I am almost certain I read the quote, “habits are the death of consciousness” when I was in high school. I have lost the exact source. I feel like it might be an idea of Sartre or Camus. It might have been something my Humanities teacher said. I don’t recall every thinker we studied in that class. I recall studying at least those two. Google could not help me pinpoint the source of these words. It’s disappointing not to know the source of a thought that stayed with me the rest of my life.
When I was first exposed to this idea as a teenager, I looked for ways to change my habits. When I walked from school to work to home, I varied my routes. I did different things along the way. I found these subtle changes helped me see my world as more than a passing blur. Sameness didn’t numb my vision. I realized that my habit of taking the same paths every day had dulled my senses. I was awake, and I enjoyed the feeling.
What I did was simple. If one day I walked on one side of the road, the next day I’d walk on the other side. I’d notice new planters on the steps of a house. The shadows cast by a tree. The color of the trash cans. There were countless small things I could see. I can still recall some of those images decades later because I was awake when I saw them.
I continue to change my habits. I do simple things. For example, I change my morning routine with my dog regularly. I leave her leash and my walking shoes in different places. I had been grabbing them without thinking. This made me feel like I was sleepwalking through this chore. I change the routes we take. This keeps me from being blind to all the little things around me. I notice the buds on the shrubs and the sky changing colors. I am no longer numb. I feel the sensations in my body. I feel myself waking up to the day.
One reason vacation can be so refreshing is that we are not engaging in many of our daily habits. We see what is around us with fresh eyes. I’ve seen tourists visiting the town where I grew up and lived most of my life. They point at things I stop noticing years ago. They take pictures. These visitors make me stop and see the beauty of the place.
There is so much sameness on some highways; it’s hard to know where you are if you’re driving for any distance. In the span of just 30 minutes, I will sometimes feel disoriented and not know where I am. I have to look for landmarks. Sometimes I can drive from point A to point B and have no idea what was between those points. It’s so easy to tune out and see nothing because I am entirely in my head or tuned out.
Sometimes I’ll turn off the music and listen to my car hum and feel my hands on the wheel. I’ll pay attention to my breath and look at the weather reflected in the sky. Then I can see where I am. Then, for better or for worse, I experience traveling down the highway.
So much has been written about breaking bad habits and forming good habits to improve our health and productivity. Habits repeated behavioral patterns, become etched into our neural pathways. Our brains get in a groove, and it’s easy to lose our sense of presence when we follow our habits. While performing some actions automatically might make our lives flow more smoothly, is it worth the cost of being awake?
We can be awake in our routines and daily practices if, ironically, we make it our “habit” to do so. But by habit here, I mean a decision. If we decide to stay awake, we can. We don’t have to let our routines dull our senses.
Take your cold shower. Drink your warm lemon water, or whatever life-hacking or daily routines you have. Change the order of how you do it. Brush your teeth with the other hand. Pay attention to your breath. Wiggle your toes so that you’re aware that your mind occupies a body. These small things make a big difference. What’s the point of life if you aren’t present for much of it? Don’t let habits be the death of your consciousness.
© 2018, A. Breslin All Rights Reserved