There was a time in my life when I thought skirting a routine was possible. Since that time is over, I’m going to refer to it simply as “College”. Now that I’m done, I find my weekly obligations to be more abstract than they were in college. I don’t go to class, but I still have places to be. I don’t work a full-time job, so the places vary. Perhaps my new task is figuring out how to not ramble on for twenty minutes when someone asks me half-interestedly, “What do you do?” Once I have grey hair I’ll say, “I do stuff. I am. Are you?” Can’t quite pull that off as a 22 year old.
I’m learning how to make the most of the necessity of routine. Now that I think of it, I guess I’m using nature as my teacher. I love Bruce Lee’s famous ‘Be Water’ metaphor. We should be fluid and adaptable rather than rigid and static. Easier in theory than in practice, though— we’re not all Bruce Lee. How does one remain fluid while also making the most of the necessary routines of day-to-day life?
I learned to learn from nature from the teachings of Zen masters. The core Zen teachings are all about natural metaphor. Muddy water is best cleared by sitting still. Day after day, the sun. Whether we like a flower or a weed or not, it will still grow. Nature has habits and routines. Its foundation is repetition and fractality. We can learn from this without making things too complicated.
There are lots of things we simply have to do. Ironically, these are the things that are either looked down upon or shrugged away as trivialities. We commute, we eat, we sleep, we brush our teeth, we communicate, we walk, we exercise. And yet the little activities we do for leisure and entertainment and luxury get all the credit.
My coping mechanism for living a routine life isn’t a coping mechanism at all; it’s simply a reversal. Treat the day-to-day repetition as a luxury in itself. Turn your work into play. Lose your ego in the grit of daily life, and end the day feeling accomplished rather than worn out. This doesn’t mean to keep working a shitty job, or to brush your teeth for 45 minutes a day, or to obsess. It just means to focus on the stuff of everyday life.
It’s often repeated in Zen how important it is to be in the moment. The moment is all we have. The past and future are illusions, etc. We hear these statements, and since we’re reading them instead of trying to experience them, they remain as such— statements. Let’s put them into practice. Let’s do everything mindfully, as if it’s a meditation. Wash dishes, take out the trash, clean your room and fold clothes like they’re the last things you’ll ever do.
This is less about “possibly dying at any minute” than it is a little mental cheat code to allow us to live more fully. If we have to do certain things in order to survive, remain hygienic, and live comfortably, why not do those things with our full head and heart?
I hope today you will practice the art of routine. It is an art; we can either do it well and learn something new about ourselves and provide value to our daily existence, or we can avoid the inevitable and suffer for it. The choice is wholly ours.