Cutting the Chains of Karma: How to Change Negative Habits in 5 Steps

Written by David Nichtern

Sometimes our “negative” habits (like anger, pride, jealousy, craving etc.) seem to come up like a cyclone out of nowhere. Often we might feel powerless to change them, let alone even notice that we are in the grip of what the Buddhists would call a “klesha” attack. “Klesha” may sound like Yiddish, but it’s actually Sanskrit for an obscuration, or perhaps, in a more contemporary sense, a neurotic upheaval. Below are five steps toward recognizing and cutting the momentum of negative habitual patterns and klesha attacks.

1) Recognition

Often, as our “negative” habit takes hold of our mind, we are not aware of the process. The habit just sweeps in with its entourage of storyline, emotional charge, justification and ignorance of other behavior options that might be available to us.

The key, then, is to be able to “wake up” and actually notice that a klesha attack has seized control of our state of mind. It is like waking up in the middle of a bad dream: we still feel the mood and tone of the dream, but we recognize that we were dreaming and that now we are awake. Our perspective has shifted. We were cloudy, but now we are clear about what is actually happening.

2) Interrupting

With this clarity, we have the option of either going back into the grip of our habitual pattern or interrupting it (i.e., not going back into the grip of it). We need to create some kind of antidote to the energy and strength of the habit. Sometimes this antidote can come from stabilizing our mind through various meditation practices, having insight arising from seeing the situation more clearly, or simply longing for more freedom and openness. In Tibetan, the word for renunciation is the same as the word for nausea; we are simply sick and tired of being in the grips of familiar “negative” emotions.

3) Changing Habits

At this point, we really do have a choice. We can, as mentioned above, resume and continue to dwell in our habitual pattern. Alternatively, although It takes awareness and effort, we can actually change that pattern for a more “positive” one — for example, we can substitute patience for aggression — or we can just stay in the space of present awareness, leading to:

4) Dissolving

If we stay in the space of present awareness, maybe by feeling our breath, current sensations or just relaxing our mind, the habitual pattern that came up will simply dissolve into that space (for the time being), until additional causes and conditions make it surface again. Resting our mind in this way can provide a needed break from the melodrama and depletion that comes from riding the waves of our kleshas.

5) Transforming

Recognizing that the pattern is basically counterproductive and destructive, we can also recognize that within the experience there is a certain quality of wisdom shining through, like a jewel glistening in the middle of a cow patty. For example, perhaps we are angry and resentful, but within that we might have a certain insight about something that is not working and needs changing and thus realize that we can address it without the thick, swirling fog of anger. It’s as if our thoughts were in a whirlpool, but by understanding the nature of water, we can allow the turbulence to transform into a stillness that accurately reflects the situation.

In a similar way, we might also be able to see that in our craving there is the potential for experiencing the richness of our situation as it already is; in our passion and attachment there is the potential for experiencing compassion and communication; in our envy and competitiveness there is the opportunity to experience real accomplishment and brilliance; in our ignorance there is the potential to experience some relaxation (i.e., the absence of compulsion and hyperactivity).

Transforming is perhaps the most advanced approach. Within that approach there is nothing discarded, nothing rejected. We are able to see the natural wisdom shining through the filter of our confusion.

So, this is one way to work with the more difficult tenants in our inner landscape, strong habits and “negative” emotions. If you are moved to give it a try, let us all know how it works out. In any case, some form of meditative or contemplative practice can be very helpful in just introducing that little extra “space” into our overcrowded mind, therefore allowing us to shift our direction and energy.



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