Habits and Life(ways)

When I created this blog, I intended to use pictures from my rides to spice up regular posts on mindfulness topics. Unfortunately, I faced a series of health challenges that made it hard to get pictures and difficult to practice mindfulness, let alone write about it.

Just the same as I would not be a tidy person if I weren’t doing my weekly chores, I am not mindful unless I am following mindfulness practices.

Unfortunately, my practices are dependent on my structure and habits, and when those things changed, I lost touch with the practices.

Because, in my experience, mindfulness practices become difficult to maintain in times of disruption or change, a discussion of the power of habit (and its limitations) feels important to me.

But before I get into an abstract discussion of habit, let me illustrate the change and disruption that caused me to lapse from my own mindfulness practices.

My most recent challenge came in mid-November, just as I was beginning to recover from breaking my elbow in June. I had just managed a couple of 50-mile rides and was hoping to complete a 70 mile ride soon. Then I got Covid.

The South Boulder Creek Trail in November, just before I got Covid.

Being forced to rest, I once again found myself welcoming dependency into my life, just as I had when I broke my elbow during the summer. I began using marijuana again, isolating myself, and letting my anxiety run rampant.

I’ve always found that dependency is very good at latching onto any strain of passive negativity that one might nurture. It plays quite well with the habitual observation of our miseries.

Today I drink, for tomorrow I may die.

(I’m taking the concept of passive negativity from “Personality isn’t Permanent” by Benjamin Hardy. I feel like it’s fairly self-explanatory. But I do recommend the read.)

My dependencies have ranged from alcohol or marijuana to video games and plain old self-pity and ruminations on the determinacy of the universe.

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

I find dependency to be a slippery bugger, like a whackamole. One month, it may be a partner on whose flaws we can ruminate, the next month it may be a Netflix series we feel compelled to binge.

I recently read a book on the origins of horizontal gene transfer theory, “The Tangled Tree,” and in it I learned that toward the end of his life Carl Woese, who is today renowned as a great scientist and founder of the field of molecular phylogeny, nurtured a grudge against Charles Darwin.

Perhaps he felt Darwin received the acclaim that he was due, himself. Woese’s friends and colleagues could only puzzle over his unfortunate fixation on Darwin.

But I think it is a fine example of the slipperiness of dependency that even a very accomplished person found himself led into this path of discontentment, a dependency on discrediting a figure who received the adulation Woese felt he deserved, himself.

For myself, it seems that when I focus on the specific dependency, it merely opens the door for the next dependency. I close the door on one mindless occupation and open the door on the next as I congratulate myself on the most recent Pyrrhic victory.

As such, I find it more useful to focus my thoughts around the concept of sobriety vs. insobriety, rather than elevating one dependency to the status of an archvillain of my life.

Brain chemistry is probably too complex for this dichotomy to be anything objective, but it serves me at times as a way to focus my thoughts on replacing a bad habit with a better habit, rather than another bad habit.

Actually, I kind of hate to use the terms “bad habit” and “good habit,” and I suspect that they’re a bit reductive. Habit, as we experience it, is probably too ubiquitous to be cast in Manichean (dualistic) terms.

Photo by Andres Ayrton on Pexels.com

Malign or elevate them as we will, habits are fundamental to being human. As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit.

A habit can, of course, be bad in that it causes us more distress than joy. But in my experience, labelling a habit as bad is more likely to result in denial and avoidance than positive change.

Have you ever told yourself you were going to cut out sugar, only to find yourself eating something sugary later on? You realized that you hadn’t even thought about sugar. Maybe you had a habit of eating the sugary stuff when your boss made you feel pressured, and you just followed it without thinking.

Labelling the habit as bad, you might conclude that you, yourself, are bad for indulging in it. Then you might give up altogether and decide to eat an entire carton of ice cream to bask in your own self-pity at being a worthless creature with no self-control.

In fact, beyond being good or bad, habits are fundamental to our lives. Our habits shape our lives, and our lives (and the external events that impact our lives) shape our habits.

In French, to describe where you live, you would say, <<J’habite…>> The validity of this cognate can be seen in words such as habitude, habitat, and habilitate. The Latin root is habitus.

Normally, I wouldn’t use a dictionary definition in an argument. It’s kind of cringe if you’ve taken Linguistics 101. But in this case, I think it opens the door to explore valid connections between related ideas.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

To live is to operate on habits that yield predictable results. When I rise early, drink coffee, and read in the morning, I feel more alert and conscious for the day.

If a population of people have a habit of buying bread from a local boulangerie, we would call that culture, a way of life. Culture, habit, life—all are connected.

We are not capable of operating by decision in every second of our lives. When we step outside the boundaries of habit and attempt change, we may well encounter decision fatigue.

We often encounter these ideas when we’re trying to change our habits. When you have a habit that isn’t serving you, it can be frustrating to realize how hard it is to change it.

If you attempt to simply drop the habit, you create a void that gets filled by decision. You may likely suffer from fatigue quickly and take the habit back up, almost unconsciously.

And the opposite can be true, as well. We can lose good habits when change happens to us. If you have a habit of journaling in the morning at home, you might lose it if you were in a car crash that landed you in the hospital.

Without the surroundings and structure in which the habit formed a part of your lifeways, you could find it difficult to bring back the habit.

Photo by Julien Bachelet on Pexels.com

If we don’t recognize the role of habit and its dependence on the changeable circumstances of our life, we can get stuck in a self-critical loop when we feel like we’re not performing as we should be.

Someone who has trouble waking up on time to get to work might waste years turning themselves over the coals for being lazy or worthless. Meanwhile, they could simply move their alarm across the room to force themselves to wake up and turn it off.

We can also be upset with ourselves for not maintaining a habit that was serving us after a change causes us to lose the framework in which the habit operated.

I’ve faced this problem, as a lot of the ways I have of bringing down my stress levels and engaging with my own mindfulness practices involve being outdoors. Which is hard when you’re injured or ill.

I find this hard to validate in the moment, however. For me, in moments of uncertainty, it is easiest to fall back on habit.

Unfortunately, my major coping mechanism is avoidance. And by avoiding the problems in my life and my problematic reactions to them, I delay the reconciliation that can allow me to set myself back on a path to habits that serve me better.

Having outlined these thoughts, I must confess that I know that this examination of habit has not made me a master of habit. I share not as a guru to guide you to some best spiritual practices, but more as if I were a fellow in a meeting of Bad Habits Anonymous.

I chose to write this post so I could clarify my own thoughts on habit. I hope these thoughts can help clarify your own meditation on how you manage your habits.

Published by Miles of Mindfulness

My name is Mike Bragg. I'm a Denver-based cycling enthusiast and a big advocate of mindfulness. I enjoy the outdoors, and I use mindfulness practices to help myself be more present with my adventures. I like to read challenging material, and I have a keen interest in ancient history and natural sciences.

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