If a habit is a way of acting that, unconsciously and often compulsively, becomes fixed through repetition, then a mode of behavior that’s followed regularly and usually through choice might be termed a “practice.” For me, going to the movies is a practice.
I go to the movies. A lot. And while movie-going isn’t anywhere near as reflexive and thought-free as pants-donning or teeth-brushing, the practice recurs sufficiently frequently (three, four, five
times a week?) that its repetitive quality makes it their not-too-distant cousin.
Why? Why do I go to the movies a lot? Sure, for entertainment, for aesthetic pleasure, to escape, pass the time. But, in another way, the explanation for this practice of mine is as mysterious and tautological as the reason for the semiconscious behavior I engage in when I dress myself or brush my teeth, that is: I go to the movies a lot because going to the movies a lot is a habit I’ve developed, a habit so strong that the urge to see a movie at times feels like a need I've been programmed to fulfill.
Of course, over time, as any particular pattern of behavior becomes ever more ingrained and thoughtless, the day may arise when you suddenly wake up to find yourself metaphorically pacing back and forth, confined to a prison cell that pattern has built around you.
I’ve somehow permitted the principle of automatism—the principle my heart and lungs not only symbolize, but literally embody
—to creep into not just movie-going, but all kinds of corners of my life: Email Maintenance, Catching Up on the News, Gym, Email, Relationships, Alcohol, My Relationship to Alcohol, Email. Somehow I’ve let my practices devolve into habits, unconscious and often compulsive habits, with little room left for the spontaneous and the unexpected, little room left for choice. Unthinking behavior—trance—becomes not merely the model, but too often the default, and at times even worse: the only modus operandi for the balance of my life. With age, these patterns have become even more encrusted, more tiresomely predictable. Laziness and inertia assume command, coaxing me to believe “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But, whenever I awaken from a trance, I see what I’ve never seen, and what I see is this: “it” is
broke…and “it” must be fixed. And, in fact, it’s broke because it’s fixed (i.e., unchanging).
When routines and habits and practices become as lifeless as the manner in which one brushes one’s teeth, when the choreography of one’s existence resembles a blindfolded slog through quicksand rather than the Jets and the Sharks leaping across the streets of the Upper West Side, something must be done.To read Fred Wistow’s complete article from the November/December 2013 issue, “Creatures of Habit: Are We Really Choosing How We Live Our Lives?,” subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker magazine.