Potted Plants

“Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener, but merely the soil, to the plants that grow within him.”
-Nietzche

It’s the first week of January, a time when the masses greet their shortcomings with daggers in their sleeves; a time when one or more bad habits are targeted and waged war upon. But the beginning of a new year is merely a nice, round date imbued with contrived significance. The habits we sustain hold no special relevance for January 1st. As a result, the magnified ambitions for change are as fleeting as scraps of paper in a forge. The resolutions made are like seeds strewn on cement.

Why are these campaigns doomed to fail?

Because common belief suggests that our habits are like potted plants, grown separately from their environment, and easily replaced. But habits do not grow like potted plants. Their roots often extend deep into our psyches, entwined and tangled in the roots of other habits. They grow stronger and deeper each time they’re sustained. Sprouting for a reason, they are fostered by our lifestyles and routines.

When seeking to uproot a bad habit, most people think that diligent and concentrated effort is all it takes. So they bring pruning shears to the wild jungles of their psyches. These campaigns often fail because the efforts are superficial, and inadequate for displacing the habit in question. They fail because the force of will is not strong enough. And they fail because the environment, the factor that caused the habit to form, is underestimated or ignored.

IDENTIFYING:

Before a habit can be uprooted, it must first be understood. Change begins by identifying the habit you’d like to adjust. The difficulty in altering a habit, even a seemingly superficial one, is rooting out the underlying cause of the habit. Attempting to lose weight by willing yourself to go to the gym, or by cutting out sweets, is like pruning a few branches on an oak tree and expecting it to become an elm.

Excess weight is only the prickly pear, the pinecone, the bitter fruit of a rooted habit. It’s not the trunk itself. Whether you eat to relieve stress from work, or because there’s a bakery across the street venting its sweet, vapory effluence into your living room window, you need to first identify the cause. Ask yourself why the habit exists.

Every habit incites for a reason, and the surest way to alter or eliminate a habit is to find out why it persists. This requires honest introspection that many people are uncomfortable with. The ego hates to admit weakness or fallibility. Introspection often entails being critical of long cherished beliefs. The difficulty in effective introspection is why therapists can find work. But if you’re able to be honest with yourself, truly and brutally honest, then you’ll be that much better equipped for self-improvement.

WILL:

Each of us has within ourselves the potential to forge our character to our will. We can all foster the qualities we admire in others, and eliminate the follies we know of ourselves. But that ability requires a strong will that must be carefully developed. Since will is merely the drive to oppose a bias or tendency, it is the tool we use to landscape our psyches.

When we are hungry, but don’t eat, or thirsty, but don’t drink. When we are uncomfortable, but bear it with composure. When we crave something, but don’t indulge. When we ride a bike instead of the couch. When we break routine. When we try something new. When we feel the onset of frustration or anger, and take a moment to gain perspective. These are all examples of exercising our will. In any cold, calculated moment, we all know how easy it is to choose one thing over another. But our will is truly tested when we’re tired, or stressed, or hungry, or compelled by temptation. It takes awareness to make a willful choice, and our awareness is often clouded by emotions. Our will may not be strong enough to override our prevailing emotions. Other times our habits are so deeply ingrained that our will is too weak to subvert them. Fortunately our will can be strengthened through conscious practice.

We begin digging with our hands, scratching at the soil with our fingernails, pulling up weeds, and pruning with shears. This imposition of will manifests as taking the stairs or foregoing dessert. It manifests as smoking one less cigarette or drinking one less beer. It manifests by spending fifteen minutes on writing a blog post, or picking up an instrument for that time. The craving for a smoke, a drink, or a snack remains, but the impulse is resisted. We still prefer to watch T.V., or browse the internet, to writing. But right now we’re drawing a line in the sand and refusing to give in. And each time we catch an impulse before succumbing to it, we are strengthening our will.

As our resolve develops, so do our tools. We pick up shovels, picks and axes and begin uprooting the underlying habits. The compulsion to eat sweets is replaced by an appetite for fruits and vegetables. We disrupt our learned, destructive or dallying behaviors with productive activities. We utilize different outlets to find relief from stress.

Eventually our tools become even more sophisticated. We become capable of uprooting our deepest, most ingrained habits; the ones that masquerade as personality traits. Consequently we allow new, more fruitful habits to take their place. We’re no longer driven by emotional whim, nor prone to the manifestations of coping with them. We can challenge long held beliefs that no longer have any use, and implement new ones that inspire greater prosperity.

It is at this point we become the masters of our domain. Then we can seek out any shortcoming, or foster any merit, with intention. That is what it is to strengthen your will, and the ability to willfully conduct ourselves is the quintessence of being human.

But willpower is not the only ingredient needed to implement change. The best gardener in the world can’t grow orchids in a desert, and the seeds of the most tenacious farmers will wash away in a monsoon. The environment in which new habits are planted plays a significant role.

ENVIRONMENT:

No habit exists in isolation. Habits form in reaction to the environment, and perpetuate as long as nothing challenges them. We eat too much because we grew up in a household that cooked a lot. We smoke because of a stressful career. We drink because all our friends do. The environment of your life is the soil in which habits grow. Everything in the environment has one of three effects on us.

The first, and most easily dealt with, is the spontaneous; that which we are exposed to, but is not a part of our routine. Imagine a room with a table full of sweets, cabinets full of alcohol, a television stocked with a new season of your favorite show, or a carton of cigarettes on the counter. Depending on the strength of your will, it would be difficult to resist. But with a single willful push, you can eliminate the temptation. It is easy to toss the food, pour out the drinks, unplug the T.V., and flush the cigs. Spontaneous temptations require little strength of will.

The second, more difficult, environmental impact is your routine. Imagine now that every day, the table is restored, the cabinets are filled, a new T.V. is set up, and more cigarettes magically appear. This is what happens when your routine involves the habit you’re trying to kick. Maybe you have a beer and a smoke every day after work. Maybe you always buy a muffin for breakfast. Perhaps you always watch a couple hours of television before bed. Whatever it is, if you regularly do it, it’s that much harder to alter.

The final, heaviest impact that the environment has is its effect on your identity. Imagine walking into that room and all your friends are sitting at the table having a good time. They’re eating, drinking, smoking, and laughing. There’s no way you’ll not join them. There’s no way you’ll change. Going out for pizza is a fun tradition. Having a few beers loosens you up, makes you funnier. Watching T.V. is a vicarious thrill. It takes more serious effort to overcome habits that are wrapped in love or friendship or tradition.

When dealing with a habit with such deep roots, not only are you struggling to change something in yourself, you also have to face the possible judgment of your loved ones. Perhaps you want to stand up for yourself, and be more assertive. Perhaps you want to be more confident, and become more sociable. The people in your life might see your initial attempts at these changes as fraudulent or offensive. How we’re viewed by others can be a binding influence. It is by far the most difficult hurdle to overcome, and oftentimes it is the most necessary. To do so takes unwavering conviction and moral courage. Or, harder still, it takes the painful severing of bonds that might be holding you back.

The detrimental impact that the environment plays can be undermined, to an extent, by changing it. It’s the reason why rehab helps drug addicts. By eliminating the presence of the thing in our environment that incites a bad habit, we are better equipped to remove it. But the reality is that we all have a tiny amount of control over our environments. We can’t always just pack up and leave a place. This is what makes change so difficult.

A more powerful method of overcoming the environment for the sake of change is the augmentation of will. If you can’t change the world, change yourself. It takes a long time, and is a difficult process, but eventually it can be used to implement change in spite of the environment. And the greatest benefit is that it can be strengthened in one aspect of life, and then applied to any other.

Failing to change a habit is not always our fault, and should not be taken personally. Failure does not prove the impossibility of change. It is crucial to remember that no habit is unchangeable.

Though emphasized at the beginning of January, self improvement is something we all strive for all year long. The reason why we struggle to implement the changes we wish to see is fundamentally related to the paradigm through which we view ourselves. This blog’s purpose is to present an alternative perspective on the nature of consciousness. It is my hope that this perspective might alleviate the kinks that form from abiding by a more commonplace outlook.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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