Collapse The Habitual
What is the common thread in Alexander Technique, Mindfulness, Psychedelics, Travel, DIY Magic?
In a recent conversation on Find The Others, Michael Ashcroft brought up the concept of “collapsing the habitual”, and the idea of “couldness”. This was in reference to a conversation we were having about his approach to Alexander Technique, which is the art of getting unstuck. Michael explained that one way to do this is to realize that at any given moment you have access to an almost infinite range of possibilities. You could for example stop reading this essay and decide to jump up from your chair do a silly dance, and suddenly run around the room screaming “Bananananananana!” Of course, it’s highly unlikely that you will do this, but you could.
Reminding ourselves of the potential couldness available at any given moment helps ups stay loose and limber and open to the infinite possibilities of the moment. This conversation sparked something in my brain and crystalized several concepts from other diverse areas and made me realize they are all getting at the same thing! This idea of being open to possibility, rather than being on auto-pilot is I believe, the secret sauce to a bunch of different stuff, including the idea of flow state in sports, and creativity, it’s the reason why psychedelics are so beneficial, and why meditation has the benefits it does, as well as why travel is so fun and rewarding, and why allowing randomness into your creative work can be incredibly inspiring. Is “couldness” a sort of secret unifier to different skill-sets for being fully human?
The opposite of what I am talking about here is the habitual; when we go into automatic mode and don’t really think about what we are doing. Of course, some habits can be healthy. But often habits can turn from routines into ruts, we find ourselves going through the motions, not fully present, not fully engaged.
I experimented recently with the simple pattern disruption of putting my phone in a sock drawer one day a week. It disrupts my habit (of having my phone always at hand, in my pocket) just enough, so that if I want to use the phone, I have to walk all the way over to my sock drawer, to make a phone call, or look something up etc. The payoff is I get one day a week where I feel like I have more time and a lot more concentration. (I wrote about this here.)
Life is full of habits we would like to disrupt: from thought patterns or worry and rumination to mindless internet watching or over eating. Pausing to remember that you have an infinite array of options available to you at any moment reconnects you to the infinite possibility of now. This is also what we do on some level when we meditate. In meditation we try to be fully present in the current moment. Call it the present moment muscle. The more you work this muscle out, the stronger it gets, and the better you become at resisting just going along for the automatic pilot ride, wherever the brain wants to take you.
Meditation gently moves the brain out of whatever it’s habitual ruts are and leads you in the realm of infinite possibility.
Psychedelics have been said to work in much the same way. A neuroscientist in Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind has the great metaphor of saying “psychedelics shake the snow globe of the mind”. Imagine that every time you have a thought it is like a sled sliding down a snowy hill, and leaving behind sledding tracks. Over time the tracks of the things that you think about habitually grow deeper and deeper, as this happens it becomes easier for your brain to gravitate towards those same tracks. Psychedelics mix everything up, and force the brain to find new connections. That’s a big part of how they bust people out of depression and anxiety, as these are often caused by being stuck in repetitive loops: whether they are loops of worry or rumination or anger etc. What’s needed is to shake the snowglobe of the mind.
Travel can do the same thing for our brains. It’s impossible to stick to the same routines and patterns when you find yourself in a different city. The patterns that come automatically when you are in your hometown go out the window entirely when you find yourself in Lisbon or Mexico City for example. It’s impossible to stick to the same old routines when you are surrounded by new people, new places, unfamiliar foods and foreign languages. Everything becomes new. I always remember the first day waking up in a new city—it feels like life itself has an incredible freshness, and infinite possibility.
In my book, DIY Magic I talked a lot about ways to play around with this, from using Tarot cards or William Burroughs cut up technique to add novelty to creative writing, to letting a pair of dice decide where you are going to go on a drive or a walk in your own town. One other pattern disruption technique I learned of recently is the work of Phil Stutz. His Tools approach is all about disrupting negative thoughts and behaviors with brief mental visualizations. For example, pausing to reflect on 4 or 5 things you are grateful for every time you notice yourself worrying. Over time the tools replace worry with gratitude, fear with courage and so on. (The movie Stutz is worth checking out.) All of his Tools are meant to be used right when we notice a negative habit, that we are prone to.
All of these techniques are about getting unstuck from our habits, and then finding ourselves fully free and in the infinite possibility of the present moment. Where do you go from there? Truly, anything becomes possible. It’s incredible that we see this need for collapsing the habitual in so many aspects of being human—from overcoming procrastination habits, to overcoming addiction, to simply interacting more fully with others—and yet it’s not a well-known concept on its own, rather it is tucked away in different corners like meditation, Alexander Technique, and psychedelics. Perhaps by looking at the idea of being open to infinite possibilities from these many different perspectives we can find a new approach to the whole.
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