Monday, October 5, 2009

Good habits, and breaking them

[image: the stream at the bottom of Walhalla ravine, in autumn]
Forming a new habit - this is such an ordinary, undramatic thing that it hasn't occurred to me to write about it until now. Yet, nothing counts but what you do.
I'm not sure that is true, because I've had experiences of receiving energy, both love and hate, and of connecting through thoughts. But thinking about it, our thoughts and our emotions are actions, too. Thoughts can seem involuntary. I have a friend who surely has been exposed to therapeutic thinking, for once I was worrying about finishing some work, and he said, "Nobody but you is forcing you to do that." It was like having cold water dashed in your face. You blink. The fact is, even privately obsessing is a mental habit. It's yours.
My morning practices. One that I enjoy is splashing my face with cold water while the coffee drips, a Zen habit I read about somewhere in Aitken's work. What makes it Zen is that it is a paradigm for the willingness to wake up, leave dreams behind and be splashed with reality.
The moon is now in the top of an oak on the other side of the ravine, which seems very close, but if you had to walk down that steep incline, or skid and tumble down, and then climb back up, believe me, it would seem very far. Very far when there is no bridge. The October moon is so bright, yet you can look right at it with no fear.
I am muddling here. I don't have to, but I enjoy leaving a form (the essay) behind. My pauses and distractions are part of my truth. I love to watch morning arrive. Morning alive.
When to let a habit drop away? On Friday a blogger named Laura described the joy of sitting the way you want to sit when the zendo is very dark, enjoying dropping the prescribed posture of Zen meditation. That pleasure is keen just because one sits for hours motionless in the prescribed posture, one becomes very aware of the body. And, because you have been following the schedule, like it or not, time to yourself to sit freely and engage with the moon or the dark becomes precious.

My morning service, the string of behaviors I want to become a habit, goes like this. Get up, get robe and slipper socks, shut bedroom door so I don't wake up Tom, walk to kitchen, start coffee (decaf, new habit), take thyroid - don' t forget. Go to bathroom, splash face with cold water (see above), get elastic sleeve which has been drying overnight, follow Sheba's prompts and go through her morning treat sequence (two Magical Floating Cats, one Running Cat, a habit string she never forgets), sit down, put on sleeve and slipper socks and robe. Coffee is done, pour giant mug, come to study. Get computer going. Open journal page, note significant thoughts and dreams. Check incoming mail, read the Tricycle dharma of the day, maybe go to the web site and read a whole dharma talk, check Facebook. Open home page. Back to journal. When I've finished that cup of coffee, it is time to meditate. After that, breakfast (important new habit with my blood sugar playing tricks).

Now this boils down to the bones, the actions not to be skipped:
take thyroid
journal with first cup of coffee
Ah. How refreshing simplicity is. It is true, all the other little actions are important too, and have to be done, but this is the bare form of my morning, the time alone that I have to have. That sets me in place. When I skip it I feel like I never quite catch up with myself.

It sounds easy, this little practice, but it gets into complications because I am a creative person, and writing is both my work and an important part of my spiritual practice. So, when something creative gets going in this morning space - a poem, a fiction, an interesting train of thoughts, writing a post like this - I contemplate the time frame. Today I woke up early and have no morning appointments. It's a spacious morning. So today I am finishing this post, with that always-tempting second cup of coffee. Then I'll meditate.

I know people with well-organized minds, for whom a little sequence like this might seem natural and easy. I imagine they don't read this blog. If they did they would perhaps wonder, what's so hard about it? In the morning you have a cup of coffee, meditate, have breakfast. And remember to take your thyroid first thing.

Of course they're right. (And scrape the litter box, too.) But life is different when you live in the right brain, or even in some space that includes the right brain, which is not linear and organized. I don't have to include a link to information about that; you can look it up. Add to that a long life of bad habits, like skipping breakfast or skipping time with yourself, and you have to work with it. Maybe it isn't inspiring. It's mundane, a word that refers to the world, the everyday. Some people think that's boring, but what else is there?


  1. Lately I've interrupted my meditation habit with a fresh approach (for me) that is to look directly at the mind. After years of just sitting, observing whatever comes up, I've been feeling stuck, trance-like. So this change is energizing. All this time I haven't truly investigated... What IS a thought? What color? What shape? Where is it? Mostly-- when I try to catch a thought and look directly at it-- it disappears. Slippery buggers!

  2. P.S. Love that pic of the ravine!

  3. Thank you, Kris. I took that picture. I think it goes a few years back to my days walking around with a 35mm film camera slung around my neck. Now film seems like a lot of work, but the results were so good. And the ravine is so wonderfully wild, only 15 minutes from downtown Columbus.

    It is interesting how you bring a visual artist's mind to meditation. I use something similar when a strong negative emotion is bothering me, trying to find its location in my body, visualize it. I think that intention gives me some distance from it.

  4. I have been enjoying (to a degree or another) splashing cold water on my face since reading this post. What a decisive thing to do!