Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Routine, ritual, practice, habit

A retired minister said once that practicing a ritual sometimes gave him guidance when his mind and spirit were too tired and discouraged to proceed consciously. The routine had been planned and he and others knew what to do when.  Seeing themselves in motion and doing the right things at the right time picked up the spirits and determination of the whole group and their normal energies returned.

That excellent overview of human memory, "The Seven Sins of Memory" by Daniel Schacter, says that older people can be both assisted and plagued by automaticity.  If I have made coffee many times, I empty out old grounds, reach for a new filter, the coffee measure, without thinking or being aware of my movements.  If there is no big change in locations, supplies, and intentions, being on automatic enables me to get the coffee made while thinking of today's big game.  But if I find that I have turned on the coffee maker without adding any water, my lack of focus can cause a fire.

We can't avoid habits but we can't depend on them entirely or forever, either.  Like anything, routines, rituals, practices and habits can become outmoded and need updating or weeding.

It can be surprising what you can develop into a habit.  Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer and dictionary maker, said that a man could get used to hanging if he could hang long enough.  You can become habituated to a given sequence of thoughts, as when thoughts of your grandfather become habitually associated with thoughts of his brother Walter and the way his dog used to frighten you. Thoughts of your grandfather can become habituated to thoughts of frightening dogs and of frightening things in general.

In today's world of marketing, there are many sales forces that would like me to get in habit of automatically thinking about reliability and honesty when I see the logo and the packaging colors they use.  Modern video production methods are quite sophisticated about the use of color, soundtrack and background music and instrumentation, pacing, images, screen transition from one scene to another and voice-over to produce a pleasant association in my mind between their wonderful detergent and the fine future I want for my baby daughter.  That's why teachers, psychologists and mental health workers try to improve my ability to be alert to what I experience, to notice and be critical of routine associations I don't accept as worthwhile upon more complete reflection.

Our complex, powerful minds construct and rely on routines, rituals, practices and habits but we sometimes run up against their limitations and their need for managing.

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