This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
It is commonly accepted that if you want to break a bad habit, the best way to start is to create a temporary pause. Once you successfully avoid repeating the habit for a while, it becomes easier to stop that unwanted behavior altogether.
Why do we have habits that are beyond our control? How does taking a temporary pause help break a habit? Moreover, what exactly defines a habit?
Our brain is programmed to hold on to the missions that we set for ourselves. When we have a goal and maintain it over a long period of time, our brain will rewire itself to give it greater priority. This holds true even if we are not consciously aware of the goal, but continue to repeat the same behavior. Our brain creates expectations and maintains momentum for these repetitions, all other things being equal. The ability to maintain missions usually means more success.
All of our regular habits, including the missions and goals we believe we have chosen freely and rationally, can be considered habits. Sometimes, it is only when we take a break from these regular activities that we start to question if they align with what we truly want to spend our lives doing. This phenomenon may explain the feeling of dread some of us experience on Monday mornings or when returning from a vacation. When we follow our daily routines, our brain naturally provides the momentum needed to continue. However, when we pause the repetition for a while, we are suddenly confronted with the question of whether we have chosen this life for ourselves or if it has been chosen for us.
Becoming aware that our lives are heavily influenced by habits and momentum can give us a sense of control. When we realize that following routines has led us down paths we haven’t fully considered, we recognize our ability to change those paths. This realization opens up a world of possibilities, allowing us to imagine that we can become whoever we choose to be.
But there is another side to this. These habits structure our life and give it purpose. Yes, we can smash up some habits simply because we feel like they control us rather than us control them. However, we should beware of psychological nihilism, where we lose all sense of meaning. Regularity supports our value framework and gives us our sense of purpose. What happens when these are gone?