Creatures of habit


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson discusses the benefits and pitfalls of routines, emphasizing the importance of infusing habits with mindfulness and intention.

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I’ll be honest about something, and maybe this won’t shock you. I’m very into routines.

Most mornings in my life look like this: Wake up around 5:30, drink my coffee, do my morning meditation and prayer, spend 30 minutes writing, and eventually go about the rest of my day.

I have an exercise routine. I have three regular routes for walking the dog. I have a routine in the shower, one routine for brushing my hair, and another routine for brushing my teeth. Call me a creature of habit. I have lots of routines.

Morning routine (Photo: Shutterstock)

Perhaps you’re this way too. Perhaps you have even more routines than I do. Maybe you have fewer. But chances are that you have at least some.

Social science research has long shown that human beings need these kinds of routines and rituals from an early age: Babies and young children thrive on structure, regularity, and stability, and it gets kind of hard-wired into us as a result.

For all their positive aspects, routines have a shadow side too. Routines provide us routes, but routines can also become rote. Sometimes we might find ourselves saying, “I’m bored; I’m stuck in the same old routine.”

Part of the value of routines comes in the fact that they allow us not to have to make choices all the time, because we just know what we’re supposed to do.

That’s great in a world where we’re overwhelmed by choice. If we overdo it, relying too heavily on routines can take away freshness and spontaneity, and we can wind up feeling like we’re phoning it in — distant, detached, absent instead of present, a little empty inside.

The Torah portion of Tetzaveh is all about routines. We hear it in the very first line of the Torah portion, which is a commandment to the Israelites to make sure that there’s always olive oil available for lighting the menorah in the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for the divine that we talked about a bit last week.

The word the Torah uses to describe this and other routines is tamid, and it recurs seven more times during this Torah portion. It’s also the first place in the Torah that we encounter this word. 

I love the word tamid because I think it tells us something about healthy routines. Tamid is generally used to describe actions, not objects.

That reminds us that routines are things we do, not things we have or that merely exist. In other words, routines, things that are tamid, are practices — activities we do over and over.

While they carry the risk of becoming stale, they also hold open the opportunity to re-invest those actions with newness and vitality every time we do them. 

Tamid is also wonderful because it opens up to the word hatmadah, or steadfastness. That’s a quality I like a lot.

To me, it describes people and communities that are dependable — people you know will show up, people who have regular habits, people who are committed to their practice.

In my life, I’ve found that being around those kinds of people, and living in those kinds of communities, can provide so much support, encouragement, and inspiration for my own practice, my own goals of being tamid. 

This is a show about Jewish mindfulness practices, so I think the idea of approaching them with this value of tamid or hatmadah is kind of implicit.

Our practices are great as one-offs, but they really make an impact when we make them habits, when we engage in them every day.

So you can take this value and apply it to really any practice. But the most foundational and accessible one, perhaps is applying it to our breath, so I want to offer a breathing meditation in this tamid spirit.

Begin by assuming a meditation posture — upright, allowing air to flow. Allow your body to settle. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through the nose, then exhale through the mouth. Do that again. And one more time.

When you’re ready, see if you can allow your breath to find its natural rhythm — as though you’re not actively breathing, but that you’re, as it were, “being breathed.” Your body is just doing its normal work. Notice how that feels.

Consider for a minute how many times a day your body does this process: in and out, in and out. Thousands of times a day. It’s a process we could even be totally unaware of. But now, bring some intention to just being aware of the fact that you’re breathing in, the fact that you’re breathing out.

Don’t make an effort to control it, but just notice it. Maybe make a mental note to yourself: “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out.” 

How does it feel to allow this process to happen without much effort but with full awareness? Maybe some calm, some gratitude. How amazing is it that our bodies do this? That our minds can be aware of it?

This is the essence of engaging in a practice with the spirit of tamid-ness: Taking this very routine thing — breathing — and imbuing it with significance, just through bringing attention to it. Stay with that sensation for a few more breaths, and when you’re ready, open your eyes if they’ve been closed.

The lesson of this breathing practice is one we can apply in so many other areas of our lives — from routine tasks in our mornings or at bedtime to routine behaviors we might have with friends or loved ones or coworkers.

See if engaging in this practice this week helps you to approach those moments with a bit more awareness and a bit more sense of making them tamid: routine and, in the same breath, full of meaning.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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