Due to the tendencies we create out of habit, our thoughts and emotions default to a habitual response. Without awareness, we dig ever-deeper grooves into our minds: habitual patterns of behavior that can be either positive or negative. Through awareness practice we can begin to see this process, and over time can disrupt it.
Every time we have a thought, it can be present for just one instant as it arises and passes by, or we can repeat it to ourselves over and over. For me, it’s like water—if you pour a drop of water on the earth, it can go anywhere. But if that drop starts to take a certain path, and the next drops follow, after a while the water will make a groove. Each time a drop goes down that pathway it creates a deeper groove and the options become more and more limited.
The awareness we develop in meditation is a way of getting us back to square one, where the water now has options of where to flow. Awareness is the key to resolving problems caused by our habitual responses. Let’s take the example of recurring fears. Maybe we’ve been in, or witnessed, a car accident, so whenever we think “car” we react to that in a certain way. And each time we have this reaction, we deepen the groove so the next time the stimulus appears, we have exactly the same reaction.
But with awareness, we recognize what’s happening in the moment so that each time an experience arises it creates a new awareness. Each time, we become aware a little more quickly. Eventually, we find ourselves recognizing our habitual tendency the very instant it arises. This is the moment where we have different options. The water doesn’t have to go down that same channel because we’re at a place where we can direct a falling drop in different ways. We’re aware; we have choices. The stronger our awareness practice is, the greater our freedom and skill in understanding our tendencies and how best to work with them.