When I felt I’d reached a true low point in my life at the ripe age of 26, apathetic about my career, regretting all the choices I’d made leading up to it, and feeling the physical ache of constant low-grade stress gripping my hip flexors and shoulders, I blamed it on living my life on repeat. I would wake, eat/work, work, work/eat, sleep/work, repeat. There were sprinkles of yoga for an hour a day, and time with friends (who I knew from work) thrown in every month or so, but mostly I was spending every day with few opportunities in which to breathe, to live, to savor. To not only realize what the heck I was eating or wearing or working on so feverishly, but to realize why I was doing it at all. The burn out that can ensue from this incessant, blind doing has felled many in my generation, and it’s almost a badge of honor to first be stuck in this cycle—the badge of “I’m so busy”—and then to have been “awakened” to the rottenness of how we’d set our course, and to have had the strength to choose another path.
The extreme state of repeat on which we live, however, occludes the small joys that come from mindful, or even accidental, repetition, which sometimes bears another name entirely: routine or ritual. I’m always pleasantly surprised to find the same song has been playing on loop on my Spotify for the last 10 minutes, and that I was perfectly okay with it because of how much I loved it. It just kept going and going while I chopped my veggies or folded my laundry, the bass to my activities’ top line. Oh, the serendipity of my phone’s glitch. Or how much I look forward to my cafe au lait with oat milk (it used to be almond, but you know, I’m trendy and conscious of almonds’ water usage) at Joe’s on Columbus on Sunday mornings at 9:30 after mass, where I enjoy my overnight oats amidst the regulars and listen to the sweet southern twang of tall southern man, who comes in with his two little daughters, mingle with the Destiny’s Child playlist on the stereo overhead. No other coffee tastes quite as good as that weekly cup, including when I’ve stopped by on weekday mornings or other locations. The whole experience is bound up in the ritual. Because the base conditions are the same, I don’t have to worry about whether the coffee will taste good and can allow the particularities of the rest of the day to come forward.
My life is very much bound up in such rituals. I thrive in these mindful repeats, knowing that no matter what else is going on outside my control my standbys will be there to ground me. These are things I do unconsciously but intentionally to give comfort and, more importantly I think, to relieve my brain of some heavy decision fatigue. Like having a uniform wardrobe or rotating selection of meals you make at home, these staples make space instead of clog space, which is what the mindless repeats do. Yet the question remains, how do I know what is a mindful or mindless routine? What about my pre-burnout life made it mindless, when clearly I was very actively using my mind before, during, and after? Where is the line between them? And is there a point when one becomes the other, when the joys of familiarity shift to become the blind spots blocking our way to other, unknown joys we don’t know exist?
I’ve been confronted with this problem twice in the recent past, and in areas of my life that have a big impact on my wellbeing and sense of self: skincare and reading. The routines I made around both have in important ways allowed a fruitful harmonizing of mind and body, and thereby relieved me from some of those original repetitions of a more creativity-sapping nature. So to have them upended felt particularly strange, yet also freeing—messages sent to help me open my eyes to something new.
Since adopting an Ayurvedic lifestyle nearly two years ago, I’ve made countless decisions around the fact that I am a vata dosha, a constitution defined by air and space that when imbalanced results in scattered and flighty thoughts and behavior (hence the need for grounding rituals…). My body type and many other traits point to this fact as well, and so I’ve developed a deep awareness of how to care for myself such that my vata can thrive but not dominate my life like an invasive plant. And yet, there have always been instances—behaviors or physical symptoms or just thoughts—that are particularly not vata, and maybe not even falling into an Ayurvedic category. Like the way my skin manifested during a soothing and radically transformative facial at Brooklyn Herborium, where it was treated to clear typically kapha and pitta-type aggravations (the owners of this spa don’t per se follow Ayurvedic guidelines of treat symptoms with the opposite, but she gave me that as a frame of reference). It took all my willpower to not jump off the table in protest. But that’s not who I am, I thought. And if she’s right, does that mean I have even more work to do to truly care for my constitution? Work that falls outside the prescription of my vata routines, which had trusted to be keeping me balanced and whole all this time?
Reading a novel I wasn’t particularly into brought about a similar discomfort. I’m not a person who easily stops reading a book no matter how much I dislike it, though I’ve loosened up on that rule quite a bit compared to when I was a student. Still, I was torn because I had high expectations of this publication, including because of cover design judgments, yet felt from the early pages that the voice was grating on me, the plot too familiar and predictable. I couldn’t fight my impulse to keep going though, silently regretting every page as it seemed to fall deeper and deeper into cliche and confusion. Until one line stopped me in my tracks. It was a glimmer of hope that the kind of writing I’d hoped I’d find in this novel was possible, and indeed demonstrated that this character was capable of a new layer of insight she hadn’t demonstrated before. Newly invigorated—my patience had paid off!—I pressed on to the end, not finding any more such sentences but still recalling that one as my anchor point. A moment of beauty that had I not abided by routine, I would have missed entirely.
In both cases, the biggest awakening came not from the routine itself, but in the surprise that came from being aware of what could disrupt what I thought I knew was right. With my skin, I could see that the normalcy of ritual was what made me cognizant of its health at all—and yet that responding to its needs in the moment might require variations within my system, rather than a breakdown of the system on the whole. Likewise, the stunning sentence reminded me of the way writing works, gradually unfolding as a practice until bam, there’s art. Not every word can be genius, but we take them all in knowing that half the enjoyment of discerning that genius is by way of contrast. If every sentence were drippingly gorgeous, then we wouldn’t be able to understand what was truly great, or what our own preferences are in the first place. We all have these moments where our best selves appear, because we are too human to be our best all the time. That’s no reason to fret, though, and more reason to stand by routine. Without the proper, stable conditions in which to observe our bests, we would let them get lost in the hecticness of all the other details of life.
Doing things on repeat becomes a more of a foe than a friend when we think that’s all the work we have to do—just lay down the bass and check out. The routine of our life isn’t what causes us burn out or complacency, but rather the idea that the routine itself is what will give us the energy to truly live. You can’t dance to a track that’s just bass. With routines, we still need to pay attention—even more so than in their absence perhaps, because then we have no excuses of too many distractions or decisions to not pay attention. They clear the space for us to be who we are in every moment, because the bigger Who is already taken care of. We are allowed to transcend our Being—our doshas or our identities as Readers or Writers or life DJs—and instead to truly Be. Then Be again, and again, and again…