Lojong Practice Journal: Train in the three difficulties
The 59 slogans through a social justice lens
Pulling this slogan was a nice reminder of a practice tool I’ve studied regularly and trust to work. It’s one with which I am quite familiar, as I have a talk by Ani Pema Chödrön where she goes over the three difficulties in great detail. I’ve even done a podcast on them!
The difficulties are thus named as they are three things that we are not habituated to do. Even the most skilled and senior practitioner might find them challenging, as they involve us working with unconscious habits and self-deception is a tough nut to crack.
The first difficulty is to notice when we get hooked. ‘Getting hooked’ is how Ani Pema described shenpa; this is a word also translated as ‘attachment’. I appreciate Pema’s translation, however, as there can be a lot of confusion around what ‘attachment’ means, but getting hooked is pretty straight forward. When we get hooked, we are stuck on something, like a fish with a hook in its mouth. The situation might go our way, but even if we manage to escape the hook, we are rarely left unscathed.
As already stated, self-deception runs deep. You have probably noticed this in other people. The friend who tells you they’ve really cut down on smoking as they light up a third cigarette since you met up only an hour ago. The family member who says they’re working out all the time, and really taking care of themselves, so they’re not sure why they’re putting on weight — as they help themselves to a second slice of cake. The co-worker who is late every morning and you regularly see playing solitaire or on social media during working hours complaining about not getting the promotion they deserve.
Studies are proving how self-deception operates even in the face of hard facts. People given their statistical odds of future health risks will still rank themselves as the exceptions.1
Before passing judgement it’s important to note that this is not something to which we are immune, just because we can spot it easily in those around us. While it can be easy to spot in other people, and we can read study after study telling us that it’s something all human beings do. No one is particularly good at noticing their patterns of self-deception, even when presented with proof.2 That’s what makes this difficult!
Training in the three difficulties requires a firm intention and motivation to wake up so we can begin to see our habits of self-deception. It can be a painful process as it often means we will see things about ourselves that we don’t consider to be good. But we also acknowledge that we can’t work with or change the things we can’t see.
Which brings us to the second difficulty: Do something different.
It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s not taking us further into self-deception. When Ani Pema teaches on this, she says she was given the instruction to do anything different at all, even if it’s just standing your head. The idea is to interrupt the habitual pattern.
Our brains are malleable.3 Our actions and thoughts create pathways, neurological connections that get closer and closer together with habit. This can be a great thing, like when we are learning to drive. At first, the movements required and what we have to pay attention to will feel unfamiliar, even awkward. But over time, with repetition, we will get more comfortable with everything involved from maintaining out speed to watching for pedestrians to following signs and lights. A lot of driving becomes habitual, something which we aren’t even thinking about while we’re doing it.
Unfortunately, the same thing happens with behaviour that causes harm or isn’t of benefit.4 The more we resort to anger, for example, the shorter that pathway becomes. The quicker to anger we will be as time passes.
Choosing to do something different is choosing not to strengthen habits that are unhelpful. As a reminder to do something different I reflect on Ani Pema’s questions: In a year, do you want to be more quick to anger? More anxious? More stressed out? Or do you want to be calmer, saner and kinder? More compassionate and less fearful?
My answer to the first two questions is consistently ‘No’, and that brings me to the third difficulty: The need to continually repeat this process, so we can replace our less appealing habits with ones that don’t cause harm. It would be great if we could notice ourselves getting hooked, do something different, and be done with it. But those brain connections run deep. While the brain isn’t rigid and nothing is hardwired, re-wiring takes time. No one has just one driving lesson and walks away a perfect driver.
By maintaining a longing to not cause harm and to be of the greatest benefit for all sentient beings, the three difficulties become a joy to practice. They may be difficult, but that doesn’t make them something we do grudgingly. Once we have noticed a habit or pattern, interjected by doing something different and repeated this process even three or four times, we will begin to see a change. We will see ourselves becoming more flexible, more curious about our thoughts, words and actions. Also, as we do this, we will become less judgemental about the hooked qualities we see in other people.
Working in this way is a humbling practice. We understand the temptation of self-deception in others by noticing it in ourselves. We can relate to them better, and see how easy it is not to see all the ways we get hooked.
Weinstein, N.D. ann. behav. med. (1998) 20: 135. doi:10.1007/BF02884459 (smokers)
Unrealistic optimism about future life events, Weinstein, Neil D., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 39(5), Nov 1980, 806–820.
The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders, Norman A S Farb, PhD, Adam K Anderson, PhD, Zindel V Segal, PhD, The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 57, Issue 2, pp. 70–77, First published date: February-01–2012
Gentile DA. Catharsis and Media Violence: A Conceptual Analysis. Societies. 2013; 3(4):491–510.
Originally published on Medium.
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