Lent is a time to rid ourselves of habits that are doing little good, or even causing harm, to ourselves and others, and to replace them with habits that are life-giving. Unfortunately, old habits die hard. And contrary to the popular notion that habits can be changed in 21 days, experts tell us that it can take up to a year to change old habits and develop new ones. Lent is 40 days for a reason—holiness is a habit, and habits take time to take hold.
In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House), Charles Duhigg explains that when we perform an action for the first time, the brain works very hard to collect all the pertinent information involved, from start to finish, and to store the information in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia. If we continue to do the same action every day, the basal ganglia fills in the details so the rest of the brain can turn its attention to other things. Eventually, the action can be performed “without thinking.” In short, our brains are looking for ways to save effort, and forming habits is the key to achieving this.
Lent is a time to interrupt this habit loop and, in order to do so, we need to get our brains "thinking" and not just acting on automatic pilot. To do so, we focus on three actions that can be thought of as "keystone habits"—habits which, according to Duhigg, are so key that when changed they cause a ripple or domino effect in other areas and other habits of our lives. These three keystone habits are, of course, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Prayer: One of the best ways to extinguish our old self—our ego self—is to take some time away from words. When our words cease, the ego is neutralized. At the same time, a space opens up into which God can speak instead. The essence of prayer is silence—which douses the ego as surely as water does fire. It also creates a space into which a host of other good and selfless habits can flow.
Fasting: When babies are hungry, they cry. That’s how we are born: obsessed with our own needs. A consumer society perpetuates this infantile state. When we intentionally put the brakes on consuming—whether it be food, drink, sex, or material goods—we are introducing a new habit that challenges the old: We are shifting the focus away from ourselves and our own “needs” and enabling ourselves to be more attuned to the needs of others.
Almsgiving: Few things in life force us to put aside our own needs more than becoming a parent. And yet, we do it because we gain more than we give. In a similar way, during Lent, we increase our generosity toward others, not to earn grace, please God, or draw attention to our own holiness, but to experience grace. Generosity enables us to rise above ourselves and to live, as St. Ignatius of Loyola said, as a person for others.
When these three keystone habits are practiced, a ripple effect of selflessness occurs: We no longer view ourselves as the center of the universe. And that is the beginning of the habit of holiness.
For more reflections in our Lenten series, click here.
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Image: Illustration by Angela Cox