(Note: I searched the group before posting and although there are several questions about habits, none are asking about this specific point. This is close, but it's not the same (and it's framed so as to allow personal opinions which I'm expressly not (here) interested in. So this is not, as far as I can see, a duplicate.)

Do the Buddhist texts say anything that could resolve the apparent tension between on the one hand the mindfulness involved in the paying attention to every passing moment that is part and parcel of a lot of meditation practice, especially Vipassana, and the useful mindlessness of even a good habit, whereby we train ourselves to do certain things without having to consciously pay attention?


There is a growing amount of modern writing on habits and habituation, covering both the scientific and theoretical aspects of the underlying brain correlates, and also the practical life-affecting aspects relevant to the challenge of how to form useful habits and break problematic ones (e.g. Duhigg, Babauta). And that's not just recent material. Here's a condensed section from William James, written in 1890, dealing with that practical side.

The general opinion of such writers is that (good) habits are a Good Thing, specifically because they lower the load on our limited brains by making certain decisions--Shall I floss my teeth? Shall I go out for a run? Shall I sit down to meditate? and so on--more or less automatic, and as a result let us focus our limited non-automatic "will power" where it is most needed.

But the whole basis of habits seems to be the development of a kind of mind-less-ness, and that sounds fundamentally opposed to the mind-ful-ness needed for much of meditation. One possible way of resolving the apparent conflict would be to see habits as useful for establishing the boundaries that exist between the various activities throughout our day, but not for use within the activity itself. In other words, we make the act of sitting down to meditate as mindless/automatic as possible, but we then meditate mindfully.

But then that too could be at odds with the view that over time what began as an occasional mindful state should eventually become just our constant state of being, so that we were effectively meditating all the time. Presumably at that advanced level there no longer are any habituated boundaries, and everything is under awareness.

Perhaps the answer is that habits are to be seen merely as a learner's "prop"; training wheels we use until such times as we have no need of them because by then the elephant has become docile, the monkey and rabbit have departed, and we have finally reached our goal.

So what, if anything, do the established writings say about this?

To stress: although I've no doubt there are lots of good opinions out there (and for sure there are indeed lots of opinions!), I'm looking for answers with some backup from a source--old or current, either is fine--with at least a modicum of reliability. So the suttas and commentaries, obviously, but anything else of reasonable authorship including the modern.


3 Answers 3


Some modern references:


There many more Tipitaka references bibliography of the essays.


The Noble Eightfold Path speaks about both of these.

Habits = Right Effort

  • Stop bad habits
  • Continuing to stop bad habits
  • Creating good habits
  • Continuing to cultivate good

Whereas Right Mindfulness involves more momentary concentration, momentary mindfulness to check up and make sure that the Right Efforts are happening.

They are not mutually exclusive although theoretically speaking, either of these things cultivated to an extreme could obviate the need to do the other.

  • 1
    Mindfulness is remembering rather than momentary concentration. To quote: ""One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong view & for entering into right view: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view" MN 117 Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 1:33
  • Ahh yes, I meant that Right Mindfulness is even more momentary than the four Right Efforts.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 18:45
  • Effort & mindfulness work together. Mindfulness is not (momentary) consciousness. Mindfulness is remembering. Mindfulness remembers to do something & effort does that something. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 19:24

The question here epitomizes the corruptions found in contemporary Buddhism created by a misunderstanding of the noble path & using meditation for self-administered psychotherapy.

The Pali suttas do not refer to mindfulness as "the paying attention to every passing moment", regardless of the contents of those moments. 'Mindfulness' ('sati') is not the act of 'observing' ('anupassi') or 'paying attention' ('manasikara'). Instead, the Pali suttas refer to 'mindfulness' ('sati') as the act of 'remembering'; of keeping/ maintaining (wholesome) path factors in the mind & excluding unwholesome things from the mind.

Also, 'vipassana' is not the observing of impermanence in a way that has no calming effect on the mind. When genuine 'vipassana' ('insight') occurs, the habitual mental effluents are destroyed via 'disenchantment' ('nibbidā') & 'dispassion' ('virāga'), making the mind completely pacified ('nirodha').

Once the mind reaches the 2nd jhana, mindfulness becomes automatic, i.e., the mind trains itself to do certain things without having to consciously (volitionally) pay attention, i.e. act.

Mindfulness is only a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Its purpose is the development of a kind of "mind-less-ness"; just the purpose of saving money via working is retirement. That being so, there is no apparent conflict that needs to be resolved.

One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness. MN 117

The monk... remains focused on the body in & of itself... mindfully putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. MN 118

  • Downvotes with zero comments. SMH
    – Lee K-B
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 8:46
  • 1
    That's OK. Most Buddhist don't know what mindfulness is, including famous teachers. They think mindfulness is awareness or consciousness; not discerning how their mind actually works. Anyone that thinks like this does not know the Noble (Ariya "vossagga") meditation technique described in SN 48.10 and at the very end of MN 118. I scored 35 points in the Biblical forum today. I might go there & hang out with Jesus. Regards. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 10:59

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