indulged in, the more easily and certainly the mind will run in that groove. Even indulgence to the point of utter exhaustion never conquers the mental bond of a passion.4

Johnson gives an example:

I recall once I was walking along the streets of St. Louis with another man. He was a pitiable drunkard. … We passed by saloons, and in every such instance he hesitated, gazed longingly into the saloon, while his whole body stiffened and trembled. An awful struggle was going on in his mind. The old mind wanted to take him into the saloon. But for my mind and my strong right arm acting in an opposite direction, he would have gone into the saloon in spite of his own better judgment. But his power of judgment had become weak.5

Johnson makes the point that people can choose only what their minds have been predisposed to choose, unless a new force enters into it from outside itself. For us, that force is the Master’s guidance and our Shabd practice. That is the only way to overcome the downward pull of the mind. Johnson warns us:

There is one thing in particular which the soul should guard against – that is, the insidious creeping-up, serpentlike, of bad habit. All habits tend to grow stronger with repetition, as we know. All indulgence fastens the chains of habit. At the beginning habits may be easily checked and broken by a determined will. But by and by they become so strong, the outward and downward movement so impelling, that the soul is quite helpless. It then rushes on to disaster. Every one of the five enemy passions uses the method of habit to fasten its claws in the heart of its victims.6

Johnson gives another example:

A man in a small boat was drifting down the Niagara River just above the falls. People on shore shouted a warning to him, but he paid no attention to their warning. When, a little later, he felt his craft impelled forward with increasing speed, he awoke to his peril, but it was too late. He was then quite powerless to escape the current. So it is with all bad habits. There is a point, a fatal moment, a deadly crisis, when the soul is no longer able to handle the situation. It cannot reach the mind, and the mind itself is in the grasp of a relentless fate created by its own conduct.7

A story is often repeated in Indian spiritual literature to demonstrate the importance of controlling the mind, and the habits we create, before they get too strong.

A man asked his young son to pull out a tiny flower growing in his garden. The child did so easily. Then he asked the boy to pull out a strong weed, which was tough with deep roots. He pulled it out with difficulty, roots and all. Finally he asked the boy to uproot a large bush, almost a tree – but it was too strong. He couldn’t budge it.

“So it is with bad habits,” said the man. “When they are young it is easy to pull them out but when they take hold, it becomes impossible to uproot them.”

The moral of the story is that if we are careless about our bad habits, then we will not be able to get rid of them. The proverb “Practice makes perfect” holds true for all habits – be they good or bad.

So it is very important that we keep a constant check on ourselves, on whatever things we see, hear and do in our day-to-day lives. Everything we do – what we watch, what we read, what we allow to enter into our minds in so many ways – has a strong effect on us.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg quotes William James, the American theologian and philosopher:

“All our life … is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual … bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny.” …

Habits, he [James] noted, are what allow us to “do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, to do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.” Once we choose who we want to be, people grow “to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds.”8

That is a great image – we always fall into the same folds or creases.

It has also been said that habits never really disappear. The old mental pathways are still there, lurking for opportunities to re-activate. That is why we always need to be on our guard to avoid them.

And this is why alcoholics, even after they've stopped drinking, continue to attend meetings of Alchoholics Anonymous. No matter how many years they have been sober, they stand up and declare to the others at the meeting: “I am an alcoholic." One remains an alcoholic because he still has the urge to drink, even if he is not drinking at that time. It is a habit still latent, lurking within, waiting to show itself. And this is why one of the principles of AA is that one has to turn to a Higher Power for the strength to overcome the habit of drinking.

This is the outside power Johnson referred to. But it is really the inner spiritual power within us that we need to tap into. Satsangis have a way to invoke this power. It is the Shabd practice.

Duhigg discusses another insight of James:

If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. So [James] says that ultimately your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as James wrote, that bears “us irresistably toward our desiny, whatever the latter may be.”9

We don’t have to be slaves. If we believe that we have the Master’s strength empowering us, and we have confidence in his spiritual power, we can overcome any bad habit.

Our Master always tells us we can be free if we turn to the Lord. The first step we need to take in our efforts to turn our lives around and invoke the Master’s power is to cultivate the positive habit of simran. To attend to our meditation and keep our mind on the Master in all our free time. The Master emphasizes cultivating the habit of simran rather than ruminating over our weaknesses and our negative tendencies. He tells us to take a positive approach:

Keep your mind in simran. There is only one mind. If it is busy in simran, if it is absolutely absorbed in simran, other thoughts automatically will go. They’ll vanish; they’ll fade out. If, without doing simran, you try to eliminate them by thinking, “I’m not going to think; I’m not going to think,” you can never succeed. Put your mind in a positive direction; think about something positive. That is simran. When your mind is absorbed in that, other thoughts will automatically vanish. There’s no other way to keep them out.10

Hazur also said:

If you try to eliminate the pressure of the world by negative means, you will never succeed. But when you try to create a better impression in your mind, other impressions automatically will go. The mind must form impressions, the mind must think about something. … it can never remain still. But you take a positive step. If you create the impression of light and sound within – in the mind – the other impressions automatically fade out. But if you fight with your mind to eliminate outside impressions, you will never succeed. Your object should be to create in the mind the positive impressions of shabd and light within. Then the other impressions will automatically fade out.11

So again, he is telling us to create positive mental impressions through meditation, through our simran. We shouldn’t forget just how powerful our simran is! He emphasizes this when he says symbolically:

Why curse the darkness? Why not light the candle?12

Why complain and ruminate over our failings? – we just need to move forward.This problem of entrenched bad habits and our difficulty in controlling them is not just something that comes with modern life, with Internet and cellphone addiction, or too much television-watching. All the challenges we face in modern life are just a new manifestation of the same downward tendencies that people have encountered throughout the ages.

Once we recognize that the problem lies in us, in giving over our independence and freedom to our enemy, our captor, we need to exert the effort to reverse the downward direction of our mind through meditation and Shabd practice. We need to believe we have the ability to get free. We need to have confidence that, with the Master’s help, we can change. As William James said, if we make a habit of that belief in change, the change becomes real. We can adopt good habits as well as bad habits, so why not adopt the good habits and reclaim our freedom?

In another of his poems, Soami Ji presents us with a dialogue between mind and soul. The mind is confessing its weaknesses and then the soul offers a solution. I’m sure this sounds familiar to all of us:

The mind spoke to the soul, saying:
  I am unable to overcome my taste for
  sensual pleasures.
What can I do – how can I take your advice?
My enslavement to the senses is no small matter.
I have lost all strength; I have given up all effort,
  I can no longer exert my will against them.
I really do want to give up the sense pleasures,
  but when faced with them, I lose my resolve.
I severely repent, before and after,
  but at the time I do not miss a chance to
  indulge.13

Then in the poem the soul proposes to the mind that they seek the Lord’s help by attending satsang. Soami Ji goes on to tells us that the soul and mind ascended together to the inner realms and enjoyed the spiritual bliss within.

So let us break free from our chains of delusion, from our addiction to the world, and enjoy the company of the Master. As Sheikh Farid wrote:

Farid, it is so difficult to become a humble saint
  at the Lord’s door. I am so accustomed
  to walking in the ways of the world.
I have tied and picked up the bundle;
  where can I go to throw it away?14

  1. Maharaj Sawan Singh, Spiritual Gems, #152
  2. Soami Ji Maharaj, Sar Bachan Poetry, Bachan 14, Shabd 2, p.115
  3. Dr Julian Johnson, The Path of the Masters, 17th ed., p.270
  4. Ibid., p.273
  5. Ibid., p.273
  6. Ibid., p.278
  7. Ibid., p.278
  8. Duhigg, Charles, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, pp.271, 273
  9. Ibid., p.273
  10. Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, #401
  11. Ibid., #403
  12. Ibid., #579
  13. Sar Bachan Poetry, Bachan 32, Shabd 2, p.305
  14. T.R. Shangari, Sheikh Farid: The Great Sufi Mystic, p.65