10. Wake From the Sleep of Habit

I suppose one could take this advice two different ways: to wake from the sleep of habit, but also to wake from the habit of sleep. That is for the former, to be aware of everything you do by rote, simply going through the motions without conscious attention to the details; for the latter, to work in Ben Franklin again, to refrain from idleness, sleep only enough to replenish your batteries, and avoid lounging around altogether.

One could argue however there are good habits and bad habits – to which I think at least Montaigne (and perhaps Lao Tzu) might counter, since we can’t accurately discern between the two subjective extremes, it might be better to leave off all habits, regardless of their moral superiority. Cigarettes, lack of punctuality, procrastination, voting strict party candidates, prejudice, daily reading, obsessive social media checking – all habits by that standard of comparable if not equal import simply because they tend to take up little bits of time, here and there, that do not seem consequential when looked at as individual moments, but when accumulated can represent some pretty large chunks.

There are of course energy cycles in everyday life. My own approach what used to be called manic-depressive, but of course the height and depth of any cycle just as subjective as anything else, and just as subject to both internal and external perception. Any cycle flattens over time: what seems very high today may be only average for the course of a month. The severity of a habit, like a risk, matters to its overall impact only as relates to its likelihood. You probably could manage them similarly. Some habits eat up a lot of time, certainly. But if they achieve something “positive” (again, highly subjective), then they can be preferable to another activity that is more likely to result in a “negative”. It is not because it’s better to be constantly positive that so many philosophies talk about balance. It is because that is reality. It is not possible to be “up” all the time, any more than it is possible for any habit, when indulged to excess, to always be a good thing.

Mystics from both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions naturally wax philosophically on doing exactly what Montaigne suggests, stated quite simply: pay attention. Awareness of what you’re doing as you’re doing it is the antithesis of habit – unless of course your habit involves becoming so absorbed in the execution of each component of even the simplest tasks that you maintain no forward motion, no momentum or velocity whatsoever. There is a thin line that runs the spectrum from habitually obsessive to obsessive-compulsive to habitually compulsive. The serenity prayer remedy for such a spectrum might as well be “give me the serenity to let go of the things I cannot control, the courage to unwillingly accept control of the things I can, and the wisdom to recognize control itself as a complete illusion.”

So perhaps again mindfulness is the answer. Unless mindfulness is itself your habit. What is it that Hamlet quipped, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.” What he’s suggesting is that there is a precipice at the extreme edge of paying attention. Once we become (and believe me, I’ve been there) a “man who thinks too much”. As the Bard again suggests, in a different context altogether, such men are indeed dangerous. Not just to ourselves, but to others. The wormhole of overthinking can suck in the innocent bystander just as easily as the thinker themselves. The Skeptic position to doubt everything is good up to a point; but you’ve got to put your feet down somewhere if you’re going to walk at all.

One of the nastiest habits to overcome is the insistent need for justification before acting. When I would tell her the long-drawn-out story of one of my current dilemmas, my dad’s bookkeeper used to tell me, “Do anything – even if it’s wrong!” There is the danger of taking the wrong step, wrong turn, certainly; but there is an equal and perhaps greater danger of doing nothing at all, of falling into wrongness simply by losing the opportunity to act.

So, where is the “happy medium”? And is there actually such a thing? Part of the problem in even answering that question lies in the highly subjective definition of happiness – as either an end or a journey. Does the medium, moderate, middle way imply stagnation or gestation? Is it that state when the door is closed between two rooms? Is stillness or movement the habit? Newton suggested that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, where an object at rest tends to stay at rest. He then proved through the demonstration of gravity that nothing, absolutely nothing, is “at rest.” It’s all movement.

Who is the weak, and who is the strong, when the river’s still flowing but the mountain’s gone?

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