The Perfect Battle for You

One of my favorite thinkers, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that to break a bad habit, you should greet it like an old friend.

So if you want to stop biting your nails, the trick is to recognize that impulse to stick your fingertips in your mouth. You say to that impulse, “Hello, habit energy!” You smile at it. And then, you continue on your way — hopefully without biting your nails.

To break a bad habit, he says, shine the light of awareness on it.

Sounds simple, but it’s not. It can be a totally frustrating process, often filled with setbacks that feel like failures. (Reincarnationists believe that bad habits are the result of repeated negative actions in previous lives, which carve deep negative pathways in your mind. That’s some serious work to undo!)

Sometimes I wonder whether my bad habits can teach me something, or help me in some way.

During my yoga teacher training, I learned that the Warrior poses represent preparation for inner battle, and that I should trust whatever interior struggles I experience, because those struggles are perfect for me. One of our regular exercises was to blindly select a yogic concept from a hat. We students were to practice whatever concept was written on that slip of paper.

Over and over — out of dozens of different concepts — I picked aparigraha, or nonattachment. I must have picked nonattachment five different times over the course of one week. It was absolutely maddening. I became so frustrated, I asked the teacher in charge of the hat if this was a rigged game, some kind of trick. Did all the little slips of paper say nonattachment?

No, they didn’t.

Talk about the perfect battle for me.

Ever since, I’ve tried to become aware of my attachments — to objects, to ideas. Are these attachments unhealthy? Are they, in fact, bad habits?

In terms of writing and publishing, I ask myself: To what degree should I “nonattach” from the words I write? How much should I “unattach” from others’ opinions of my work?

These are tricky questions, with no “one-size-fits-all” answers. But the authors out there enjoying long, fruitful careers seem to have sorted them out. And they’ve definitely developed good mental and emotional habits related to how they treat their own words, and how they react to others’ reactions.

In any event, if you’re trying to break a bad habit — no matter what it is — that nonattachment concept might be useful to keep in mind. (You are not your bad habit!)

Thanks for reading, and as always, please feel totally welcome to share your ideas and experiences.

~Alicia Bessette

12 Replies to “The Perfect Battle for You”

  1. Regarding ‘the perfect battle for you’ idea… I have found that most fiction writers are people who are trying to make sense of the world, give it order. Many of us are sensitive, caring, and often anxious people by nature. And yet we choose to subject ourselves to the publishing world, which is sometimes a hard friend to make and whose acquaintance can often feel like a ride on a wild fate roller coaster. Publishing makes almost every writer I know feel neurotic, whether they admit it publicly or not.

    So many times when I am waiting for my agent or editor to read my work and get back to me, or when we are waiting for a review or news from LA or overseas, I begin to feel completely powerless. I have done all I can, and it is now time to simply wait. Because I care very much about my work (not to mention my livelihood) this can be an incredibly frustrating experience. Throw in the fact that I am the type of person who always needs to be doing something, working toward a goal–I’m a person who has been taught that outworking people is the answer–and then the waiting becomes almost maddening.

    And yet I picked this profession…I continue to subject myself to the experience. A lesson? The perfect battle?

    During these waiting times Alicia tells me to be the leaf in the stream. To practice being okay with wherever I am taken. To realize that I have very little control. And when I look back on the path my career has taken I can see clearly that it is full of seemingly random acts and experiences–many of which brought me to this exact spot. I will try hard to give each meaning, to make it about what I have done, but the truth is, it’s mostly a mystery. Being the leaf in the stream is a hard concept for me, but it’s definitely something I need to do more of, and at least I am now aware of it.

    People say it’s practice. Practice for what, I don’t know. Many wise people say this.

    Also, I often write about and PUBLISH ideas and feelings that I have kept hidden from people for years and years. What’s that about?

    Has anyone else had a similar experience? Have you ever intentionally or subconsciously put yourself in a situation where you have had to face your own demons and fight a battle that you know you needed to fight?

  2. I have often found that facing the demon, or whatever stress-causing event, is actually easier than worrying about it. Once you are in the moment you are focused with dealing with the situation and not thinking about “what-ifs”. I also find that focusing past the event is helpful. Say, for instance, you get up in the morning and have a dentist appointment at 10. Instead of worrying about 10 o’clock, think of 11 o’clock when you will be walking out of the dentist’s office.

    And do check out Al’s new website.

  3. I am no writer and cannot give any comments/advise in that matter, but I know one thing that is I hate attachment and nonattachment idea to break a bad habit seems very appealing to me. Thanks for writing chicka!

  4. the key here seems to be to remember that you are the leaf and not the stream. when writing, i can control all sorts of things. but when sending things out for publication, i control nothing. so, in many ways it requires a shift from being the stream to being the leaf. maybe that violates the code of the metaphor, but it certainly feels possible.

    then again, i have yet to get fully immersed in the book-publishing stream, so maybe i’m in for an even more overwhelming experience.

    bad habits? i joke too much. my therapist told me this once and proceeded to scold me whenever I joked or laughed. she was trying to make me hyper-aware of the habit to help break it. It worked for a while. Unfortunately, i haven’t been able to kill this habit because I haven’t been diligent in eradicating it.

    also, for the love of god go check out alicia’s new website! 🙂

  5. Alicia, your post is just what I needed! Nonattach, nonattach, nonattach.

    A thoughtless student hurt my feelings this morning, so I must let go of those feelings. They serve no purpose and I think they may even be a form of self-pity.
    Thanks Doctor, I’m feeling better.

    ps. Dig your website.

  6. And Q – you summed it up perfectly when you described the paradox of writers. We do tend to be an anxious, sensitive lot and yet we put our private feelings and thoughts out there for others to see and perhaps reject or scoff at. I’m going to remember I’m a leaf (sounds better than neurotic anxious writer).

  7. Wow, Alicia! I could write an entire essay as a response to both yours and Q’s posts (and by the way, awesome website!! Quest for Kindness….I can’t wait). What I will say in this small space is that you’ve given me what I’ve needed, and I thank you. Nonattachment is key and really it all comes down to intention. Why are we writing? Is it to help heal the world, to bring truths of humanity to light, to battle and face our demons? The more I write, the more I see the issues I’m working on and also the threads that work through and connect all of my work (and they are always my issues). Q, I look at these demons every day, and oftentimes, it keeps me from the page (you can only be vulnerable for so long each day) but the stronger I get, the easier it’s all becoming. The demons, though ever-present, are becoming quieter, and that’s mostly because I’m now at the point where I can seem them as friends. Bad habits, demons, they’re all different faces of the same issue. And writing, as well as yoga, allows me to look at myself and my work more compassionately. I do know that when I am on the mat, on the cushion, and breathing, it’s much easier for me to write, and vice versa. My body of work is directly connected and in tune with my physical and emotional and spiritual body. Even now, after a horribly rough winter where I’ve been so depressed for over a month now, I see the synchronisity of it all. Every experience I’ve had has led me to this point, and I wouldn’t change any of it (except for maybe the fact that I would have liked to have learned certain lessons quikcer ;o). I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say here except that it all stems back to being…all of it, and when we allow ourselves to be who we really are in each moment, everything else follows. Sat Nam and Namaste!

  8. Placing one’s self in the path of danger . . . stepping off the cliff into the unknown . . . walking into the dark room having never been there before . . . all of the above. As my friend, Stella, once told me, “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you a better person.” I remind myself of that a lot. I also continually remind myself that I am where I belong, at any given moment in time. Control is an illusion. Fear is an illusion, but it always feels pretty damn concrete to me! A leaf in the stream is a gentle way of saying, “Let go. Let flow.” I’ve also been told, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him/her what your plans are for tomorrow.” Hmmm, I’ve just responded with a bunch of platitudes; but, platitudes are good, if you really listen to them. They can make a difference.

  9. Wow, what a great post! I think it would do me a world of good to look my bad habits in the face. And I love this: “You are not your bad habit.” That’s a super happy thought.

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