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Wednesday, 27 July 2011 14:06

A few notes on habits and change

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In her teachings, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron often relates a story about a great spiritual teacher, Atisha, who planned a trip from India to Tibet. Atisha was told the people of Tibet were good-natured, pleasant and wonderful to be with. This worried Atisha, who feared he’d have no one to provoke him and show him where he needed to train. So Atisha brought along with him a mean-tempered, unpleasant Bengali tea boy.

Chodron says the Tibetans like to finish out the story by joking that when Atisha actually arrived in Tibet, he found plenty of irritating people to show him his faults — he needn’t have brought the Bengali tea boy at all.

The Bengali tea boy has become my mental symbol for those times I’m dealing with an irritating person. I’m not advanced enough in spiritual ways to embrace the concept that we should, as Chodron goes on to urge, “be grateful to everyone.” But I do feel confident that she is correct in maintaining that we create — and re-create — identical situations involving different people throughout our life until we learn to break our habitual patterns.

In that way, I can understand that we should all give thanks to the jerks in our life. They help us, you see, to find out where we are stuck. And hopefully, to make meaningful changes that increase our own happiness.

Though, honestly, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I might just be someone else’s Bengali tea boy.

•••

Hands down, giving up cigarette smoking was the most difficult personal change I’ve ever undertaken. I loved smoking, so of course it became outsized in my life, in the way that I overdo anything and everything that I like. And things I dislike, for that matter. I tend to avoid uncomfortable situations with equal vigor.

I didn’t just smoke a little, I smoked a couple packs a day — a cigarette in every orifice, one friend joked as he saw me inhale and exhale my way through smoke after smoke.

A drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other; I sure was a cool chick in my 20s. When I hit my mid-30s, however, I realized that I couldn’t run 100 feet without wheezing and gasping, and I didn’t feel so cool anymore. In fact, I generally felt bad and unhealthy and as if I might not live anywhere near a ripe old age.

So I quit. And I haven’t smoked a cigarette since, because I seriously doubt I could muster up the necessary willpower to go through quitting again. So I don’t play games by taking “just a puff” or anything like that — sometimes it pays to recognize just how weak-willed you are.

•••

So I was covering something for the newspaper this past week when I got into the oddest talk with someone. And that person surprised me with their sudden gentleness and support, because we were discussing drinking and I mentioned I’d quit that, too, and they immediately offered unreserved, unhesitating support (this is not as inappropriate a subject to have gotten into talking about as it sounds — you’ll have to trust me when I say that it fit into that particular conversation at that particular moment).

For much of my life I’ve been skeptical of people’s basic goodness. It’s nice to find myself so continually wrong.

•••

Scientists now believe the brain is amazingly fluid; that it keeps changing no matter our age. They call this neuroplasticity. The brain can remake itself structurally and functionally if only given new information. Findings about neuroplasticity defy earlier beliefs about human development. Until relatively recently, scientists and those concerned with behavior and the human mind believed our brains pretty much quit developing after early childhood.

I find this research on the plasticity of the brain good news indeed, and it probably goes a long way toward explaining how I was able to successfully quit smoking and drinking. Here’s my undoubtedly overly simplistic version of neuroplasticity: new habits create new brain pathways if you just hang in there long enough. This plasticity of the brain, or so I’m fervently hoping, also applies to our relationships — refrain from responding in a habitual fashion, and eventually we create entirely new ways of relating and being. In this way, you see, we all can be somewhat thankful, at least, to our Bengali tea boys — they give us practice in remaking our brains each time they do something irritating and we respond differently than we have before.

I believe it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean I embrace abusive relationships, or endorse passivity — far from it. The truth, however, is that I could afford to be a little more passive and less aggressive in my dealings with those people who push my buttons.

I’m finding it very helpful to believe the jerks in my life are, perhaps, actually there for a reason; and that I can use their jerkiness, as it were, to further my own happiness.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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