Mindfulness man Martin Stepek on the concept of learned behaviour
Some things we get from our parents via their genes. The image of your face, whether you are left or right-handed, maybe even your political tendencies. Other things we learn through experience. The language or languages you speak. You weren’t genetically programmed to speak English. If fate or chance had it otherwise you might be speaking and writing German or Japanese or any other language today.
We learn so many things through absorbing our experiences that we don’t even notice that that’s all they are. Learned behaviour. Learned choices of activities. Learned ways of thinking. Learned likes. Learned dislikes. That’s just how the human brain works. We have experiences, the brain collates them, and the result is our traits and habits and ways we think.
You may be a person who flies off to Thailand and saves children’s lives in a cave. That’s learned behaviour. You weren’t born to want to do that, nor with the skills to do it successfully.
You may be a person who goes on Orange, or Irish Republican, walks, or supports them from the pavement. Alternatively you may be a person who hates those who go on such walks or supports them in any way. Note that, whatever your view, you were not born to do that or to think in that way. You simply acquired those views and those activities through life experiences. Consider for just a moment. Had you happened to be adopted when a baby by parents who thought the opposite to the people who raised you – you might have the total opposite view about the Catholic-Protestant divide in Scotland to the one you currently have.
Do think about this. It’s a tough thing to consider, but it is healthy to do it. It means that all of our opinions, every single one of them, is not a result of our brilliant reasoning, or the “right view”, but rather past conditioning by life itself. Even our ability to reason is itself conditioned by past experiences and our genes. The key question then arises. What is healthy behaviour?
I don’t just mean the obvious physical health activities, like being careful about what you eat and drink, exercising enough to keep your heart and lungs healthy, and doing enough to keep your muscles relatively strong. Most of us know that stuff, even if we don’t always do it.
I mean behaviour that results in us having a happy and open-hearted state of mind, and behaviour that doesn’t hurt and upset others. In other words I think being mentally healthy is about being happy, at peace, and not wishing harm on others. Understand this deeply. Then we start to see that so much of what we do every day is done mindlessly, with no thought at all to whether this use of our time is healthy for us or for those around us. Let’s look at a personal example. I watch the news in the morning if I have time and I watch it again at six o’clock in the evening. At the evening viewing I watch the BBC News followed immediately by Reporting Scotland, so this takes up an hour of my time almost every day.
What do I get out of this? A very small set of stories about what’s happening around the world. The majority of it is about political or economic matters, and serious crimes. If instead I decided just to scan the BBC news website on its world, UK, and Scottish pages I could get the gist of it all within 10 minutes.
That would give me 50 minutes extra every single day.
I think watching the news gives me nothing of value at all. You may disagree, but for the sake of this piece just bear with me for now. Healthy behaviour is behaviour that does me no harm, does no harm to others around me, and maybe does some good for both me and others.
Let’s imagine that instead of watching an hour of the news I write another article like this – every day – and share it with people. Firstly I actually enjoy writing. And it makes me think about how I live my own life. It also hopefully makes others think, which I would say is good behaviour. It might even make one or two people change their own fixed behaviours from unhealthy to healthier, which is a good thing for them.
Or I might decide to go for a walk in the local park. Every day. That’s good for my physical health, getting good moderate exercise, and strengthening my legs, core and back a little. And it’s good for my mental health, getting fresh air and being in nature.
The ideal direction for all of us would be to gently and in a kindly way assess all of our mental and physical habits as they arise, note them all down, and decide that slowly but surely we will work on letting go of each of the ones we feel do not nurture our own wellbeing or the wellbeing of those around us.
This can take a lifetime but the alternative is to stick with a bunch of ways of thinking, reacting and doing that we know hurts us and those around us. So any progress we make on any one or more of our conditioned negative habits is a good thing. Moreover as each one diminishes we replace it with truly nurturing ways of thinking, responding and doing, so that our life gets better and better.