The Forces of Habit, Part 2

Habits are hard to change. There are forces at work that encourage us to form them and there are payoffs in place that reinforce their use.

As Habits Part 1 described, forming habits is one way we have learned that appears to allow us to get things done without having to pay much attention to them during the doing. For sure, certain complicated situations do require most of our attention, even our checklists (going into space, flying an airplane, opening a Broadway show, getting Valentine’s Day right) but we seem to presume, feel and then proceed to act as if the simpler stuff of life can be relegated to and handled by forming habits around them. (I’ve hinted that this may be a false and misleading presumption.)

In America, habits are bottled and sold as some sort of magical elixir. There doesn’t seem to be a month that passes without there being a new book or seminar being offered which list the habits of “successful” people for us to adopt and then, presumably…abra ca dabra…, become “successful” too. Habits are promoted as a fool proof method of duplicating someone else’s results. Well, we all know that nothing is fool proof. We fools are too ingenious. But the idea of “habits” being the key to our “success” has been firmly implanted. This is the powerful force of persuasion.

Another force at work is the perceived payoff of a habit, namely, that a habit allows us to lock into place what we consider to be a successful way of doing something. In other words, if we have found/discovered a way of doing something that ‘works’ for us, we make a habit out of it because it’s one less thing we’ll have to think about again. It doesn’t matter one bit to us if no one else does it the same way, this is the way that we’ve decided works for us and, by golly, we’re sticking to it. Our habits then become our way of exercising some control in our lives.

And we will adamantly fight to maintain this sense of control, our way of doing things, our right not to have to rethink or to pay that much attention.

Which may be fine, one could imagine, if someone lived or worked completely alone.

Everyday, in households around the world, relationships that do reasonably well when addressing bigger issues are falling apart over the refusal to reexamine or adjust some simple habits. Personal flags are planted on mole hills, battle lines are drawn and the resulting emotional carnage kills whatever goodness the relationship once shared.

The forces behind our habits are not benign.

This is the primary reason to shed some light into this area of our behavior.

If we’re going to choose to fight, we might just want to look honestly at what we’re fighting for.

The Forces of Habit, Part 1

Many of us are familiar with the phrase ‘creature of habit’. I suspect the phrase originated from the hunting branches of our ancestral tree as they studied and attempted to predict the behaviors of their prey. In its current use, the phrase mostly refers to people. It’s curious, though, that the word ‘creature’ has remained and not been replaced by the word ‘person’ or ‘people’. We’ll even refer to ourselves as ‘creatures of habit’ without much thought. (ironic, I know)

I want to shed some light on the topic of habits. All of this is directly related to the issues surrounding change which, in turn, involve the more fundamental issue of personal awakening. Sorry, but you gotta know by now that this shite is all connected.

A behavioral habit is defined as a repetitious, routine way of performing a task that is almost involuntary. In plain speak, we have developed certain ways of doing things and we can do these things without the need to think about them.

We can form habits in any area or with any activity in our lives. We can have hygiene habits (the way we bathe, clean our teeth, shave our parts, rinse and dry our hair, etc), driving habits (where we park, what we listen to on the radio, what action sequence follows our sitting down–start car-seatbelt-check mirrors-move? or maybe–start car-move-seatbelt-mirrors? etc) yard work or housework habits (what direction we mow, do we edge or trim first, how we load the dishwasher, wash the clothes, vacuum the floor, etc) reading or television habits, work habits, sex habits, sleeping habits, eating habits and computer habits. You get the idea. And all of these, to us, seem rather handy and innocuous. They’re like our shortcuts to getting through things. They’re like our time savers, energy savers, our internal CPU savers that free up our minds to be able to be thinking about something else while we’re stuck doing the menial task at hand.

I italicized the word ‘menial’ and here’s where I’d like to shine a little light. With regards to a task or an activity, ‘menial’ means lowly and degrading. We tend to form habits around and with those activities that we feel are beneath us, that no longer require or deserve much of our attention (much less our full attention).

This observation may meet a torrent of resistance within you that will naturally be directed elsewhere.

Pause for a moment, please. You can gallop off in any direction you want later but for right now, ask yourself this: Have you ever wanted to or even tried to form a habit concerning an activity or a person when that activity or that person was exciting, challenging or engaging?

You know the honest answer is ‘no’.

When we feel or think that the activity or person merits our attention, there’s nothing that becomes habitual about it or them. It’s always different, fresh and constantly new. We are there, present and accounted for, each and every time. We are enjoying the experience, not enduring it.

We only form habits around those activities and people we are not really that interested in.

When I realized that about myself, I wasn’t standing in a very flattering light.



Epilogue: 8 Days in Shanghai

I’m somewhat confident that you, dear reader, with a computer and access to the internet, are familiar with camera videos recorded live from non-intrusive attached devices. “GoPro” might ring a bell. Unprofessionally but quite effectively, our ‘smart’ phones are often used to video capture experiences and information. Here’s the point, the camera is usually steady until the action starts or something unexpected happens…the shark attacks, the skier falls, the skydiver gets tangled, the log falls off the approaching truck, the gunfire starts, the stripper falls off the pole into the ‘camera’s’ lap…The camera, still recording, captures the chaos randomly. It doesn’t close its eyes. It doesn’t say a prayer. It doesn’t hope that it doesn’t break. (That’s all of the stuff that we are doing behind the camera.) Every time I stepped out from the hotel in Shanghai, it felt like I was kayaking in class IV rapids…or slaloming on a Black Diamond trail…there was a full sensory onslaught that required concentration. This isn’t to be confused with fear. No, this is a relaxed attentiveness. Not knowing where anything was meant that I paid attention to everything. Not knowing what might be interesting meant that I found almost everything interesting. I had a beginner’s eye. So my blogs concerning Shanghai are the edited and consolidated single camera’s view when it was steady. I know this. I know that nothing happened on this trip that knocked me on my ass, literally or figuratively. For that I am grateful but not naïve.

There were alleyways everywhere, some wide enough to ride through, most cluttered enough that you needed to walk. I didn’t do either. I only peered momentarily down each one and then stuck to the main ways. In a city as densely populated as Shanghai, people made a home wherever they could. There was a grittiness to Shanghai that contrasted sharply with its glitziness. No surprise here. But it shouldn’t be left unmentioned.

I noted in a previous blog that my wife and I had walked the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall. What I’d forgotten to mention was the complete absence of street performers… musicians, magicians, gymnasts or statuesque posers that I’d come to expect in large city open shopping areas. Dublin, London, Lisbon, New Orleans, New York…to list but a few…all had a thriving street art community. I speculated to myself that these artists had all followed the birds to somewhere.

We’ve been back in the States for twelve days today. I’ve had dreams and closed eyed daytime memory flashes of Shanghai everyday. Nothing unsettling or ominous. They say that those who have gone into orbit around our tiny planet come back changed in ways that defy description and, yet, remain profound. In a very real sense, I feel that way now.

7th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

It’s been my experience that people who grew up in tourist destination cities or who live there because of work rarely have much interest in the such attractions. The Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Golden Gate Bridge are places the locals are most likely to avoid or hardly notice as they drive by. Since midweek I had been trying to solicit some ‘sites to see’ recommendations from English speaking staffers whenever I could and was having no luck. None of them had been anywhere, not to any of the places I mentioned and not to anywhere they would suggest for me. You see, the Saturday before our departure, my wife and I had another full, free day to be touristy. I had gone online to have a virtual look at what might be logistically feasible yet I had hoped that someone might steer me towards a lesser known gem. Not this trip, not this time. Still, we were not at all disappointed at the two places we decided upon. First thing in the morning we went to the Jade Buddha Temple. If there were going to be crowds, we were going to try to beat them. How American of us. I won’t bore you with the history or descriptions of the place. All of that is sorta kinda online. What I will tell you is that this is a ‘for real’ working Temple. Sure, it’s got gift shops. So does the National Cathedral, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Mount Rushmore. That in no way detracted or distracted us from feeling the sense of fervor and reverence from the people there to pray…the sense of cultural and spiritual history and continuity. Yes, yes…I too saw the orange cloaked monk standing at the urinal in the public restroom, and the two smoking cigarettes around one of the corners, and the one quickly picking his nose during chantings. That’s just humanity. But there was a wholesome and hopeful energy in this space. We took our time and explored every room slowly. We even took time to have a tea service in the formal tea room. I am not a fan of tea but I was a fan of sitting and sipping this room in. After several hours we left and took a taxi the Yuyuan marketplace. Again, you can go online for some general background and pictures. We arrived shortly before noon and the place was jammed. In truth, we wanted it to be. We wanted to feel the push and crush. It was a market bazaar…a mosh pit of enterprise and we dove in. We even allowed ourselves to be shepherded into a side alley shop by a stringer paid to snag people like us. Watches and hand bags were the lure. We learned quickly that our “no” was simply the beginning of negotiations, not the end. We didn’t buy anything but we did have fun. And I did give the stringer the equivalent of $5.00 for her persistence. We walked and talked, pointed and gawked for several hours. Along with several thousand other people, we stopped and took a few selfies. It was an exhausting and captivating experience. As tourist, we were sated. Shanghai was more than amazing. It was marvel filled…achingly vibrant…endlessly varied…subtly fascinating.

Two little last notes of thanks:

First: at the buffet breakfast in the morning there were two young bus persons, attendees, that my wife and I chatted with daily. Their English was ‘not so good’ but we all tried and did the best we could. We enjoyed asking them some things about themselves and they, in turn, seemed to like being asked and to be talked with. They did seem to give us especially prompt and cordial service. One of them, on our last Saturday, asked us how long we were staying. He was clearing our plates as we were standing to go when he asked. I suppose that Saturdays may be a big check out day. We told him that we were leaving the next day. He said that he was going to be off work. He then reached out his right hand. I thought he wanted to shake hands and so I extended mine. He took it and then moved right into giving me a hug. He said, “Thank you for being so nice.” I was surprised but delighted at his openness and honesty. I thanked him as well. He then hugged my wife and there were smiles all around. The next day at the breakfast buffet, the other bus person took his usual good care with us. He knew we were leaving that day and, as we stood to go back to our room one final time, he, too, shook our hands and gave us a hug. An hour or so later, we went to the front desk, settled up and arranged for our transport to the airport. As we stood watching the driver load our luggage, something made me turn back towards the hotel and, sure enough, the bus person was standing there. I don’t know why. But he stepped towards me and we simply hugged again. An uncomplicated human gesture of kindness and connection. No words were needed then. But now, 8’s days later, I want to send heart felt thanks for that hug. There’s hope for us all in it.

Second, my wife and I had gone into a coffee shop in a mall near the hotel. We ordered and, while waiting for our coffees, a little girl about 3 years old scampered by with her father not far behind. She obviously had not been drinking decaf because she was wandering playfully to and fro under the watchful eye. I’d shifted my attention to the barista when, quite unexpectedly, I felt a little hand around my left knee, circling it like one would a tree trunk. As a father of three, I knew the feeling and naturally just reached down and rubbed the little head of hair next to me. The father and I made eye contact and he was smiling. The little one took a half step back and gazed up at me with curiosity. Without thinking, I lifted her up so that she could have a closer look. Once more, I checked visually with the father and he was ok with what he was seeing. She touched my beard, checked out my glasses and posed while my wife took a picture. I want to thank that father for letting his child be a child and for trusting that there is goodness in this world. Even if it looks a little strange.



6th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

I would scan the steady stream of bodies on the ten people wide sidewalk from the fourth step of a bank’s entranceway for an hour. I would watch the foot traffic in a crowded mall from a 7th floor coffee shop’s balcony for an entire lunch time. I would search intently through the backseat window of a taxi on a 45 minute mid-city trek. Not once did I see anyone who was trying to stand out. In America, whether it’s with our boots, our belt buckles, our hair color or cut, our entire outfit, our bling or simply our swag, we feel encouraged…even obligated…to delineate ourselves…to make a personal statement…to express our individuality…constantly. Not so in Shanghai that I could see. Now let me be clear, people were no where near being uniform about their tastes or styles but nothing was ever stand outish. The observed protocol was, ‘Be yourself, sure, but keep a low profile.’ There was no purple hair, no mohawks, no chains connecting body piercings, no rainbow scarfs, full length furs, oversized or colorful eyeglasses, fancy hats or funky downtown struts. The odds were against this being something random or coincidental. There were parameters in place that were being observed/obeyed. Who or what did the enforcing was unclear. But no one seemed to be testing the boundaries. And no one seemed to mind. No one appeared deprived or held down. I did not sense that there was anything wrong or amiss with this state of affairs. Rather, I sensed it to be worthy of respect.

I wore my sunglasses whenever I went outside. They’re a ten dollar kind that I buy at a flea market. They have ‘reader’ lenses built into them. For those of you over fifty, you know what ‘reader’ glasses are and you can guess how handy it is to have sunglasses with ‘readers’ built in. I used to have to wear two sets of glasses at times outdoors. It looked as ridiculous as it felt. My children would laugh and poke good fun at me. Anyways, I wore my sunglasses, not because of the sun (the winter smog in Shanghai muted that well enough) but to make my gazings less obvious. I stared a lot. I watched a lot. My sunglasses made me feel less conspicuous. Ask any body guard. At a street side Starbucks, I sat with the smokers outside. Empty chairs not being allowed, I had various joiners at my table during the time I was there. One of them, with no real English but a friendly smile, asked me with gestures and motions to let him try on my sunglasses. I smiled, shrugged and passed them over. To this moment I still chuckle at the memory of the way he jumped back as soon as he had put them on, pulling them off…blinking, pointing and exclaiming at the lenses. I might just as well have given him Xray glasses by the measure of his reaction. “No, no, no” he said. He rubbed his eyes vigorously as if to get that bad mojo out.

Homeless people anywhere touch an ache in my humanity. They seem to wear our collective sadness in their faces, our hearts on the multi-layered sleeves. There’s no way to avoid it for me. I’ve often times told people that of all the seven deadly sins, gluttony has to be the worst because you have to wear it everyday for all to see. The homeless will always be with us and, so, this sadness lingers to be seen. There were only six such that I passed by in Shanghai. Each was poignant. Each I gave to. Each I ached for.

I know you understand and feel it too.

4th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

The Chinese may not have embraced capitalism as an economic system (not openly that I know of) but consumerism is in full bloom. A google search (oops, no google here), an internet search of luxury malls in Shanghai will surprise you. It did me. Not in a negative way. The heavens know how little choice the general population had experienced in previous times. Not that they weren’t content. (You can’t miss what you’ve never known). My sense is that, given the longevity of their country and culture, the Chinese simply have a way of making do. Currently, they are “making do” with options galore. Not crass, garish or trashy options. High end options. Tasteful options. Well made options. This is one genie that’s not going back into the bottle any time soon.

I watched as the concierge rewrote my English letters into Chinese characters. Water into wine. Scribblings into art. His fingers moved rapidly, precisely and, to my eye, with finesse. For the whole of the thirty seconds it took him, I was mesmerized. Then the American in me took over and I said, “Do that again, will ya?” He looked at me, sincere and confused. I told him that I was only kidding, but I wasn’t really. I could’ve watched him write the weather forecast with as much appreciation. I’ve been told that written Chinese characters have subtle variations in their construction that communicate to the reader specific inflections and shifts in meaning. My theory is that long ago their rulers and writers had discovered how often and easily something in writing could be read differently than the writer had intended. (We’ve all experienced that in modern times with our emails and texts). So, their characters developed nuance…additional marks that more clearly indicated the precise intention behind the word. Presently, we’ve resorted to emoticons as our solution to this problem.  🙂  They’re a work in progress.

Our first meal in China came after we had checked into the room. We were rather wiped out by the travel yet wanted some real food before attempting to sleep. The casual restaurant adjacent to the hotel lobby was our choice. We were its sole diners at 8:30pm on a Saturday night. We were outnumbered by the staff standing around 4 to 1. That was just fine by us and we were well attended to. So much so that, when the check came, we wanted to be sure to leave a good tip. Neither of us knew what the custom or norm for a gratuity was. My wife, on her way back from the ladies room, asked the bartender our question. There was a flurry of activity that involved the summoning of several other employees and an animated discussion ensued. I watched this all from the safety of our table. Soon enough, my wife came back and reported that they had no idea of what a tip was. It was a foreign concept with no point of reference. It was a simple matter for us to calculate a percentage amount as a token of our appreciation. My wife wanted to give it to our server personally. She walked back to the bar and gave the money to the server with her thanks. The server laughed delightedly, as if my wife had told her a clever but dirty little joke, and turned to her coworkers who also laughed and seemed genuinely appreciative of the colleague’s good fortune. As we exited the restaurant, we stepped up to the check in desk. Curiosity had gotten the better of us. We asked our question again and the three clerks on duty, each speaking relatively good English, did not know the word ‘tip’ nor were they familiar with the concept of giving a gratuity. We were too tired to pursue the issue and shuffled off to the elevator.


8 Days in Shanghai

For those of you who are currently living in or have experienced densely populated urban living, some of what I’m about to write may seem all too familiar.

A city has buildings, yes, of all sizes, shapes and states of completion and decay. A city has streets, of course, from alleyways to broadways to highways, an arterial system as intricate as any living body’s. Each city has a rhythm, a cadence to the rise and fall of its enterprises, a tide that rushes in, thrashes about and streams, then trickles out. Each city generates its own cacophony, its own jazzy fugue, sometimes like a stereo turned up so loud that the music distorts and assaults, sometimes like a whisper from just over your shoulder. The city always has something its trying to say. A city can stink wretchedly for 10 feet of your walk and in the next 20 feet completely wet your appetite with the waft of something enticing. A city can wrap you up safely in its numbers and then suddenly spit you out on your own like a lottery ball and you’ll have no idea if you’re a matching number for the people who are holding the ticket and now looking at you.

Any city. Each city. Every city.

And then there’s Shanghai.

I’m not with the Chamber of Commerce. I’m not promoting. I’m describing. One person’s perspective on his one visit. For every one thing I noticed, hundreds more escaped me. Thousands more. Twenty million plus more. Yet, these are some of the things that did not escape.

Like many cities, Shanghai has a river dividing its center, the Huangpu River. There is a tourist attraction called The Bund that runs along the West side. It’s a wide concrete boardwalk of sorts a couple of miles long. My wife and I took our time and walked its length back and forth. There were lots of people, mostly tourists, taking lots of pictures. We were the only Westerners and that was fascinating. For ourselves and, seemingly, for those streaming by us. We were the object of many a long look. We were asked with gestures if people could have their picture taken with us. There was nothing rude nor offensive. It was all curious and very friendly. We looked and were looked at. There were lots and lots of genuine smiles with eye contact.

The hotel we stayed in was twenty six stories. A modest size relative to the buildings around and, according to what we were told, moderate accommodations by Shanghai’s standards. Their moderate was my delightful. My sleep cycle was out of whack and I had no desire to force the issue. Everyday, somewhere between midnight and 2am, I would be wide awake and go out to the other room so as to not disturb my wife’s rest. The windows had interior ledges wide enough for comfortable sitting. I would put a pillow there, push open the window a few inches and perch. There was darkened mirrored glass towers in three directions, neon signs, cold fresh air and a single rooster calling. Every morning. At no set time really. One rooster’s voice echoes through the glass skyscrapers as if through a canyon. There’s no way of telling where the sound is coming from. There’s no way of knowing why someone hasn’t throttled that bird by now. It’s a lonely call, unanswered as it is and with none others chiming in. A call from an era gone by.

I’ll break this off for now. I’ve kept you long enough for one blog.

There’s more. Oh dear.

Every Day is New

It was much earlier in my life that I became disenchanted with the hype surrounding christmas and new year. As much as I wanted these two days to bring a different perspective or fresh start into my life, even if it were for only those two specific 24 hour periods alone, it never happened. The reality of the day never came close to matching the expectation of the magical transformation. December 25th was just another day in the life of…as was January 1st.

Year after year.

Quite naturally, I went through a decade in my 20s of blatant cynicism during the countdown to Christmas. Initially this scroogism had waited until December 1st to manifest itself but eventually, much like the sales and decorations of the season, it crept forward on the calendar to include Thanksgiving. I rarely passed up an opportunity to expound upon the crass commercialization and gross distortion of intention that I felt had completely consumed the holidays. At least in the America I knew.

As I’ve acknowledged elsewhere, I was a pain in the ass about a lot of things. This was just one of the more predictable occasions.

Not that what I was expressing didn’t have a lot of truth in it. It did.

No, it simply that it didn’t serve a good purpose expressed in the way I chose to express it. Banging pots and pans around people who are trying to sleep rarely generates a warm response.

And so it was that I came to accept and to live in such a way that greets every day as NEW. New as in fresh. New as in unknown. New as in familiar but not identical. A day in a life that was recognizable and yet still developing. A day that would forever be unpredictable without being chaotic because the centering element was in place.

A self awakened to self.