How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View

Understanding how gati (habits/character) can be changed is the key to cultivating Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna meditations.

Revised November 26, 2018; re-written October 21, 2022

Breaking Habits With Ānāpānasati – Simple Explanation

1. The verse “..sō satō vā assa sati, satō vā passa sati. Dīghaṁ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṁ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, dīghaṁ vā passasanto ‘dīghaṁ passasāmī’ti pajānāti; rassaṁ vā assasanto ‘rassaṁ assasāmī’ti pajānāti,……” appears repeatedly in the “Ānāpānasati Sutta, MN 118)” and “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10).”

Dīghaṁ and Rassaṁ – Strong and Weak Gati

2. These are specifically gati to attach to various worldly ārammaṇa and generate kamma bija that can perpetuate the rebirth process among the 31 realms. 

  • Some gati are firmly entrenched in our minds due to Saṃsaric habits cultivated over long times (dīghaṁ.) They are more challenging to get rid of. Then there are others cultivated over shorter times (rassaṁ) that are relatively easy to eliminate. 
  • As we have discussed, getting rid of all such gati is the key to attaining Nibbāna.
  • Once getting to the Sotapanna stage, one can cultivate Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā to make dīghaṁ to rassaṁ transition and eventually get rid of all such gati
Key Steps Recommended by the Buddha

3. The Buddha said to follow the following procedure to break a bad habit and instill a good habit:

  1. understand the reasons why a particular habit is detrimental,
  2. stop engaging in activities that enhance the habit,
  3. deviate the mind from such harmful activities by focusing on opposing beneficial activities,
  4. contemplate the “release” or “cooling down” that has already resulted by following the above procedure, strengthen the resolve to stay on course, and keep doing (i) through (iii).

With time, the bad habit(s) will disappear, and the good habit(s) will take hold. There comes a time when one will automatically follow this procedure; it becomes a “way of life.”

4. The reasoning behind this is based on the key factors that we discussed in the previous posts; see “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavā)” and “Habits, Goals, and Character (Gati or Gathi)“:

  • We do many things automatically (i.e., without being mindful or without deliberate thinking); these are done via the habits we formed during this life or even from previous lives.
  • There are both good and bad habits. We want to keep and cultivate good habits and discard bad habits.
  • Changing (cultivating) habits first requires some “external adjustments” like one’s physical environment, friends, etc., and, more importantly, the four steps listed above.

5. As I pointed out in the posts on the manōmaya kaya (gandhabba) and physical body, our physical body is “prepared” by the kamma seed that was the cause for this life to arise. But the manōmaya kaya is constantly making “adjustments” to the physical body based on the current status of the mind.

  • Many kamma vipāka are “built-in” even at conception; some may be avoidable by taking care of the body (exercise, food, etc.) and the mind (contemplation, meditation, etc.), but some strong vipāka may not be avoidable. We will never know when cancer, an accident, or even a natural calamity can drastically change our lives; this is anicca, “the inability to maintain our lives the way we would like to.”
  • Another factor we need to remember is that our “saṃsāric habits” are built-in. We keep changing/adding such habits as we grow up, influenced by our family, friends, and society. Thus one’s “character” (gati; pronounced “gathi” as on “both“) is in constant flux, either by choice or influenced by the environment.
Critical Role of Vaci Sankhāra in Formation/Elimination of Gati

6. Our thoughts, speech, and actions are based on our gati (habits/character.) Whether we automatically attach to an ārammaṇa depends on our gati. If we like that ārammaṇa, “joyful feelings (samphassa-jā-vedanā“) arise, and we attach to it (“samphassa-jā-vedanā paccayā taṇhā.”

  • Once the mind attaches to an ārammaṇa, it starts thinking about it unconsciously (manō saṅkhāra arise.) That is immediately followed by conscious thoughts (vaci saṅkhāra) where we start planning, and then we may speak (more vaci saṅkhāra) and even act (with kāya saṅkhāra) to enjoy that ārammaṇa. That will lead to strengthening that gati.
  • But if we stop such vaci saṅkhāra at early stages (by being mindful of our thoughts), then that gati to attach to such an ārammaṇa will reduce with time and will go away at some point.
  • On the other hand, if we willingly cultivate vaci and kāya saṅkhāra to “enjoy that ārammaṇa,” that will strengthen the gati.

7. Those last two bullets highlight the basis of Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā. The following chart illustrates that.


Sabbakāya Paṭisaṁvedī – Becoming “Sensitized”

8. As we progress on “being mindful,” we will be able to “catch” immoral thoughts, speech, and action progressively earlier. 

  • For example, first, one will realize a wrong action after it happened. Then one will realize it while it happens and will stop it. That is the stopping at the strongest “kāya abhisaṅkhāra” stage.
  • At the next level, one will realize an inappropriate speech after the fact, while speaking, and before words start coming out.
  • As progress is made, one will “feel” immoral thoughts (vaci abhisaṅkhāra) starting to build. With more practice, one will become aware of such abhisaṅkhāra arising early. Eventually, even bad mano saṅkhāra will stop arising once the gati (and related anusaya) is removed.
  • That is what is meant by the verse, “‘sabba kāya paṭisaṁvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘sabba kāya paṭisaṁvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati” in Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna.  Paṭisaṁvedī means “becoming acutely aware/sensitive” of one’s mistakes; here, “sabba kāya” means twelve types of kāya: cakkhu kāya, rupa kāya, …mano kāya, dhamma kāya. That is “being mindful.”
  • See “Kāyānupassanā – The Section on Habits (Sampajānapabba).”
Repercussions of Immoral Gati

9. As long as we have gati (habits/character) to attach to various ārammaṇa, we will engage in immoral thoughts, speech, and deeds. That will perpetuate the rebirth process.

  • The danger is especially getting rebirths in an apāya. We can see suffering in the animal realm, even if we cannot “see” other realms.
  • Understanding that will also lead to the following realization:
    (i) No “soul/ātman” travels the rebirth process (removal of sakkāya diṭṭhi.)
    (ii) One creates the causes for future rebirths.
    (iii) As long as one craves worldly things, another existence (bhava) will be grasped at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment.
    (iv) Until we get rid of “apāyagāmi gati,” rebirth in an apāya is not only possible but inevitable. 
Recent Scientific Studies on Habits

10. Beginning in the early 1990s, scientific investigations in several fields (effects of meditation on the brain, behavioral studies on animals and humans, neurology, etc.) have come to similar conclusions.

  • We will discuss these in detail in the future, but I just want to highlight the main similarities. Furthermore, discussing how the mechanism occurs in the brain provides an alternative way to visualize these changes.
  • We are indeed fortunate to live at a time when we have evidence from science to provide additional evidence.
  • See “Triune Brain: How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits.”

11. In science, the key is in the neurons in the brain and how we can train our neocortex to fire the right sets of neurons more frequently. The “frontal lobes” of the neocortex are the command center for brain activities.

  • The frontal lobes can be visualized as the boss. If it is a lazy boss, it will just assign duties to the limbic system to carry out things “as usual.”
  • But if the boss is energetic and always looking for ways to “improve things,” they will start investigating new approaches. And once better approaches are found, it will get them “hard-wired,” and they will essentially become the “new limbic system.”
  • This is the key to “developing a new you” by discarding bad habits and developing good habits. Essentially you need to get the frontal lobes to be an active, energetic boss for the brain.

12. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz is a psychiatrist specializing in treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD) and has pioneered using “habit makeovers” to treat OCD. He has written several books, but I highly recommend the two books, “The Mind and the Brain” and “You are not Your Brains.”

He has developed a “Four Step” method to change one’s habits that give rise to OCD:

  1. Identify the problem area.
  2. Recognize the need to change.
  3. Deviate from automatically “going along” with old ways and re-direct attention to “new paths.”
  4. Re-assess the situation, and keep working on accelerating the process.

13. He has kept records of his patients’ brain scans, which clearly show the improvements in the brain with time, and of course, most patients can get rid of their compulsive behavior.

  • The key is to slow down the “firing of neurons” associated with a bad habit and to increase the firing of neurons associated with an opposing good habit.
  • There is a rule called Hebb’s rule that says, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together”. The more one keeps doing a particular activity, a set of neurons start to fire together. That neural connection gets stronger by the day. It is just like strengthening one’s arm by “doing more liftings” with it.
  • In the same way, when one decreases the use of a particular activity, the set of neurons allocated for that activity gets weaker, fewer neurons participate, and eventually, it loses being a habitual act.

14. Here is a figure from Dr. Schwartz’s book, “The Mind and the Brain”  (p. 362), that illustrates the “re-wiring” of a new network in the brain and the concomitant weakening of a network for an undesirable habit (click to open it):

Habit Formation Figure

  • This figure explains how a patient with an obsessive disorder to wash his hand constantly got rid of that habit by WILLFULLY stepping outside to the garden when he got the urge to wash his hands. As he kept doing it, the wiring to “wash hands” weakened. Instead, wiring for “stepping outside” got more assertive, and eventually, he lost the compulsive urge to wash his hands too often.

15. The same principle has been used to eliminate other annoying habits and severe disorders. We can use the same procedure to stay away from immoral habits and cultivate moral habits; this is the basis of “ānapāna,” see “Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Character and Habits (Gati).”

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