Monday, January 9, 2012

Habit, Ritual and Addiction: Building a Day (January 8, 2011)

Last summer my son Nick and I took advantage of a clergy scholarship to visit Star Island for the first time. This is a UU conference and retreat center on the Isle of Shoales off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. It can be reached only by ferry. We stayed at the historic and now somewhat dilapidated Grand Oceanic hotel built in the 1800s when time when that sort of thing was all the rage. It was bought by a non-profit and started offering conferences in 1916. Many of the folks we met as we nervously boarded the ferry had been making the annual pilgrimage for years. There is a history center on the island where you can see old timey black and white photos showing people engaged in many of the same traditions that still live on there today. One of those traditions is polar bearing at 7:00 am. Now remember this island is pretty far north, and out a few miles into the Atlantic. The ocean water is not warm even on a sunny summer afternoon, but these folks start their day every morning with a walk out to the end of the dock and a dive into the chilly early morning water.

When I first heard of this tradition, I knew it was one that was not for me. Just taking a ferry out to this strange island to spend a week single morning it with my son and 200 some total strangers was challenge enough. But one day as I sat at lunch getting to know yet another new person, she told me that she was 80 and had been coming to the island for decades. I noticed around her neck the plastic beads that reward those brave enough to take the plunge. I was amazed. I had imagined a gang of burly 2-something men lining up on the dock in the early morning, but my dining companion said she never missed a morning. It was all the more remarkable since weather was just horrible for almost the whole week. There was drenching rain every day; Nick and I quickly ran out of dry clothes. The winds were so sever that the ferries to and from the island were canceled, and staying warm was a challenge even in the middle of the afternoon.

What got me through those rainy days so far from home, what I had to be sure of even before I registered for the program, was yoga. Every afternoon there were several programs to choose from, and I always chose yoga. I had discovered the first day that this was to be a gentle yoga class- the teacher was very specific about that. Some of the women who enjoy the same kind of vigorous yoga that I enjoy left the class to do their own practice, but in an island full of strangers, I needed a yoga community. Even though this was not the same kind of yoga I was used to, what was important to me was to have that yoga discipline to anchor my day. Even on the days when the storm was so intense that rain dripped through the roof onto the yoga mats of the folks in the back row, even on the days when a cold wind whipped through the swinging doors. Even, and this was the hard one, on the beautiful sunny day when sensible people played hooky from their workshops and basked in the sun after days of being locked up inside in the rain, there I was on my yoga mat.

That last weekend of our stay, the sun finally broke. Nick insisted we join the group of singers who gather each morning to walk the whole of the residential part of the island singing a wake-up song at every dorm and cabin. As we gathered, another group of folks sat in the white wooden rocking chairs on the deck enjoying a pre-breakfast cup of coffee and watching the island wake up. The polar bears were also gathering there at the edge of the dock in the glittering early morning sunlight. There were people of all shapes and sizes from elementary aged children to the octogenarian friend I had met at lunch earlier in the week. While I could see the appeal of taking an early morning walk around the island singing, I had this sudden knowing that I MUST polar bear before I left the island, or I would always regret it. So the next morning I got up even earlier, left my son abed, wrapped a towel around me and headed out to the dock. It was just as scary and cold and exciting as I’d thought it would be. There was a lovely sense of camaraderie, and after I proudly emerged from the water I reported to the guy in change for my very own plastic beads on a string to show I had been a polar bear at Star Island. I could see why those folks did it even in the cold and the rain. Because you felt like you had already DONE something, even before breakfast. No matter what else the day held, you had had your moment of excitement and camaraderie and you were awake and ready to face the day.

I thought about all the little traditions that made up the Star Island Experience, and how different people needed different things to make up their day- the folks who went door to door singing, the folks who gathered quietly on the deck with their coffee, the kids who massed in the snack bar in the evening, the night owls who walked out to the stone village for coffee house after the rest of us were tucking in for the night. I thought fondly of the morning worship after breakfast, and the procession of the lanterns in the darkness for worship at the close of day.

Here on this island where everything was new and strange to me, where the weather was so extreme that even the staff wasn’t quite sure what to do sometimes, there was something so grounding, so comforting and also strengthening about building those anchors into my day, that kept me from feeling adrift even in the tempestuous storms. Now I don’t know if yoga would have had that same grounding feeling if I had not had my yoga practice as part of my ordinary every day life for so many years. Day in and day out, when I am full of the energy of a spring day, or the excitement of learning a new challenging pose, or when I am grumpy, sleep deprived and even injured, yoga is there like an anchor.

Our everyday life is full of habits and rituals, whether or not we have been intentional about creating them. Being stuck on the 220 behind a water truck is probably not something you intentionally chose to be part of your day, but there it is, regular as clock work. Waiting for my son to get off the school bus is not something I have any control over, but there it is, a critical pillar of my day. Even the dogs know it is coming and start to run in little circles and pat me on the knee as that magical time approaches. Committing to dive into icy water every morning is an intentional choice, but many of the rituals and habits that make up our days we stumble onto accidentally. Because I work at home most mornings, I brew a pot of coffee and boil water for oatmeal while I get my son off to school. Then my work day starts with a quiet moment alone in the house, and whether I’m reading up on theology or writing the first sentences of a sermon, that cup of coffee is warm and lovely and helps ease the transition into the day. Recently when the morning was so cold and dark, and I had slept only restlessly the night before, I heard the sound of my alarm clock with despair and disbelief. Then I remembered- there would be that moment of warm coffee and warm oatmeal and quiet, and that gave me the will to get out of bed and begin the day. I didn’t mean to create that ritual, but there it is- a pillar of my day.

Now a couple of years back I was at a professional conference at this super fancy hotel- I had NEVER even been inside a hotel so fancy. It was so fancy that the planning committee hadn’t been able to afford the cost of the morning coffee break, so when we came out of our first event of the morning at 10:00 all the coffee had been cleared away. I just stood there incredulous and pouting in front of the empty space where just an hour before the coffee tureens had been. My anchor was gone! Here I was hundreds of miles from home and without my anchor! I ended up riding the elevator back up to the 10th floor to brew a pot of coffee in my hotel room. I think that was when I knew that my morning coffee wasn’t just a ritual, it was an addiction.

Sometimes the anchor that gets us through a stormy transition, or gets us out of bed in the morning becomes an albatross around our neck. We get in the habit of drinking a glass of wine with dinner, or a nightcap before bed, and we don’t realize until we try to go without how attached we are. Even something as vital and nourishing as food can become an unhealthy crutch. We turn to a favorite comfort food in difficult times, and soon our cardiologist explains that it is endangering our health. A teenager experiments with smoking and spends the rest of her life trying to break the habit. It is more than the power of habit and the comfort of daily ritual keeping us in an unhealthy rut. The same chemical process by which alcohol, illegal drugs or even certain prescription medications make us feel good traps us. We used to think that recovering from an addiction was merely a matter of will power but now we know that the chemicals in our body and brain are changed by such addictions and, the normal survival mechanisms in the limbic brain are overridden. Our brain tells us that only the drug we are addicted to will provide safety, satiety, security.
Once the very functioning of our brain has been altered, addiction becomes a disease, and requires a medical support. For example I had a roommate who was determined to stop smoking cold turkey. After about 24 hours of misery, he ran for the door like a man possessed- headed to the pharmacy for a patch to help him through the transition. But overcoming the chemical, biological part of addiction is only part of the solution. Because the warm cup of coffee that starts the day, the cigarette break, the drink after work, the snack before bed, these calm and comfort us because they have become anchors in our day. We cannot simply leave an empty hole where those anchors were dropped, we have to fill those transitions in our day with something new. We must practice those new anchors daily so that they are strong and comforting when we need them.

A few years back I was going through a very stressful time. I had built a life that was all work and no play, and felt out of balance. Moreover, I had recently lost about 60 pounds and was determined not to use food as a crutch to get me out of this latest difficult time. A friend asked what I enjoyed as a little girl. I thought back to my Elementary school years and remembered that I spent almost all of my free time doing 2 things, reading fiction and dancing around my room. It was at that moment that I developed a substantive Sci-Fi Fantasy habit. It was only a few days ago, however, when I realized as I stretched out on my mat that the reason I am so devoted to yoga is not only because it is good exercise and a form of meditation, but because as an adult I hardly ever get to dance around in a big open space like I did when I was little; I have built what I enjoy most about being alive right into my day.

As we enter the season of New Year Resolutions, a resolution like “stop smoking” or “start exercising” or “stop over eating” are noble and good. But the mere fact of decision must be linked with intentionally building a day. We increase the odds of success by taking time to reflect “when is it that I most need a cigarette” or “when am I most likely to grab an unhealthy stack” and figure out what you are really needing during that moment. And to ask yourself “what could I give myself in those moments that will someday provide the anchor that a cigarette or a handful of potato chips once provided.”

The ease with which we move within our habits and routines is the same inertial pull that makes changing those habits and routines so challenging. Instead of grooving along the comfortable familiar path we can follow without thinking, we are asking ourselves to stay awake in order to remember to turn left instead of right. Moving across the country is a difficult change, but skipping the nightcap, or ice cream or cigarette before bed is even more difficult, because it comes so easily. So be patient with yourself, encourage yourself. And most importantly give the day you are building your attention and love. When you create a beautiful day that you enjoy you are rewarding yourself and asking the part of your brain that releases dopamine to anticipate those new rewards. Is there something lovely you have always coveted for your life? Something healing and life affirming? Then give that to yourself every day as a gift.

At a continuing education training about addiction our presenter was explaining that part of the reason that Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful is that it offers new coping skills for times of stress to replace the crutches the old addictions provided. Healing the spirit is a critical part of recovery he said, and reminded us that the Lord’s prayer beseeches “give us this day our daily bread.” To him that prayerful request is not just about food, but about whatever gives the spirit sustenance. We need to feed our souls every day, and if we don’t have healthy life affirming ways of doing it, we run the risk of stumbling into unhealthy, addictive ways of making it through the big and little stresses of daily life.

How you build your day involves about 1000 different choices that usually we don’t think about, in the words of Nancy Schaeffer:
“The self is not one thing, once made,
Unaltered. Not midnight task alone, not
After other work. It’s everything we come
Upon, make ours: all this fitting of
What-once-was and has-become.”

As UUs we aren’t bound to pray 5 times a day like our Muslim neighbors. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need those anchors for our spirit every single day. What Anchors your day? What comforts you when times are stressful? What makes getting up in the morning possible? Whether it’s a plunge into icy cold water, a hot cup of coffee, a quiet hour with your partner, a walk alone in the evening, offer that anchor to yourself as a promise you can rely on. When we are building our day, we must be intentional about including our daily bread, about shaping a day to feed our soul in good times and in bad.

No comments: