by Caroline Myss: Theological discussions often take shape around exploring the difference between an ordinary understanding of a single word and…
imagining how that same word would be interpreted by the soul. For example, the word, habitus, is Latin for habits of behavior and routines. All individuals have a host of certain habits that bring order to their physical life. I have a cup of coffee in the morning and watch the news, for example. And then I check my email. There was a time when I just had coffee and watched the news – that was pre-email. Email is the new addition to my decades old routine. Then I hit the shower and then the office. And so the day goes.
We all have our routines that we occasionally vary but routines – habits – are anchors or locators for us. They keep chaos at bay, as much as any person can negotiate with the forces of chaos. Our habits are also projections of our lifestyle: I am a runner; I only eat organic; I attend church services every Sunday; I walk every morning; I read every evening after dinner; I nap every day at 4:00 pm; I start drinking every day at 5:00 pm. Our physical habits are stop and go signs for the people around us who have to learn to maneuver their lives around our firmly implanted carefully regulated routines.
Much about our physical habits are matters of choice and adaptation. We can change these habits at will, although I will grant that breaking some of these habits requires a great deal of support. Obviously breaking free of the habits of drugs, gambling, alcohol, lying, and being a con-artist is not something a person is likely to do alone, but those dark habits can be broken.
What all of these habits have in common is that they are moveable. They order your world and yet they can be changed, altered, or removed from your life completely at will. Other habits can be introduced anywhere along the line.
Habitus Maximus, on the other hand, refers to the “great habits of your heart/soul”. These are habits that are not consciously chosen by you as such but are awakened from within by circumstances or learned behavior. These are the guiding habits that if maintained lead you to become a congruent or whole human being. I could add “spiritually conscious” but the pursuit of the spiritual is an option, a personal choice. Habitus maximus are the habits of “who you really are by God’s design.” Whereas physical habits bring order to your life, the habits of your heart bring order to you as a human being. They are patterns of behavior inherent to your soul’s nature that become animated through discourse with adults during your childhood, or through witnessing a situation that caused a moment of identification, or by being a participant in a situation that became an awakening. Lucky for you I already planned to provide examples of all these three.
It is the design of Nature, of God hidden in “the nature of Nature”, to give parents a yearning to pass on their wisdom and experience to their children. Children, likewise, have a burning need for their parent’s approval. They want to be seen, noticed by their parents. And they are born knowing-feeling-sensing that their parents are supposed to instruct them on the greatest of all human lessons: How not to betray oneself. This is a teaching that is absorbed through a child witnessing a parent defeat fear and temptation with dignity and courage. Perhaps a parent stood up for social justice or stood by a colleague at work because it was the right thing to do, though it cost his father his job. A child cannot be taught to do the right thing with only words. A child must have courage passed down to him from father and mother to son and to daughter. A child has to be given living memories of courage, of righteousness that pour into his heart, finding their way like liquid gold to the qualities of his own soul waiting to be animated. The feelings and memories of how he promises himself he will always be in life – just like his righteous father, just like his courageous mother – become his habitus maximus.
These now become the habits of his heart and soul. Righteousness and courage are real to him, not ideas and not just words. They are living psychic and soul energies that he can feel with his father serving as his icon. For this child to stay whole and congruent, he will tell himself that he must keep an inner creed that he must not compromise: He must live a courageous life because of his father and because of the son he will have. He will carry a fear in him, an inner dread that his heart and soul could implode because of one act of self-betrayal. He must not disappoint his father, he will tell himself. And he must not fail his own son.
Children who grow up never having known this depth of guidance walk through their lives with a type of emptiness and anger that they are always trying to identify. They know they have a sense of incompleteness from their childhood, but from what? Those that had loving parents often say, “I know my parents loved me but…”. Some muse that maybe they weren’t loved enough or maybe their parents really just didn’t understand them but they know they are making up reasons, fishing for minnows, as my dad used to say. Those that had traumatic childhoods point to the abuse and leave it at that.
What they are feeling is a sense of incompleteness – even beyond abuse cases, because they did not experience the ritual of the passing on of wisdom from the parental soul to their own. They never felt that experience of animation happen when the power of the parent is connected to the child through a type of cosmic heart cord that communicates the message, “You are a part of something bigger than yourself. What you do and say matters. You matter to this world and to me. Live right because you matter.”
The second way a person comes to identify his or her habitus maximus is through being a witness to something that ignites personal identification. The individual says, “I will never be like that person.” For example, a young person witnesses a bully threatening a weaker child on the playground. No one comes to the rescue of the weaker child, as the bully intimidates all of the kids on the playground. The weaker child collapses in fear and the observer-child, overcome by rage, shame and grief makes a promise to himself, “I will never be a bully. I will never treat a human being in such a horrible way. And I will never stand by and allow another person to humiliate someone like that again.”
Conversely, a young person witnesses something or someone do or say something and is overcome by an immediate sense of identification. “I want to be like that person someday.” I am not speaking about Hero worship of some athlete or crushes on celebrities that are here today and gone tomorrow. I am speaking about a young person witnessing someone having the courage to speak the truth in the face of harsh consequences or to do the right thing no matter how many people tell that person to do otherwise. A young girl witnesses a person “do the right thing” in the face of serious consequences and, as she described it to me, “I felt my heart shatter for her. There was nothing I could do to help her. She was going to prison. I knew she would get beaten up and maybe even die in prison. She was doing that so that the rest of us could live in a free country. I promised myself she would not die in vane. I promised myself I would devote my life to helping to end human suffering in any way I can. It is now my path.”
This woman’s path – her devotion to humanity – has sculpted her habitus maximus: Compassion toward all human beings, nonviolence of words and thoughts, and generosity of soul.
The third way in which a person awakens to his or her habitus maximus is through direct participation. Direct participation is usually associated with something that lasts an afternoon or an evening, like a school dance. But in this case, I am also referring to much longer experiences, like a particular class during a school year or a special friendship or a relationship that was especially difficult and therefore very formative. A year with a special teacher or a summer with a grandparent or an aunt, for example, are often remembered as a magic time not only because of a loving bond that formed but also because an awakening occurred. A person will remember that time for all sorts of special reasons because it was “life changing” for them.
Ask adults recalling their special time and what was life changing about it and most often they will offer the memory of a conversation in which something happened or they learned something that changed their life. In my language, wisdom was passed on to them that ignited an awakening. One man told me that his parents sent him away to summer camp when he was thirteen as a graduation present from grade school. That summer he saved a boy’s life who was drowning in a river. The boy found him a few days later and said, “Wow, you saved my life. I guess we have to live special lives now because God sent you to save me.”
He said that he almost fell over at the idea that God was watching him, much less that God sent him on a life saving mission. He said that he kept looking up at the sky for the rest of the day, feeling as if everything he did and said was being monitored. “I thought I would go nuts. And then the craziest thing happened. I was in the woods, trying not to look up, hiding under the trees, and I just got this incredible feeling of abiding peace. That day the world looked so beautiful to me. I sat on the ground in a type of altered state and thought, ‘This is you, isn’t it?’
“After that, I promised myself that I would just live a good life and that would be enough. If there was a God watching me, I didn’t want to have to worry about it. I loved the feeling I had in me so I thought, ‘Go ahead, and watch me all you want.’ I have lived by that decision (creed) every since with no problem whatsoever.”
Self-Betrayal: Our Weakest Link….