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Chapter 10 - Character Building and the Overcoming of Habit
Character building is the greatest object in life. It has been said that character is the only thing we can take with us when we depart this life. This is perfectly true, therefore the object of all religion (not religiousness), mental training and development should be the building of character. A religion that does not build up character is worthless. Those who think that they can "flop" through life, avoid, as far as possible, its discipline, make no effort to improve their character, and through believing in a certain creed can miraculously become perfect, simply by dying, are deceiving themselves. We do not become "perfect," "i.e.", of a strong and perfect character, either by believing in a creed or through dying, but by attainment. God helps those who help themselves, and those people who will not strive after better things cut themselves off from all the glorious and wonderful possibilities of attainment.
Before, however, thinking about such lofty things as entering the Path of Attainment, and becoming changed into, and modelled after the Divine Image, the average person may wish to know how to overcome bad habits and weaknesses of character which are keeping him down in life, and, possibly, undermining his health. Most people are conscious of some wrong habits that ought to be overcome, and weaknesses of character which should be eradicated. Possibly they have fought against their habits or weaknesses for years, prayed until they are tired of praying, made innumerable attempts at turning over a new leaf, yet all in vain, for they are as firmly in the toils as ever. Many people give up the struggle and endeavour to lead a sort of Jekyll and Hyde existence, being outwardly a Christian or righteous person, but inwardly something quite different. Yet they find no satisfaction in this dual life, for they know that they are drifting towards an abyss.
Yet there is a way of escape that is open to all. The Infinite One has provided man with powers that are apparently unlimited: powers which can be used either to build up the life and character or to destroy them. These powers are those of the sub-conscious mind. This mind is a reservoir of unlimited, tireless forces, and becomes, if we use it aright, our best friend, or, if we mis-use it, our worst enemy.
Every time a bad action is indulged in, wonderful changes take place in the nervous system, and energy becomes stored up in certain cells, so as to make it easier to do the wrong act on a future occasion. It is equally true that every time a good action is done, similar changes, but in a reverse direction, take place, that make the doing of the same action easier in the future. This explains the tremendous power of habit. Our body, brain and nervous system become changed, either for the worse or the better, according to the type of action indulged in.
We do not yet fully realize what a wonderful adventure life is. We are entrusted with tremendous powers, and by their use or mis-use we can either destroy ourselves or build up our character in every possible direction. What a responsibility, yet what a glorious opportunity!
In order, however, to find a way of escape from evil habit and weaknesses of character, we must go deeper than actual deeds, for actions are effects of hidden causes. The cause of all action is thought. A thought, someone has said, is an action in the process of being born. It is true that we possess primitive desires and impulses, but these can be transmuted into noble actions and high achievement simply by directing the thoughts and attention to higher and better things. For instance, the powers of sex become transmuted into brain power if the thoughts and attention are completely transferred from sex to intellectual pursuits. If, however, the thoughts are allowed to dwell upon sex or passion, then the kingdom becomes divided against itself, and man begins to drift towards the abyss. The strain of modern life is filling our asylums, yet there are those who can work fifteen or even eighteen hours a day and thrive on it, although engaged in severely-trying brain work. These have learnt to transmute their lower powers into higher. This is not done by means of esoteric or occult practices, but by obeying the Divine Injunction to set our affections on things above. In other words, to keep our thoughts and attention fixed upon higher and better aims, ambitions and pursuits.
It is impossible to overcome bad habits by fighting them, for the more we fight them the stronger they become. The injunction to "resist not evil" is very applicable to habit. The way of escape is not by fighting evil or wrong habit, no matter what its character may be, but by concentrating upon building a good habit that shall cut the ground from under the feet of the bad one, or by turning the attention to higher and better things.
Whatever we fix our attention upon, or whatever it is that we idealize, our sub-conscious mind endeavours to actualize and make real in our life. By fighting a habit we direct sub-conscious attention to it, and this is fatal. If, however, we turn our whole attention to something entirely different and which is higher and better, all the powers of the sub-conscious are directed towards the production, in the life and body, of the new object of attention.
We see, therefore, that we do not have to overcome habit. If we did our task would be hopeless, for the human will is helpless before the power of the sub-conscious mind. The sub-conscious powers can be led by the imagination, but they cannot be coerced by the will. The will must be used not to fight the habit, but in raising and directing the attention to something higher and better. By this means a new habit is formed. The attention of the sub-conscious mind is taken away from the bad habit, and all its powers directed towards the creation of a new and better one. The sub-conscious does not care what the habit is. It is indifferent as to whether it is good or bad. It is just as willing to produce a good habit as a bad one. We, each of us, therefore, hold our fate in our own hands. We can, by controlling our thoughts and imagination and by directing our attention to better things, focus all the powers of the sub-conscious on the building up of good habits, or, on the other hand, we can, by allowing our thoughts and mental pictures to dwell upon undesirable things and our attention to be directed to low or weak ideals, fall into undesirable habits. The power that produces the habits is the same in each case; it is the way in which this power is directed that is the vital and essential thing.
It is very necessary to point out that right thinking and correct use of the imagination must be accompanied by corresponding right action. Many people make use of auto-suggestion and expect it to destroy their bad habits and build up better ones, but it never will, or can do so, unaided. Auto-suggestion is useless if it is not followed by constructive action. Young people should expend their energies in physical culture and games. Older people should interest themselves in hobbies and intellectual pursuits. It is only advanced students who can control their thoughts so that they can govern their life forces by mental means. Those less advanced, when attacked by evil or weak thoughts, must get up and "do" something quite different, and thus get their minds off the forbidden subject and interested in the new object of attention. It is a case of directing the desires and life forces into different channels, by controlling the thoughts and attention. Here is seen the value of true religion, for it brings fresh ideals into the life and directs the attention to higher and better things. The writer realizes that a change must take place in the heart of the individual before he can desire these better things. When, however, this change has taken place, the battle has only just begun, for each one has to work out his own salvation.
At first, then, most people will find it necessary to do something in order to attract their attention and guide their thoughts to something quite different from the forbidden subject. Later on, however, when they become more advanced in the science of right thinking, they will be able to direct their thoughts into any desired direction. This necessitates constant vigilance. Each thought has to be carefully scrutinized before being allowed to pass the threshold of the mind. By reversing every negative or unworthy or ignoble thought into its opposite, a change is wrought in the brain and nervous system. The cells formerly used for wrong thinking and for the production of wrong action go out of use as new cells are brought into use for the production of right action.
This stage leads to one higher still, when it becomes a settled habit to reverse bad thoughts into good ones and perform right actions instead of bad or weak ones. The power of the sub-conscious mind, which at one time seemed so evil, produces right action more or less automatically. When once the habit of cleaning the teeth is established there is experienced an uncomfortable feeling until they have been attended to. When once a dirty person has learnt to wash himself thoroughly and keep himself decent, he will feel uncomfortable if he gets dirty. The same rule applies in the more important things and habits of life. If those who are in the bondage of habit will only direct their thoughts and attention to the building up of good habits, their old weaknesses will die a natural death.
It must not be thought that the victory over life-long habits is easy. It may seem so at first, but sooner or later temptation will come with added force, which may result in a sad fall. If this should happen it is most important that too much attention should not be paid to the incident. Instead, the beginner should pick himself up, and, making a mental note of the immediate cause of his downfall, thus benefiting by the experience, press on again towards freedom. It is most helpful to realize that not only is the sub-conscious mind willing to be guided aright, if we will only persevere long enough (until persevering itself becomes a habit), but that we also have behind us all the Spiritual powers of God. The Infinite One sees to it that the odds are not overwhelmingly against us. Our difficulties are not insuperable, although they may appear to be so. We can always win through if we faint not. Heaven looks on with sympathetic interest and rejoices with the struggler when he succeeds, and mourns with him when he fails. The struggle is a stiff one, for it is only by this that the seeker after God can become strong in character, but the victory can always be won. When the situation appears hopeless, let the struggling one remember that there is a way of escape somewhere, and that God, who is his freedom and deliverer, will reveal it to him if he faints not. If all who seek deliverance will realize that the Power of the Infinite is on their side, and that they are bound to become victors if they will only keep on, they must succeed. And what a joy is theirs! There is no happiness quite like that which comes to one who has fought the good fight and overcome habit and weaknesses of character.
May every reader experience this supreme joy of overcoming.
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