I read a Zen-flavored self-help book whose author advised me to watch what happens when I break a habit.
Habits, the author explained, are just one of a number of ways that we distract ourselves from the inexpressible, ineffable reality in which we all fit, whether we know it or not, like it or not, or are ready or not. Stop being habitual, I was told, and experience reality as it really is!
I made a list of my bad habits and immediately realized that making lists is another semi-automatic behavioral motif that kicks in when you don’t expect it. In seconds, you have a ranked assortment of things you do that you’d rather not, for reasons that you can also list, from top to bottom, A to Z, alpha to omega, here to there and back again.
We have habits of the body. We scratch our heads when we want to show the world we’re thinking. We roll our eyes when we’re disgusted, annoyed, offended or merely contemptuous and we don’t want the world to know what we’re thinking. We do things our parents told us not to do: bite our nails, pick our noses, rub our hands together when we want to imitate a movie villain who is about to explain to Mr. Bond an evil plan that sounds a little bit like the previous villain’s evil plan, but not so much that we question whether the whole idea of making and seeing movie “franchises” based on wounded, socially misconstrued individuals with or without superpowers who never seem to make breakfast or take out the garbage but must, instead, choose between good or evil, might be a kind of habit we could do without.
We have habits when encountering other people, such as asking them how-they-are (“how you doon?” in New Jersey, where I was born and raised) when we really don’t want to know, but we feel a bit miffed if they don’t say, “Fine. How are you?”
And we have habits of the mind, nearly automatic reactions to what we read, see, hear, fear, smell, wish and absolutely will not put up with for another second! These are the infamous “buttons” that are pushed by other people, events or the Devil himself, and we eat a second donut, give the finger to the driver who cut us off, spend a half hour looking for something to watch on the streaming service and become so disgusted by all the junk the aggregator thought you like, buy a branded can of soup instead of the cheaper generic, tell the boss to perform a physically impossible stunt involving his head and one of his many unattractive bodily openings, or–worst of all– tell a joke and nobody laughs.
What about good habits? When I worked in restaurant kitchens, I was given a cloth dish rag with holes worn into it, and told to get in the habit of cleaning whenever I wasn’t washing, peeling, chopping, stirring, turning (one did not flip fried eggs, French toast or ground beef patties in this dining establishment, one turned them), panning (put things on a sheet pan), plating (arranging food on a plate so someone would want to eat it) and opening Number 10 cans of tomato sauce. After about a minute of wiping down counter tops and mopping up spills, the rag became so sodden with goo that…
Let’s say I didn’t get into that habit.
When I learned martial arts, my sensei showed how we all have habitual ways of attacking and defending. Deliver a few fakes, learn your opponent’s habits, wait for your opponent’s to begin his habitual reaching and then pop him where he isn’t expecting it.
What looked so easy for sensei was not easy for me, because I couldn’t get over my habitual aversion to physical violence of any kind. I had been a fat kid for most of my childhood and adolescence–an easy target for the bullying threats and insults. Though I wasn’t fat anymore (I could do 20 pull-ups!), I carried the fat kid’s fears with me and never quite shrugged them off.
One might argue that an aversion to violence in a society that supports the creation and distribution of violent franchise movies might transcend habit and become a survival skill. Not in karate class. I was more popped than not, and the aversion never left. To this day I prefer to end conflicts, with a goal of restoring peace, than popping my way to victory.
I know people who worked in retail clothing shops and have a habit of hanging and folding garments so they don’t crease. I put my wrinkle-free shirts and no-iron trousers in the closet and, a day later, they’re wrinkled! I was in the habit of assuming that reading, and adhering to those instructions printed on the labels would deliver the results I desired!
I have never been good at following instructions. I’m more of an intuitive improviser who aspires to learn from mistakes and get the “hang” of a new skill. This has worked with cooking. It hasn’t worked with driving a manual gear shift cars.
And it hasn’t worked with the habit that brings the most disappointment: I trust too much. When I can’t be intuitive, I tend to take people and institutions at their word. I expect them to be what they say they are.
When I’m squeezed into super-ultra economy airline seat, told I have to pay for everything I carry and consume except the air I breathe, and the cabin attendant recites that sing-song “on behalf of” speech that ends with me enjoying my flight, part of me trusts that some deep, inner essence within the collective hive-mind of the dynamic pricing algorithm fueled, nickle-‘n’-diming, profit-squeezing corporation running this airline that has turned the going from Point A to Point B into a series of slights, humiliations and cheap shots about how much money I didn’t spend for the upgrade–wants me to experience ineluctable bliss!
Well, I’m not THAT trusting. When people say, “trust me on this,” a warning light flashes in my brain. When any politician, from any political party, promises a tax cut, my taxes go up. When I call the help line, endure a half an hour of the obnoxiously unlistenable click-track music and am then told that my conversation “may” be recorded, I KNOW it’s recorded, and stored in that dank, virtual vault with every other thing I’ve ever done (and who knows what I’ve THOUGHT about doing but never did) waits to be exploited by an AI aggregator that wants me to put me in the habit of buying more stuff, especially the stuff that promises to never wear out, never grow old, never wrinkle, crease or becoming anything other than what it was when I bought it.
Maybe I should break the habit that makes me scan my clothes for wrinkles and odd spots that the washing machine didn’t remove. Instead of presuming my clothing should appear more-or-less new and unworn before I wear it, I should celebrate the wabi-sabi-ness of my wardrobe and let things age gracefully.
After all, wearing in, wearing out, wearing down–that happens to habits, too. After a while, we learn that something happens when we slow down and look closely at what is actually happening around us. You see things you never saw, that were always right in front of your face. Sometimes what you notice is disturbing, awful, terrifying–like death itself.
Other times, it can be so wonderful that–
you want to make a habit of it.