by Jeff Martens
When I was 19 and just into my undergrad days, every six months or so I would get a huge craving for a very popular burger advertised on TV. Along with a catchy jingle, this burger had lettuce, pickles, cheese, three layers of bun and two patties of beef. I’d just wake up one morning and suddenly find myself craving that secret sauce out of the blue, and before you could say “ten million served” there I’d be, two hands hoisting this gastronomic masterpiece of steaming textures and beefy flavor to its complete and utter doom. When finished I would stuff the wrapper in an empty carton of large fries, gather up a half-dozen gored ketchup (or is it ‘catsup’?) packets, and feel strangely unsatisfied. “That was it?” I’d wonder inside. “Is that what I was so hungry for?” And then I’d forget the whole thing, forget even what the burger tasted like until I saw another commercial in six months and the craving soon struck again.
Maybe the whole dining experience reminded me of more carefree high-school days. Maybe I was tasting the burger of my idealized youth the way that it was on TV, all steamy and plumped and bursting with hidden flavor. But as this craving went on year after year, that moment of wondering “That was it?” would arrive sooner and sooner until it popped up right in the middle of devouring that burger. “What the heck am I eating this for?” I’d ask myself, swallowing another mealy bite, until eventually I’d remember this was a familiar drama. I’d still finish the burger of course, but by the time I was entering grad school it was taking a bit of effort to clear my wrapper. Soon the cravings began to stretch themselves out to eight, then nine months and more.
A habit exists fueled by our own lack of awareness. Repeated over and over, it becomes something that we no longer feel, a sort of mindless exercise perpetuating itself based on some false notion of reality in order to fill (an imaginary) hole that can never really be filled. When our habit inevitably refuses to deliver that ultimate satisfaction, the pain of unfulfilment may be so great that we might make a break with reality and actually remember a different experience altogether. We then close ourselves off to true perception and begin to live with the promise of the mind’s commercial. Here is the maya or confusion that clouds ourselves and our view of the world. Unwilling to experience the path of our own choices, we close ourselves off to feeling altogether and chase instead the repetition of the habit as a familiar and oddly controllable pain.
I remember the last time I got a craving for this burger. Right away I knew that it was going to be unsatisfying, but as usual this understanding was rendered mute by the melodiously mouth-watering siren-song of fast-food perfection in my head. This inexplicable wave of conjured images and distorted perceptions always ended in mouth-watering tastiness until there I was once again ordering what had now become known as my annual burger fix.
This time though, I remembered through the haze of craving. This time something was different, and I paused to really taste what I was chewing.
Long ago there was a sannyasin, a renunciate who lived in the woods and begged for food in town. As he was making his rounds one day he passed the window of a bakery and saw some sweet jalabees in the window. All of his life the sannyasin had yearned for jalabees and would even allow himself one or two occasionally, sneaking them into his diet when he was sure that no one was looking, At the sight of these jalabees in the store window, immediately his mind began to clamor for just a few of these treats. All day and through the night and into the next morning his mind begged and cajoled and argued for the jalabees until finally the sayassin said to his mind “Enough. You will have your jalabees.” That morning he got a job digging canals in the hard earth. The work was backbreaking and at the end of the day he was only paid a few coins for his trouble. The payment was more than enough for what he wanted though.
The Sannyasin took these coins to the bakery and bought a huge bag of jalabees. He sat in the forest and began eating them slowly, being sure to fully taste every delicious bite. Soon his belly became full and his mind said that he was finished and had enough. The sannyasin, however, kept eating. And eating. And eating. His body began to protest. The jalabees no longer held their ethereal sweetness. The grainy sugar, warm fats and flour became unpalatable and still the sanyassin kept swallowing until the bag was completely empty and the jalabees were all gone. He then sat and felt the effects of his gorging, tasted the bile coming into his mouth and smelled the sickening sweetness that had saturated his sinuses. With a heave he felt himself beginning to vomit, an act that did not end until his stomach was completely empty.
Then the sannyasin slowly forced himself to eat the jalabees again.
The first thing I noticed sitting down to my latest burger fix was the smell. This burger really did not smell that good. Even though I knew it was freshly made, the main course of my dreams was now giving off the scent that it had seen better days. Lots of them. Like a tire that had travelled many roads. Right away I recognized this aroma as the burger’s true scent, an odor that I had somehow dismissed or ignored in my previous edible affairs. Looking closer, my dream burger crumbled further. I was no longer viewing my mind’s repetition of the inner commercial that showed a fresh and steaming masterpiece all ripe and glowing and perfectly proportioned. Instead I saw the burger for what it was: a soft and spongy air-filled bun smushed soggy between two oddly gray-looking beef patties strewn with wilted lettuce and cloudy sliced pickle, the topmost layer dribbled over with slightly yellowed sauce.
That I was actually able to bring this once familiar concotion to my lips is a testament to the enduring effects of television close-ups, expert back-lighting and madly infectious advertising jingles.
Perhaps it was out of a sense of obligation that I actually took that last bite. After all, we had been through so much together, that burger and I. Long hair, a live-in girlfriend, five dogs, two graduations and six different sets of roommates. Maybe it could be like it was after all. Maybe we could renew that initial spark together, this burger and I, and it would be just like old times.
But it was not to be. For the first time I was actually tasting what was in my mouth. The soggy bread and musky yet tasteless patties mushed into a soupy and flavorless pulp spiced only by the soured tang of chewed pickle and the sweet tartness of a special sauce that had a slight zing as if it were starting to ferment. Here was the hidden truth behind so many lackluster finishing bites that had left me wanting. Even though I was now tasting reality and no longer savoring the commercial that was in my mind, I actually finished that burger. I chewed the last bite slowly, finally getting the messages that my tongue had been trying to tell me all along.
Swallowing that last bite slowly, I never, ever got that craving again.
Every habit we have consists of much more than the actual act itself. It starts with the craving and false assumption of fulfillment and ends with the fruits or consequences of unconscious living. Emptiness, regret, judgment and criticism become as much a part of the habit as the habit itself, and yet even this painful outcome is almost immediately discarded as we numb ourselves deep into the start of another cycle. To put it quite simply, our habits continue because no one is really there to experience what is actually happening in our lives.
Our habits depend on our cooperation and our unconsciousness. Iyengar has said that many of us feel compelled to repeat our habits over and over just as a dog eats its own vomit. The antidote is, ironically enough, to become more deeply human. To use our capacity to feel and experience truly through the senses what is actually in this moment without any story, additions or editing. Only in this way do we begin to experience our life as it is actually happening and come to the possibility of making any real and meaningful choices in our lives. Up to this point any choice we make is really just a reflex in a world of maya or illusion and we live in one big commercial where everything, including ourselves, must follow the script of our own delusion in order to fill a hole that isn’t there in the first place.
Every negative habit is a chain of events, from the first thought impulse to reflexive action resulting in self-condemnation and regret. Made of repeated thought mistaken as concrete for too long, this chain of causation begins to crumble if we would only pause for just a moment, become aware, and really allow ourselves to feel where we are and what is happening.
The world beyond the commercials in our head is so unbelievably rich and alive that we may often wonder why we would ever choose anything else. The journey of emerging from our habits inspires us to rise into our own magnificence and full potential, meeting the world’s inherent vitality with the gift of living fully that is our own to offer.
2.6 drg-darsana-shaktyor ektmatevsmit
The ego defines itself by identifying with its own delusions
4.6 tatra dhyna-jam ansayam
The thought born from meditation is free of delusion
Patanjali, in the yoga sutra, speaks of meditation as the key to liberation. To feel where you truly are in this moment is to give pause. Meditation is then the ability to focus on this pause consciously, with great awareness. All it takes is a single, conscious breath. And the question we must ask ourselves is this: Am I ready to take this small first step? All you have to be is willing to change and keep your focus on your own freedom, whatever that means for you. And just as the universe supported you in your constant thoughts of struggle, the universe will also support you on your new journey of grace and true fulfillment. And then you are provided with a new thought, one born from a state of awareness that will lead you to inspired solutions and the ability to respond rather than RE-ACT. It is from such pauses that you discover the rich authentic life experiences which we are all seeking, the experiences that your habitual self could never know.
Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga. All suggestions are voluntary. Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.