Subtitle: How do you maintain a routine with all the mishigas now in the world?
(NB – I wrote this several months ago, during the pandemic but before the murder of George Floyd. That is why I talk about the pandemic but not about the protests. The work of maintaining our grounding through chaos and uncertainty has only gotten more difficult, and the simultaneous work of breaking out of the prisons of our old patterns to build the future is even more urgent. I hope these thoughts on order and chaos are helpful to folks).
Someone asked me to write up advice on maintaining a routine right now, mid-pandemic. I think this is hilarious. I cannot even manage to brush my teeth every day. I am crazy. What kind of advice columnist am I? Asking me is like asking The Oracle. I wrote a lot of notes on the subject, but I felt very overwhelmed about actually writing a column and answering the question. What do people want from me right now, coherence? I am not coherent! I don’t know what I think until I see what I say, she repeats to herself, citing E.M. Forster. Then I said “I will write down 10 things I know about Chaos and Order. That will provide some order for the chaos of the things I have to say on the nature of chaos and order.” The 10 things are all interconnected and some of them are repeating and this whole document has, frankly, a manic quality to it, in the way it itself jumps and loops and draws wild lines and makes strange connections, but the perfect remains, really, the enemy of reality itself, so here you go:
- Maintaining a routine is way up there on the list of basic advice you get for maintaining your own mental health (up there with “get exercise” and “don’t work in bed in your pajamas all day”). It’s also touted as a basic thing you must provide to your children, as basic as love and food. Without routine we will all be destroyed, we will all go crazy, the world will tumble into chaos. When the white collar workplaces closed, and the schools closed, first there were the schedules in earnest, and then, quickly following them, the parody schedules. “Meditate, go for walk, focus work, breakfast” was followed by “find some skittles in bedside table drawer for breakfast, scroll twitter for five hours.” After “Math, outdoor time, reading time, screen time, nap” came “screen time, drinking all the milk straight from the carton, pretending to attend a school zoom, demanding extra screen time for the purpose of ‘doing homework’.” Schedules and routines turned out to be difficult to implement through the chaos. Everything is overturned. It may feel like the center cannot hold, that there is a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, but we are not without our own power here. It is small power, but we have it. Breathe.
- Routines are rituals that we do for secular reasons. Habits are rituals we do not pay attention to, they are automatic. Rituals are things we do again and again for reasons we deem to be important, even transcendent, and that we mean to pay attention to. The more uncertain the world is, the more we try to impose order upon it. A worldwide pandemic upending everything we know? Of course we want order, we wish for rules, we keen over the loss of our predictable schedules.We want to know what will keep us safe! Nothing will keep us safe! Safety is an illusion! We know this, but it hurts. Breathe.
- It is true, order is essential to mental health. There’s a kind of therapy for Bipolar Disorder called Social Rhythm Therapy, in which an individual manages their bipolar by waking, eating, exercise, socializing, etc. at prescribed times of day, in a strict schedule, as in a school, or a prison, or a factory. Do not allow yourself to fall out of rhythm, and your moods will stabilize. But where is the room for improvisation? Improvisation has been removed because it leads to perturbation, and perturbation leads to instability, and instability leads to ruin. I do not allow myself to stay up all night and sleep all day, generally speaking, but I do not adhere to Social Rhythm Therapy, because it feels too much like a prison to me. Too much order is not any saner than too little. I want some air in my life.
- Everything is changing. That is always true. It is one of the Buddha’s 4 noble truths, the fact of impermanence. Every routine we establish is destined to die. We do not need to waste time attacking ourselves for our failure to maintain a routine we established. We are not at fault. We blame ourselves for continuing our bad habits, for our failure to establish good ones, for the ways in which we cannot establish or maintain perfect order. Perfect order is a desert! It is a desert that doesn’t exist, but we would hate it if it did! Yes, I like exclamation points! I do not care that they are feminine-coded and make me seem weak and girly and will affect my career. Can we stop talking about our careers for one second? But also, don’t tell me to give up my career! I love my career!
- When there is too much order, we may become trapped in a loop. We can’t get out of it. Are you stuck in a loop, inside your own head, in a relationship, in your life? Under stress, especially, sometimes our loops get stronger, they get insistent, we’re trying to protect ourselves from the chaos and our minds load up all our old programs, the stuff we already know how to do. Right now I’m noticing everyone’s loops a lot. Understand that we’re all doing this at once now, frantically running through the old answers and the old comforts and the old routines in our minds and our relationships and our lives looking for safety. What do you do when you are stuck in a loop? You introduce a perturbation into the system and something will change. You don’t know how it will change. You might not like the change. But it will change.
- When there is only chaos and instability, there’s terror. Then you make some order. You work with what the world has given you and you establish a boundary or two. No more than that. If you make too many boundaries you will spend too much time trying to maintain them, against nature. We just watched UnOrthodox. The first scene is just a wire dangling from a pole. “It’s a broken Eruv,” I said. If you know of Eruvs at all you’d recognize that wire and its meaning. The Eruv will break. Maybe you repair it, but maybe you just move on to the next thing, maybe you loosen your requirements. Maybe you find a still point inside yourself that does not depend on the schedule, the eruv, the rules. The Buddhists call this reliable place Wise Mind. Inside my head it is the sky beyond the clouds. I am the sky, I am not the clouds. Still though, sometimes you need to name the clouds.
- The world is always falling apart and coming back together. That is the work of creation and destruction. The more we can accept this and accept what is before us right now, in this moment, and work with it, lean into that uncertainty, the less we will have to rely on rules. “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” This was Henry James. Or maybe William James. That’s a good rule to start with. And maybe pick some other rule too. Right now in my family we have a rule that we go for a walk in the woods twice a week. The weekday time is blocked out in our calendars. We have to leave work to do it. The kids don’t always want to go. I don’t always want to go. I try to go because when we get out into the forest I can hear the difference in everyone’s breathing as we walk in the woods and fall into a rhythm. We begin to regulate, to resonate with our surroundings. That is the purpose of routines, rituals, schedules, constraints. They help us regulate.
- Mostly we can rely on the world to overturn our routines. Sometimes our rituals are causing us pain, though. Sometimes we make ourselves a prison. Then we do something to change the situation. I quit smoking back in 2018. I’d been trying for a long while to do so, I’d tried so many things. Then I stopped trying, and I bought a Juul, and the Juul showed me the prison of nicotine addiction I was in, and I wanted to break out of it. I was getting monthly ketamine infusions for my depression at the time; I do believe psychedelics can help us break out of some of the prisons in our heads, the loops we all run, the loops we sometimes can’t even see. I have also had ECT, and to the extent that anyone understands what it is that ECT does that is sometimes helpful for depression or mania, it’s the perturbation that matters. I make a joke that ECT is the human equivalent of “why don’t you try turning the computer off, and then turning it on again? Maybe that will fix the problem.” And sometimes it does. Results are unpredictable but boy sometimes it sure seems like there’s nothing much to lose by trying. I did a course of ECT in 2012. It did break me out of a loop, but the cost was high. Sometimes the cost of even seeing the loops we are in is very high, and sometimes we see our loops and then un-see them again. I wrote in a poem once about this. “No one tells you knowledge is maybe circular, that it might eat itself up.” Sometimes we go back and forth between seeing and un-seeing our loops, because it hurts when we can’t break out of them, and it hurts to see ourselves keep looping, and so the loops shimmer; they appear and disappear, you believe in them and then you do not believe in them, again and again.
- Look, it’s simple. There’s a pool table, and a bunch of balls rolling around on it. What is happening, what is going to happen?! you ask, terrified. You get the triangle thingy and you corral the balls into it in the middle of the table, and then everything is orderly. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. “Nothing is happening! It’s making me crazy. I’m trapped!!” you scream, and then you take away the triangle thingy and you pick up the cue and you shoot the ball into the other balls and everything is chaotic again but things are happening. That’s not quite right, I know. I do not know how to play pool, as is evidenced by my use of the very technical term ‘triangle thingy’, but my understanding is that there’s a lot of math involved and some decent predictions you can make and that if you shoot the ball (hit the ball?) and perturb the system with intention and some understanding, you might make a new pattern, rather than just chaos. Or you might make chaos, and then you gather the balls back together again, and you try again.
- I’ve been reading a book about improvisation. The author suggests you make two rules, and improvise within them. So if you’re finding it tough to establish a routine, to put some boundaries around your experience in this pandemic, that would be my suggestion. Pick a couple anchors and let yourself improvise within them, and when they fall apart, don’t fret. You can return to them, or you can move on to new ones. The falling apart was always inevitable. Two rules, and one inexorable truth: the noble truth of impermanence, of change, of instability. You find that truth in the breath, usually, in the way the breath will regulate when you walk in the woods, if you can go walk in the woods, or when you sit down to meditate, or when you put your arms around someone you love and you breathe with them, breathe together, and your breath and your love are all the ritual you need.