When I have an unskillful behavioral habit or mental pattern I want to get rid of, I often focus on eradicating it; trying to find a way to push it out of my life. I tense and strain to be rid of it, and berate myself every time I see it re-arise. I then get exhausted with the effort and almost double down on the very thing I’m trying to get rid of. By focusing on the unskillful behavior again and again I am actually perpetuating it. Needless to say, this strategy is not very useful.
However, when I remember that nature abhors a vacuum, I see that I cannot focus on what I am getting rid of without knowing what I am going to replace it with. Rather than putting my energy on what I am letting go of, I need to emphasize what I am cultivating. When I put attention on calling in a new skillful behavior, there is less resistance and struggle. I have a direction I am moving in. There is positive action to take.
I would like to be less impatient. When I come at it from the perspective of getting rid of this problematic pattern, I start to track my impatience almost obsessively. Each time it arises I notice it. I get more brittle the more frequently it arises. Yet, when I choose to focus on cultivating patience (rather than getting rid of impatience), I don’t need to be brittle because I have a flexible area of growth to work with. I get to notice when patience is absent and then ask myself questions such as “how can I cultivate more patience in this moment?” Or “what is this showing me about my relationship to patience?”
The Dhammapada, (a collection of verses from the Buddha) famously begins with the lines:
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
Wherever we place our attention is what we perpetuate. When we focus on greed, hatred, and delusion that is what we’ll cultivate. When we choose to focus on the wholesome mind states rooted in generosity, kindness, and wisdom we have the opportunity to cultivate happiness.
In any moment that we are pointing our mind toward wholesome mind states we aren’t focused on their opposite. Any moment I am training my mind toward cultivating patience, I am not able to focus on my impatience. By calling in patience, I am letting go of my impatience, moment by moment. It may not be as continuous as I would like, but I know that over time my attention toward wholesome thoughts will strengthen and my tendency toward unskillful thoughts (like impatience) will weaken. This emphasis on cultivation, rather than eradication, allows for an organic process of letting go.