A woman who wanted to stop smoking and also to lose weight was praising a self-help seminar she’d enrolled in. When a friend inquired, “Did it help you?” the woman, who was holding a lighted cigarette in her hand, replied, “Oh, yes! I’ve learned to accept myself as I am!”
“Self-help” methods of this sort are not directed toward self-conquest. At best, they bring you back to normal. They don’t help people, for example, to find lasting joy, nor do they stress ego-transcending attitudes such as self-forgetfulness and joyful service to others, which alone lead to true inner happiness. The usual result of this type of advice is increasing self-preoccupation and self-centeredness.
“Who ever heard of a hermit who smokes?”
Before I came on the spiritual path I overcame the habit of smoking. The memory of that experience has often returned to me, intriguingly and instructively, whenever I have set out to change other habits. Why, I have asked myself, was that particular effort so successful?
I used to smoke fairly heavily. It was an expensive habit to support, and I never liked the lingering taste of stale smoke in my mouth between cigarettes. But it was a habit. After some time I decided to give it up. I wanted to quit. But every time I did quit, another part of me wanted to start again.
After a year of repeated, but unsuccessful, attempts, I gained an added incentive: I had begun to think seriously of becoming a hermit. “Who ever heard of a hermit who smokes?” I asked myself. My first step in the new direction, obviously, would have to be to cease depending on unnecessary expenses.
A positive affirmation before sleep
Thus it was that as I lay awake in bed one night shortly before going to sleep, I suddenly decided with calm (not frantic) conviction that I had already, from that very moment, given up smoking forever.
The following morning I awoke without the slightest thought that I might ever want to smoke again. I can honestly say that, since that moment (it was in the spring of 1948), I have never had even a fleeting desire to smoke.
Many lessons learned
What that experience taught me was the following:
- Though my first efforts to give up smoking were repeated failures, I never allowed myself to think of them as failures. To me they merely meant that I hadn’t yet succeeded. Every return to the smoking habit, therefore, was not an affirmation of weakness and defeat, but rather one of simply withdrawing to “regroup” for another, yet stronger attack.
- My thought of becoming a hermit gave me something I had been needing: a strong incentive.
- My affirmation, therefore, became positive rather than negative. I wasn’t only incarcerating a cherished habit, and standing grimly on guard to make sure it never escaped again. I was relinquishing it for an alternative that I had persuaded myself was more attractive.
- I took my stand calmly and matter-of-factly, with none of the fanfare that often accompanies great sacrifices. Thus, I reduced my adversary from the size of a giant to that of a pygmy.
- By going to sleep with my resolution firmly in mind, I carried it into the subconscious, where it worked directly on old habit patterns, and, because of the strength of my conscious determination, changed them.
It took me a year to overcome the habit of smoking, I learned from that experience that changing habits requires a positive, strong application of will. After coming onto the spiritual path, I learned something equally important: that habits could be changed in a day if one does it with God, that is to say, with divine attunement.
Advice from Yogananda
While in college, I developed the habit of intellectual pride. By the time I met Yogananda I was tired of being intellectual, and that was my salvation because I was ready to change. Still, intellectual pride had become a habit and it wasn’t easy to change, even though I worked hard to overcome it.
One day, when I was discussing my efforts with my Guru, he said: “Habits can be changed in a day. They are nothing but a concentration of the mind. You’ve been concentrating one way. Simply concentrate another way, and you’ll completely overcome the habit.”
So I tried it. And with intense will power in meditation I said, “God, I give this to you. I don’t want it anymore!” And I just threw the habit into a furnace to be burned up forever.
It was final. I never had to overcome it again. When I came out of that meditation, I saw my Guru standing by the tennis courts, looking out at the city of Los Angeles. When I knelt at his feet for his blessing, he said, “Very good.”
We are not our habits
Why was this effort successful? For many of the same reasons that I succeeded in overcoming smoking. By the time I met my Guru, I had reached the point where I really meant it when I said, “I don’t want this habit any more.”
I also had a very clear picture of what I did want. My picture was that I am part of the Infinite Self. I didn’t want to cling to this tiny atom of ego when my true reality is the Infinite.
In other words, I was affirming with deep sincerity that I am the soul, not the ego, and that there was no reason to take this little ego self seriously. What did my intellectual accomplishments really matter?
We are not our habits. We are the soul behind those habits and qualities, an expression of that Infinite One. No one, in his true nature, is essentially angry or jealous or lustful. We allow these qualities to develop by identifying our egos with things that happen to us over the course of many lifetimes.
Fully open, willing, and superconsciously aware
Once we have that positive affirmation and firm resolve, strong will power is often the determining factor. Yogananda gave us this precept, “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.” Habits aren’t changed absentmindedly. An intense application of will is absolutely essential.
So, with that very clear picture of what I wanted, and with great will power, I gave the habit to God. That made it possible for His grace to enter. Ultimately, it’s His grace that changes us. But we have to put ourselves in attunement with that grace.
It is at the point of our deepest and most positive attunement with the Divine that He helps us the most. By divine attunement, our resistance becomes minimized, and our cooperation with His grace becomes fully open, willing, and superconsciously aware.
Divine attunement comes from devotion, meditation, japa or keeping the thought of God throughout the day, and satsang—mixing with others who have that attunement. Most important of all is the inner magnetic exchange that comes from being in tune with the Guru.
Ridding yourself of all habits
By living in divine attunement, you’ll change your habits across the board, and change them permanently. When you take those mental tendencies up to a higher level of consciousness, it’s like taking fish out of water—the habits don’t have any ground in which to survive.
That’s why Yogananda often said, “God doesn’t mind your faults. He only minds whether you love Him enough.”
If you just keep trying to get more in tune with God and to live more and more in that state of divine attunement, you’ll reach the point where your habits will have changed without you even knowing it. You’ll suddenly realize you’ve become a different person.