In his discourse on Vipasyana Guruji Goenkaji gives a very nice example to explain how habits are formed. An action performed once is like a line drawn in air it can’t even be seen.If the action is done a few times it shows like a line drawn on water; it comes and goes. Repeated a few more times the action is like a line drawn on sand it stays for some time and then becomes lighter or is wiped off with the next tide. Finally an action repeated over and over again becomes a line etched on stone (pathhar ki lakir). It leaves a deep mark and is very difficult to erase.
Research shows that an action repeated 27-30 times becomes a trait, 30-50 times makes it a tendency, 50-70 times makes it a habit and 70-100 times makes it a part of our character. This isthe logic behind urging people to repeat shlokas or prayers 21 or 108 times or the concept of parayan (repeated reading or discourses). Of course it is effective only if it is done with sincerity and understanding. In Indian philosophy the process of cultivating good habits is known as Sanskar.
The same logic applies to practicing martial art moves, cricket and tennis strokes over and over again. These actions when repeated hundreds of times become our conditioned reflex like balancing on a two wheeler, skating orswimming. They get etched on our muscle memory. This memory is stored deep down in the core of the brain known as the Hippocampus also known as the reptilian brain. They are very important for survival and for the skills that we have cultivated in the form of conditioned reflexes and muscle memory.
Most players and artists spend hours practicing their skills. Eventually it becomes a part of their character, their second nature.That is why theirmoves seem so natural. Remember Sachin’s straight drive or Federer’s back hand. They seem natural but are actually a result of 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.
When we say habits we are not talking only about physical habits or addictions; it also includes mental habits. In factemotional patterns and thought patterns contribute more to our character than our physical habits.Our coping skills, learning styles and defence mechanisms,the way we perceive the world and people around us, our fears, anxiety, worry, guilt, envy, jealousy, irritation, complaints and our anger and judgement form the foundation of our character.They are stored in the second layer of the brain known as the Limbic System. These responses have been cumulating right since birth, the more often we use them the more re-enforced they are. Eventually they become our default behaviour.
Our behaviour patterns are like streams, valleys and riverbeds marked on the topography of our mind. They are known as Neuro Linguistic Pathways (NLPs).When a stimulus in the form of sensory inputs, words, thoughts or ideas falls in the catchment area of one of these streams it triggers off theoft used response and the NLPs become deeper. Many such habits, good and bad have become a part of our character. In fact the person I refer to as ‘I’ is this bundle of habits that I have cultivated knowingly or unknowingly over years.
If we allow our being to respond to every situation through our Reptilian brain or the Limbic system, it means that we are living by default, by rote, repeating one day many times over. We are not living, Life is happening to us. There is no learning, no growth, no evolution only deeper and deeper NLPs; more like animal living. The brain has a third layer known as the Neo-cortex, it is highly developed in human beings. It is the part of the brain that distinguishes human beings from animals. The more we process our actions through this part of the brain, the more human is our life. It is this part of the brain that we are going to use to get rid of unhealthy physical and mental habits. This is the part of the brain that will help us cultivate new habits, build a new character and justify our life as a human being.