We all have a few bad habits; there’s no shame in admitting it. Any one of us could confess to doing things habitually that are just not good for us—even during survivorship. Admitting these behaviors is the first step to beating them. It paves the way for us to step back and examine our habits. What do we gain from them? Why do we retain these habits, particularly if we know they’re bad for us? Let’s start there and unravel the perplexing problem of “bad” habits.
The word bad suggests that the habit in question has consequences that we do not appreciate or desire. In the case of our health, bad habits tend to be those that we believe will impair our health. We tend to view health as good, so anything that impedes it is therefore bad. However, there may be a more health-promoting way to look at this. What if we dropped the judgment about these behaviors? What if we stepped back from berating ourselves about what we are or aren’t doing, and instead started from a place of acceptance?
To do this requires a fundamental belief in the inherent wisdom of the self. For if we unconditionally believe that our innate wisdom is always responding to our circumstances in order to best secure our survival—and, better yet, our exuberant vitality—then judgment doesn’t make sense. Let us be clear that an implicit belief in our innate wisdom does not necessarily mean that what we do is always supportive of our health. Let’s take the king of bad habits—cigarette smoking—and see how this works.
By all accounts, cigarette smoking is bad for our health. Regular and long-term smokers are at increased risk for developing cancer, heart disease, dementia, arthritis, and complications from other chronic diseases. Cigarette smokers tend to have bad breath and undesirable body odor, so the habit can be hard on our social life, and therefore psychological health. Despite all of these effects, if we gently lay aside our judgment, an entirely new perspective opens up. We can dispassionately view our smoking habit, and we can open ourselves up to learning about how even this is an expression of our innate wisdom.
That wisdom becomes apparent when people who smoke consider their smoking habit. When they question what it is that they gain from it, when they started, why they started, and why they continue, wonderful insight unfurls in front of them. They may discover that they started to smoke as teenagers because their friends smoked and they wanted to fit in. This reflects a deep desire for connection to others and a willingness to share time and comfort in the company of others. They may further discover that with each cigarette, they are granted five to 10 minutes of uninterrupted solitude. Even further, perhaps they relish the feel of the tobacco in their hand and its smoke in their lungs and recognize this as a yearning to be close to nature and the plant kingdom. This insight could extend to many other levels and into many other directions—but it is only when the habit is examined with nonjudgmental curiosity that these insights will reveal themselves.
By better understanding the reasons they smoke, smokers give themselves the opportunity to accomplish all those critically important ends via different means. In the example above, the smoker could recognize the need for companionship and, as a result, prioritize relationships and joining in activities with others. This person also may determine his need for taking breaks outside in nature every few hours. Finally, this person may recognize his affinity for plants and dedicate time to tending a garden. As these new habits answer their inner call, the person will be better able to release the habit of smoking. All those deeply held needs are still met, and in new ways that are more conducive to physical health.
In recognizing the underlying needs that our “bad” habits are fulfilling, we are able to see the inherent wisdom of the body at work. The self knows what it needs and has found a way to meet those needs. If we further accept that the self is, by its very nature, imperfect, we understand that our solutions may not always represent the most optimal ones, and that there is opportunity to make adjustments.