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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Dunkin' Thoughts

How do our habits and attachments impact us?

For over a year now, I’ve been hosting a Zen meditation sitting group in Nyack, NY that meets every week. It’s a wonderful group that comes together to meditate, reflect on Zen practice, and to share their thinking and feelings about meditating and its relation to everyday experience. Every Monday I make the 20-minute drive from my home in Northern NJ to Nyack for this group. When the group first began, I was a little nervous about arriving on time and making sure the space was set up well, and so I’d leave very early and go straight there. After a while, I got used to the routines and would sometimes do some grocery shopping along the way, or other errands, and it all felt more relaxed.

One day, not too long ago, I departed from this routine and met a friend for coffee before the group meeting, something I’d never done before. We had a nice time, and this friend joined the group that evening. All was as usual, but then soon afterwards something changed. The very next week during my drive to the group, the idea popped up that it would be nice to get some coffee again before the meeting. I had a few extra minutes and so I stopped by the Dunkin' drive-thru which I’d passed so many times before, and ordered up a medium, hot americano with a little cream, my go-to coffee drink. I drank the coffee quietly in my car before the group meeting and enjoyed it very much. And again, all was as usual.

But then things got interesting.

Every following week, I found myself getting coffee on the way to the group meeting, and noticed some things were starting to happen with me. First, I noticed that when relaxing at home before the meeting, I started having thoughts of getting that Dunkin' coffee. I could see the drive-thru and its orange and brown Dunkin' logo in my mind’s eye, and almost taste the coffee. There was a feeling associated with the thoughts, a kind of excited anticipation of drinking that delicious coffee in the quiet stillness of the car before the meeting. The anticipation would sometimes pop up again in the car during my drive over, and if there were traffic, I noticed that I’d start to get frustrated that the delay might result in not having enough time to get coffee, because I might have to go straight to the meeting to get there on time.

Frustration, Agitation, & Cream on the Side

Another change is that on days when I also stopped to do some grocery shopping before the meeting, I’d be moving through the aisles and would suddenly find myself glancing repeatedly at my watch, checking it in case I was running out of time to get coffee afterwards. And then I’d start to rush through the store to make sure there was enough time to go to the Dunkin'. If there were lines at the checkout, I found myself getting very agitated with the situation, and frustrated with the cashiers and the other customers, who all seemed to be moving in slow motion, jeopardizing my chances for that hot americano.

What the hell was going on here? It’s worth taking a careful look.

Meditation practice provides a lens that can be held up to those areas where we find limitations and attachments, and by being able to see them, we can let go. - Ajahn Amaro

Prior to that very first coffee I had with my friend, the thought of having coffee before the group had never even occurred to me. I’d passed the same Dunkin' week after week, literally over 50 times without a thought about it. I’d driven through the same traffic, shopped at the same store over and over, without incidents or issues. But now this new coffee habit had formed – and what was the result? Feelings of anticipation. Frustration with traffic. Agitation. Rushing. Anger at strangers. All of that, from this tiniest new habit that had formed. This was a nothing little habit, to stop at Dunkin' and grab a coffee, and yet I’d grown attached to it, and then soon after there were these impactful thoughts and feelings happening that were changing my experiences in some negative ways.

I’m sharing this story as a cautionary tale of how our habits and attachments come together to impact our lives. If the tiniest, most innocent habit can have these kinds of impacts, imagine the impacts on us of our big habits. Imagine how our oldest habits, the ones that have been around for years or since childhood, are coloring our experience in ways that we’re not even aware. And what of our deeper attachments? The attachment to a nice cup of coffee is mostly harmless in the overall scheme of things and yet it was enough to create real negativity. What of our clinging to the big-ticket items, like people and relationships, jobs, home, religion, country, self-images, or concepts and beliefs about the world and ourselves, and how things “ought” to be? How might those attachments be affecting our everyday experiences?

The Capacity to Notice

As is often the case in these blogs, I want to follow this all up with a sales pitch for meditation! With my coffee story, I feel fortunate that early on I actually noticed the whole process that I've described here. I give credit to a long-time and sincere meditation practice as having helped me develop an everyday attention and mindfulness that made that noticing possible. Meditation builds a habit – the habit of being attentive and mindful. But a habit of attention is a great habit! It's an antidote to the more universal habits of distraction, clinging, and resistance, which we all struggle with. Attention and mindfulness can help us become conscious of processes which most often happen unconsciously, and by bringing them into awareness we have the opportunity to work with them with some intention.

The most dangerous attachments are the ones we haven't got a clue are there. - Ajahn Amaro

Meditation practice helps us develop the power of noticing – noticing situations, noticing other people and what they’re doing and feeling, and most importantly, noticing ourselves. Over time, meditation helps us clearly see our own minds at work – how the mind behaves, how it clings or resists, what things it gets stuck on, or doesn’t. It’s a powerful source for discovering what works well for us and what doesn’t work for us. Such insights can become a basis for how to make good choices and take actions that are more likely to have wholesome outcomes for ourselves and the people around us; they can help us move in directions we want to, rather than get pulled wherever our habits bring us.

I’m still getting coffee on the way to group meditation, but now that I’m aware of these pitfalls, I spend less time worried about it all, and much more time just smelling the coffee.


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