Conquering Compulsiveness

In the space between feeling like doing or saying something and compulsively acting it out, there’s room to evaluate the consequences and stop being a slave to bad habits.
Meditations conquering compulsiveness


Karma is all about our compulsiveness. It refers to the compelling urges or mental impulses that, driven by some disturbing emotion or disturbing attitude, move us, like a magnet, into engaging in doing something, saying something, or thinking something.

Compulsively acting out these compelling impulses builds up a tendency to compulsively repeat the physical, verbal or mental action. When various circumstances arise – internally like the arising of disturbing emotions or externally like situations we are in or people we are with – these tendencies lead to feeling like repeating that action. And then, usually without reflecting on the consequences of the action, we just compulsively repeat it. This compulsive behavior also results in feeling unhappy or the type of happiness that never satisfies. The karma is the compelling urges and the compulsiveness behind such behavior. 

This is what leads to problems, since disturbing emotions drive these patterns: 

  • Compulsive behavioral patterns – like attachment to not missing anything and so compulsively checking our messages and Facebook wall on our phones; or naivety and inconsideration of others’ feelings and so texting at the dinner table with our parents; or anger causing us when caught in traffic to compulsively beep our horn and try to cut in front of others
  • Compulsive speech patterns – like dissatisfaction leading to compulsive complaining; self-importance and hostility leading to compulsive criticizing and compulsively speaking aggressively like a bully; shyness and low sense of self-worth leading to speaking very softly
  • Compulsive thought patterns – like insecurity leading to compulsive worry; naivety about reality or the wish to avoid reality leading to compulsive daydreaming. 

These above examples are all of self-destructive compulsive behavioral patterns that lead to unhappiness. But there are also constructive ones that are nevertheless neurotic – like perfectionism, compulsively correcting others’ logic, compulsive do-gooders who can never say “no,” workaholics, etc. These may have a component of positive emotion behind them, like the wish to help others, or to do well, but because they have a preoccupation and inflation of “me” behind them – “I” have to be good, “I” have to be needed, “I” have to be perfect” – they may make us temporarily happy, like when we do something well, but that happiness doesn’t last and that is a problem. For instance, we feel are never good enough or we still have to go out and do a good deed in order to prove our worth. 

First, we need to calm down and slow down. Only then can we possibly recognize the difference between when we feel like doing or saying something and when we compulsively do it. There is a space in between in which we can evaluate, is there some disturbing emotion behind it, am I just pushing myself compulsively to be something that is impossible (like always perfect), is there some physical necessity to do it (like scratch an itch), will it be beneficial or harmful? So, evaluate with discriminating awareness and then exercise self-control not to act out this feeling if we see there is no good reason to act out what we feel like doing or saying, but only some neurotic reason. This requires mindfulness of how we act, speak and think and so being introspective throughout the day and exercising self-control. 

The goal is to use discriminating awareness and act non-compulsively as much as possible, with positive emotions behind our behavior and as little confusion as possible about ourselves and what is realistic.


  • Calm down by focusing on the breath.
  • Try to identify your compulsive patterns of action, speech and thought.
  • Choose one of them and analyze if there is a disturbing emotion behind it or a grasping for something impossible – like never making a mistake.
  • Try to recognize that when you act compulsively, it causes some sort of problem, either only in yourself, or you cause others problems and difficulties as well. And that it leads to feeling either unhappy or the unsatisfying type of short-lived happiness.
  • Resolve that you will try to exercise discrimination to evaluate what you feel like saying and doing, and, as Shantideva advised, when it will be self-destructive or just reinforcing your ego, exercise self-control and remain like a block of wood.
  • Observe as you sit in meditation, when you feel like scratching an itch or moving your leg and the time-lag between that and when you scratch or itch, and how you can decide whether or not to enact what you feel like doing. See that you can exercise self-control and remain like a block of wood when you decide that the benefit of not acting it out outweighs the benefit of acting it out.
  • Resolve that in terms of compulsive behavior in your daily life, you will try to be more mindful of the space between when you feel like doing something and when you do it, and when the benefit of not acting it out outweighs the benefit of acting it out, you will try to remain like a block of wood.


We’ve seen that our compulsive self-destructive behavior, brought on by disturbing emotions leads to unhappiness and problems. And even when we act compulsively in constructive, positive ways, when it is driven by insecurity and unrealistic ideas about ourselves, we may have short-lived happiness, like after accomplishing a task well or being helpful, but we then compulsively feel we have to prove ourselves again.  

We need to quiet down and catch that space between what we feel like doing, saying or thinking, and what we compulsively do. We need to be introspective, mindful, and discriminating. As Atisha wrote in Bodhisattva Garland of Gems (28): 

When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.

But try to do this without going to the extreme of being stiff and mechanical because we are always checking. You might object that then you are not being spontaneous if you do like this, but if spontaneous means to do whatever comes into our heads, without evaluating its benefit or appropriateness, then if the baby is crying in the middle of the night, if we don’t feel like getting up, we don’t. Or if we feel like smacking the baby to make it shut up, we just smack it. So, to deal with the problems of our compulsive behavior – our problems with karma – we need to meditate, as we did, over and again, so that we don’t become stiff and harsh, like being a policeman or policewoman to ourselves, but being mindful of what we feel like doing becomes automatic and natural.