"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Importance Of Routine–Giving The Mind Some Room For Thought

In the remake of the movie The Fly (1986) Geena Davis asks Jeff Goldblum (Seth Brundle) why he never changes his clothes.

“What do you mean?”, Seth replies. “I change them every day.”

He walks over to the closet, opens the door and shows her a rack of identical suits and shelves of identical shirts, ties, and shoes.

“This way I don’t have to think about it.”

Einstein was supposed to have followed the same routine; and both men explained that all the mind was infinite, it still could get distracted.  The fewer distractions, the more focused they could be on more important concerns. 

Most regulars at the gym use the same lockers, hang their clothes in exactly the same way and reverse the order when dressing;  soap up, shower, rinse, sauna, and dry in the same way, in the same order, and in the same amount of time.  Daily exercise is important but tedious; and routine – the same stationary cycle, the same treadmill, the same round of machines and weights – can free the mind so that time is compressed, the tedium less noticeable, and most importantly, two things can get done at once.

Without unnecessary decisions (calibration of the equipment, which order to follow, how much time to allot to each step), the exerciser can both keep fit and fulfill intellectual compromises.  Review Turkish verbs, edit an important speech, scroll through the register of recipes for dinner, rehearse an upcoming interview – any one of thousand mental enterprises that need doing.

There is far more to routine, however, than practical efficiency. Hindus have long known the importance of routine.  The Vedas are explicit about hours of waking, sleeping, lovemaking, walking, praying, and eating.  Marriages are arranged according to caste, wealth, skin tone, and social status.  The laws of social intercourse are prescribed, inflexible, and longstanding.

If the world is illusion, Hindus say; and if the only purpose on earth is one’s individual spiritual enlightenment, then the real world not only should hold no interest but should be disregarded. Although few can achieve moksha (liberation) in one life, the practice of yogic discipline and mental purification can limit the number of one’s rebirths.

Westerners have often criticized Hinduism for its social rigidity.  The caste system is nothing more than ritual subjugation, social ossification, and an impediment to individual expression.

“Nothing of the sort”, reply traditional Hindus for whom social equality, individual expression, or self-fulfillment have no meaning whatsoever.  The rigid social system and highly-structured personal routines have a higher purpose – salvation, seeing God, and release from an unnecessary earthly cycle.

The less one has to deal with unnecessary choices, the more he can turn his attention inward to his own soul and outward to God.

Easier said than done of course.  There are as just as many Type A Bombay industrialists, entrepreneurs, and financiers as there are in America.  While many Indians have retained their Hindu roots and have not forgotten the lesson of maya and moksha, it is harder and harder to maintain any spiritual focus once the discipline of religious routine has been disrupted.

Americans have never had this conflict.  Calvinists never denied the importance of material success; and in fact wealth, status, and well-being were signs of divine election.  Worship and prayer have always been distinct from secular enterprise.  Salvation has always had more to do with respect for canon law (Catholic) and absolute faith and belief in Jesus Christ (Protestant).  No cleric has ever preached renunciation of the world, just how to negotiate its treachery.

Conrad in The Nigger of the Narcissus had a more Hindu take on human activity.  Singleton, the old mariner aboard the Narcissus, never thinks, but only performs his duty.  He is sage, responsible, and morally sound.  It is those who think, says Conrad, who foul their lines.  What comes of intelligence, he asks, other than confusion, plots, conflicts, and self-serving intrigues? 
It isn’t so much what work you do, it is the work itself that counts.

Vershinin and Tuzenbach, Russian soldiers in Chekhov’s Three Sisters debate the value of work.  One, anticipating the Russian Revolution, says that it is a means to an end, a more equal society.  The other says that work itself has meaning.  It is work that provides social and personal grounding in a complex world.

It is almost impossible for a modern day young American to take any of these arguments seriously.  Everything, it seems, revolves around the development and worth of the individual.  Routine implies capitulation to patriarchal and authoritarian attempts to keep workers in line.  Women’s and men’s traditional roles must be jettisoned and an entirely new social order must be put into place.  Not only should social roles be questioned but the entire assumption of sexuality.

In short, routine as a value has been largely discredited and dismissed.  A closet full of unique, fanciful, bold, and inspired clothes is a good thing, not a bad; for image and looking good are essential add-ons to character and personality in a competitive world.   Foie gras, seared tuna; a mélange of Asian, Californian, and Louisiana cuisine; salads with greens, fruit, nuts, seafood, and cheese in hundreds of combinations.  Sustenance – rice and beans, meat and potatoes, rice and dal – has been replaced by variety, innovation, and creativity. 

More and more time is spent on choice – what to wear, what to cook, where to go – than on intellectual or spiritual evolution.

Only when one gets older does routine come into play – but not as a matter of choice but necessity.  Unless older people follow worn treads, they will get confused, disoriented, and anxious.

Materialism leads to choice which leads to clutter.  Not only do we buy what we don’t need, but such purchase require thought, deliberation, and economic concession.  The more diverse our life is, the more complex it is; and the more complex it is, the more easily confusion can slip in.

An American friend of mine once studied sitar from an Indian master.  He was impatient with the slow, deliberate, tedious exercises on the most fundamental and basic aspects of the music.  He saw how other Westerners could, after the same amount of time as he had spent, could actually play the alaap or even jhor segments of different ragas.   He asked his teacher if they could speed up their lessons.

The maestro sipped his tea, straightened his kurta, and smoothed his hair.  Each note, he said, was comprised of microtones; and each note was to be played with the understanding that it was not one thing, one unit, or one position on the fret.  It was to be played with understanding according to the time of day, the mood of the artist and that of the audience.  Only through an understanding of the infinity of a note and playing it with respect for its spiritual and musical meaning, could anyone be called a musician.

Discipline, repetition, and routine – all were essential before any student could possibly add any personal insight.  The teacher was not suggesting that practice makes perfect; nor that repetition and routine make for a highly achieved performance.  He was insisting that the routine itself had value.
Most people are too busy to ask, “What’s the point?”.  The rewards of professional success, sexual prowess, physical challenge, artistic talent or intellectual ability are rewards in and of themselves; and they lead to further rewards.  Wealth, status, social engagement, travel, and sexual adventure all come with them.  The course is never finished.

Few people can, will be, or even want to be a Hindu ascetic or monastic recluse.  Most in fact like things just as they are, happy to put up with social division, erratic governance, or temporarily straitened times as long as the paycheck keeps coming, the economy offers more and less expensive products, and simply getting around becomes easier.  Routine has no part in their lives; and in fact is antithetical to success, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Seth Brundle, Hindu sadhus, and the monks of the silent Carthusian order, however, have a point.  What is the purpose of diversity?

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