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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, February 16, 2007

habit and routine: yum!

Today I have time for a blog-post. It's 2:05 p.m., I've just washed the dishes, and there is time before my reading block at around 3:00 p.m.

Routine, habit? Yes. But that's a good thing. We make routines of things that work. They only become irksome when they're not working anymore--not addressing our true needs. I suspect that this is one reason that we get "set in our ways" as we age: we have conformed our lives to our inner nature and desires, and resist changing it. Why should we change it?

Sure, if your life is stale, mechanical, and empty, it could be worth taking a closer look. But I don't think there's anything wrong with routine per se. In this I have the support of no less a champion than William James. Here's an extract from The Principles of Psychology, volume 1:

Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of 25 you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveler, on the young doctor, on the young minister. You see the ways of the "shop," from which the man can by and by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

When I first read those words I felt chilled and heartened at the same time--a strange double feeling. Here am I at age 48, my character presumably long since "set like plaster". Well, and so it probably is, for good or ill. Of course, this raises the question as to what exactly character is, but let's leave that aside for a moment.

After this vigorous statement of the overwhelming power of habit in life and society, James goes on, in his psychology textbook, to offer some advice:

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

I think this is true. Certainly, I have found routine to be productive in my life. But I feel bound also to mention a contrary view. In my years of Buddhist training, I was taught that habit is, in the main, a problem. The very "automatism" that James endorses is also a system of disengaging our attention from what we're actually doing. Thus, in the morning when I'm making the coffee, I might be measuring beans into the grinder while also remembering a conversation from several years ago and at the same time humming a tune I just heard on the radio. This individual is getting the job done--making the coffee--but he is not focused on what he is doing; he is absent from his life as he's living it.

Since, from the Buddhist point of view, we have no other life but the present moment of experience, our efforts to escape this make little sense. We're constantly AWOL from our life, even as we worry about how to prolong it.

One of my favorite stories on this theme, from the Buddhist side, was of an experience related by Steve Seely, now managing director of the Nitartha Institute. I believe it happened at Gampo Abbey. The abbot, Thrangu Rinpoche, was visiting the abbey, and Steve was involved in helping provide for Thrangu's needs. He described hurrying to get something for the guru, running up a flight of stairs to a loft--only to ram his head into the closed door, which was usually open. Embarrassed at doing this right in front of the teacher, he gripped his head and said, "Stupid!" Thrangu, no doubt with his trademark radiant smile, said, "Not stupid--habit."

So there it is. I note that life at the abbey itself is the quintessence of routine. The life is highly structured and each hour is scheduled and accounted for. When I was leaving the abbey myself in August 2002 I recall talking to Gyatso, an American-born monk then looking forward to his full ordination. While he drove us--at breakneck speed--home from a rare outing for ice-cream one evening, I said, "So you like the idea of knowing exactly what you'll be doing at, say, 11 a.m. on August 16th, 2014?"

He smiled faintly and said, "Uh-huh."

He had found the life he wanted to live, and the idea of staying on at the place he wanted to be was only a source of enjoyment to him.

Of course, the life at the abbey, though regimented, is anything but automatic. All of its structure and practices encourage mindfulness--the presence of mind in whatever one is currently doing. Indeed, routine works against our habitual scheming to find more entertainment for ourselves in the future. Resistance is futile, so you give up and pay attention to what you're doing. In some sense, you have nothing else to look forward to--a surprisingly liberating experience.

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