Take a moment with me now and let’s do some imagining. I want you to imagine doing any or all of these things every day for at least one year:
- reading or reciting your favorite poem (the same poem) when you wake up
- listening to your favorite song every time you start your car
- reciting the same prayer every night before you go to sleep
- staring at your favorite picture for ten minutes
- dancing your most graceful steps to your favorite beat for 5 minutes straight
- watching the movie Frozen with your 5 year old daughter until she turns 6
So, with all of that imagination activated, imagine how long it would take for your favorite poem to loose its ability to stir you, or your favorite song to become that last thing you’d ever want to hear again, or your favorite prayer to go stale and mechanical, your favorite picture no longer really touching your heart, or your dancing becoming a drag, or Frozen becoming a nightmare in your sleep?
So I’ll repeat: habits are not benign. Habitually doing anything will quickly drain away whatever enjoyment or appreciation we had felt for that thing, person or activity. It happens every time. Doing anything the same way all the time is unnatural.
There is no such thing as a good habit.
(Discipline and dedication are not to be confused or compared with habits. With discipline and dedication there can be learning and growth. With habits, there is only repetition and stagnation.)
When I began the practice of noticing myself (as explained in Owning Ourselves), the number of habits I discovered startled me. I had routine ways of doing almost everything.
Having speculated to myself that one of the underlying rationales for the formation of habits in general might be to ‘free’ up mental time and energy for more important matters, I put that theory to an informal test in myself. I simply tried to pay attention to where my thoughts went while I was doing routine tasks like showering, eating, washing the dishes or even watching television. You know, normal stuff. I soon realized that my mind, my thinking aspect, didn’t really have more profound or pressing concerns to attend to. Most often it was just time traveling…off into the future with some imaginary conversation, job or relationship or back into the past with either a rewrite or a pang of nostalgia or regret. There was little that was helpful or relevant, nothing pressing or pertinent.
It seems as though my mind, my thinking aspect, gets bored quite easily. Once it determines that the current situation is familiar, it doesn’t want to be here. It’s behaves like a spoiled 16 year old at a family gathering. It checks out. Here’s what I mean:
It was more than a little curious for me to notice myself mowing the lawn while mentally speculating who might win the US Open Tennis tournament that year and should I get new tennis shoes for myself, now that these are getting grass stains on them, and how come my wife buys so many new shoes anyways, does she have a problem and won’t it be nice when the weather starts to cool down this September and shouldn’t I get a decent shovel this year, at long last, in case we actually get a real snow here in North Carolina?
And all of this passes through my mind in about 20 seconds…while I continue to push the mower and pay no attention to the smell of the grass, the breeze on my face, the healthy energy in my legs and all of the insects scattering for dear life in front of this death trap.
I noticed and eventually concluded that, for myself, my personal habits were not a way of ‘freeing’ my mind at all. Doing things habitually was, in truth, a way of trapping me and keeping me in the virtual world of my ‘mind’.
It was, perhaps, the most powerful force of all behind my habit forming.
My fascination with my own thinking.