I remember a story that a sister (let’s call her Sister G) told me the year before I ordained. It was raining, so a number of women were sleeping in our small meditation hall. As Sister G walked by, she saw a woman getting changed in the meditation hall in full view of the windows. Sister G couldn’t get over it. She found the various contortions of the woman’s undressing and re-dressing hilarious but also upsetting: changing isn’t appropriate in the meditation hall! Later, she reflected that before ordaining she was also used to getting changed in semi-public places, as is the norm in much of Europe where she lived.
But by then she had been living in a Buddhist monastery for about 5 years and she found this habit shocking. She put out an announcement reminding everyone to get changed in the toilet blocks and that was the end of it. Except that I carried a fair bit of judgment towards Sister G’s reaction. It’s one thing to be surprised by unusual behavior, but to feel upset? I thought that she was overreacting and not particularly mindful! I was sure that I would never get upset about things that were once normal to me just because I entered into a new culture.
You can imagine my surprise and disappointment in myself when I did just the same thing recently. This time, it was about the use of our cars. At my previous monastery we had a very full schedule and a large community, so our policy for cars was very clear—no laypeople could borrow them. It just wasn’t feasible. When guests inevitably asked, sometimes they received a calm, “I’m sorry but we can’t lend out the cars.” Other times it was a righteous, “Of course not!” if the sister had had a rough day. I seemed to have absorbed the latter.
At our new monastery we have a lighter schedule and less guests, so we have some flexibility to lend out cars to long-term residents when the need arises. But the first time I heard a lay friend ask to use a car, I heard an indignant, “You can’t borrow the car!” in my mind! It was my turn to be shocked! I wondered, “Where did that thought come from? I don’t even want to think like that!” Beneath my knee-jerk reaction, I was glad to be able to eventually lend out the car. Yet it was like another person’s voice had entered my head. But I had actually learned the response from someone else.
To say that mimicry is natural is an understatement. Looking at cultures around the world, it’s easy to see that people who live in contact with one another share mannerisms, whether it’s the way they nod their heads, beckon others to come close, or the direction they use a knife to cut food. We see this even more clearly at the family level. Sometimes people have asked if my biological sister and I are twins just because we have the same smile. Or think of the young parent who asks in despair, “How did I turn into my mother/father?!” For better or for worse, we reflect those that surround us.
I know this, so why am I surprised when I, too, take on reactions and mannerisms from those around me? Of course, I appreciate the mindful and loving habits that I pick up from my community. One of my sisters always takes a moment to breathe and bow before turning on the computer. Another sister likes to pause before each mouthful to look at the food on her spoon and to smile at it. I am taking on these habits with much delight.
When dividing the work as a community, we usually ask, “Would you be happy to clean the toilets? Fold the laundry? Rake the leaves?” I used to assume that work is work and it needs to be done whether one wants to or not. I was deeply moved when I first heard this phrase. I didn’t even notice that I had picked it up until I said it to a friend and she was so moved, she thanked me for it. By then, it had become so normal I hadn’t noticed that I’d done anything out of the ordinary.
In neuroscience, the emerging study of “mirror neurons” might explain this phenomenon on a physical level. Mirror neurons were first discovered in primates. They make up about 20% of the motor neurons, firing when an action is made. But the same neurons fire when the primate watches someone else make the same action. The brain doesn’t know the difference between what is done and what is witnessed.
The same effect seems to happen to humans in greater complexity. This might explain why we can get so involved in movies and sports and why most people will wince when they see someone get hurt. On a certain level, they’re feeling it too. V. Ramachandran, the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD said, “. . . if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons.” Much of our learning seems to be a relational process that bears more resemblance to osmosis than a classroom, no matter how rational we believe ourselves to be.
Understanding this research has helped me to understand my habits. Changing environments (in my case, moving to a new monastery) has also made it easier to see the habits and reactions I’ve picked up more recently. No matter where the patterns come from, though, what is important is to bring mindfulness to them. The first step is to see habits for what they are—patterns passed on by our family, community and society. They are not “my habits” and certainly not “bad habits,” just habits that were received, usually unknowingly.
When I notice harmful habits arise in me, I breathe mindfully so that I can observe what’s happening. I try to cultivate acceptance, which gives me space to challenge the thoughts. Then I need some compassion for myself and for all the beings that passed on the habits that make me suffer. At some point I also try to bring up gratitude for all the wonderful habits I’ve picked up along too, to avoid getting stuck in negativity. Usually by that point, the impulse has passed or I’ve understood it more deeply. Of course, there are still plenty of times that I just react, but it’s much less often.
I don’t know if mindfulness practice will ever make us immune to the effects of our environment. But it doesn’t need to do that. Mirroring is a vital function for learning, communicating and connecting. It is the basis of empathy, a most necessary and enriching human characteristic. With mindfulness practice we can, however, learn to see our patterns before they carry us away. Then we can choose which patterns to develop and which ones to let go of.
Putting it like this makes it sound so easy! I can’t say that it’s easy, but it’s also not so difficult. With a steady mindfulness practice, habits gradually start to change on their own. It’s a mysterious balance of effort and surrender that I have yet to master, but at times I feel close. And like the whole of the Buddha’s path, we need not be masters to begin. We just begin where we are, as we are.
For more information, see:
Mirror Neurons (Brain Facts)