Toward an Elegant Order: How We Wake


Mornings, when light spreads over the pastures like wings, and fans a secret color into everything, and beats the trees senseless with beauty, so that you can’t tell whether the beauty is in the trees -dazzling in cells like yellow sparks or green flashing waters- or on them- a transfiguring silver air charged with the wings’ invisible motion; mornings, you won’t be able to walk for the power of it …

- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

I The PROBLEM: White Noise and Worry

The alarm blares. I slap the phone with several graceless swaths of fury until I reluctantly wake. From within the dimness, full consciousness gradually dawns and with it, the growing light of … worry. Thoughts that consumed me the day before had settled overnight into a dark corner of my mind, simmering, waiting for me to move them to the front burner of my consciousness where we rise together, worry and I, to a slow boil. I help, by swirling worry around until one eddies away and another pours into the pot, seething in my brain like poisoned brew in a cauldron. Sometimes they are big worries, more often than not, they are inane. Tiny. Their size intensifies, every rumination feeds it, until it enlarges like a shadow on the wall: a gargantuan distortion of the reality.

The mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind.*

To push worry away, I often turn on my phone and let the white noise of social media, email, and news slowly waft over me, crowding, shoving worry to the back burner until the dissonant static displaces it. It’s not a fair trade. Sometimes I barter old worry for new worry, or pile worries on top of each other, but mostly, I trade worry for white noise. The incessant din of this polyphonic fugue -worry and white noise- devours my morning, always accompanied by a voice-over, my internal narrator:

‘Our entire lives … are governed by a voice in our heads. This voice is engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking— most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential. It squawks away at us from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until the minute we fall asleep at night … Talk, talk, talk: the voice is constantly judging and labeling everything in its field of vision. Its targets aren’t just external; it often viciously taunts us, too.’ (10%, DH)*

A few weeks ago, I presented a class on time management to a group of professionals, most of them top performers in their game. I cited an article from Fast Company that featured the three things that successful people do with the first hour: ‘The first thing they do is gain awareness, they do not check email or social media.’ The room erupted in titters, the knowing smirks trying to avoid my gaze. Guilty. We all are (most of us anyways, myself included).

Something will fill the receptacle of your mind immediately upon waking. Nature abhors a vacuum and ‘our brains fight against deprivation’*.

'We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel psychic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other by themselves without a hitch. After sleeping we regain consciousness in the morning when the alarm rings, and then walk to the bathroom and brush our teeth. The social roles culture prescribes then take care of shaping our minds for us, and we generally place ourselves on automatic pilot till the end of the day, when it is time again to lose consciousness in sleep ... Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness— a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable. To avoid this condition, people are naturally eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available … TV (internet) can provide continuous and easily accessible information that will structure the viewer’s attention, at a very low cost in terms of the psychic energy that needs to be invested … It is understandable that, once one develops this strategy for overcoming psychic entropy, to give up the habit becomes almost impossible. The better route for avoiding chaos in consciousness, of course, is through habits that give control over mental processes to the individual, rather than to some external source of stimulation …' (Flow, M.C.)*


II The FIXITY: Cue, Routine, Reward

Even Roman emperors struggle with waking. From the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

In the morning, when you get out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I’m getting up to do the work only I can do. How can I possibly hesitate or complain when I’m about to accomplish the task for which I was born? Was I made for lying warm in bed under a pile of blankets? ‘But I enjoy it here.’ ‘Was it for enjoyment you were born? Are you designed to act or to be acted upon? Look at the plants, sparrows, ants, spiders and bees, all busy at their work, the work of welding the world.’ … ‘You must dislike yourself … Do you think less of your life’s work than the sculptor does his sculpting, the dancer his dancing, the miser his money, or the star his stardom?’

Proust once wrote that ‘the fixity of a habit is generally in direct proportion to its absurdity’. In other words, the more ambitious the habit you wish to establish, the more difficult it will prove to gain permanence. Morning habits are surely the most adamant and intractable of all our human rituals. Because of their ‘fixity’ (well worn grooves of repetition) and their priority status, our morning rituals are keystone habits, habits that dominate the rest of our lives. But keystone habits are also the most potent habits to change, they have ‘the power to start a chain reaction … habits that start a process that, over time, transform everything’. (Habit, CD)* Exercise, for example, is a keystone habit, ‘Typically, people who exercise start eating better and become more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.'*

Waking well is also a keystone habit. Waking well establishes the timbre, the tone of the day. If I wake in a state of anxiety or apprehensiveness, my baseline becomes panic. If I wake in a state of peacefulness or simplicity, my baseline becomes equanimity (steadiness of mind under stress). I have been winning the war against worry, one bloody battle at a time. Until the past few months, the above scenario I described was exactly how I would wake. Every damn day. I have made some progress by launching a direct assault against the flood of white noise by simply deposing it with new activity.

Charles Duhigg* tells us the secret to overcoming the most deep-seated habits:

‘First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.’

For some of us, the necessity to change is forced upon us. A bad report from a doctor can require change yet even then, reason alone cannot move the mountain: ‘Habit is stronger than reason.* I knew I could not rationalize myself into waking earlier (or waking happier) but I began by studying the habit I was trying to supplant. ‘Studied’ might seem heavy-handed, but Duhigg writes that ‘by learning to observe (our own) cues and rewards … we can change the routines’, so I gave more than cursory attention to my current habits.

The hardest part was convincing myself that the extra effort would be worth it. I gave serious consideration to what I truly crave. Cravings drive habits. ‘Craving .. is what makes cues and rewards work’ (Duhigg). Gretel Ehrlich in her book The Solace of Open Spaces, helped me identify what I craved most:

‘Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. My grandchildren will probably use space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull, or ‘spaced out’ but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation.

From the clayey soil of northern Wyoming is mined bentonite, which is used as a filler in candy, gum, and lipstick. We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denials, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.'

Gretel might have been referring to the solace of physical spaces but she alludes to the spiritual, the space we ‘carry inside ourselves’.  In my case, I craved solitude and quiet, this led me to list the rewards of each new morning activity so I would know exactly what I had to gain, allowing myself to ‘anticipate the rewards’ (CD)*:

  1. more time to give to my hobbies: reading and writing
  2. feeling better through a daily practice of yoga and meditation
  3. enjoying a delicious breakfast, something I could look forward to each morning
  4. space: replacing white noise with white space, dissonance for silence, clutter for expanse

But as Duhhig stated, I had to change my cue. The old cue (slap alarm several times, lay in bed, check social media/read news) had to be changed. I needed a new cue. My new cue is now, slap alarm several times (the hardest habit to die), throw on clothes, do yoga. After many slow starts (and still an occasional falter), I began to supplant the old habit (alarm, lay in bed, worry, heed the roar of white noise) to a new series of morning habits (alarm, yoga, meditation, delicious breakfast, space). This pattern I began to repeat, over and over and over: cue (alarm), routine (yoga, meditation), reward (delicious breakfast, space). Cue, routine, reward. Cue, routine, reward.

The well-learned routine of any mechanical art passes into habit, and habit into unconscious operation. The virtuoso is not aware how he manipulates his instrument; what was conscious labour in the beginning has become instinct and miracle in the end. (Santayana)*


III  Post-script and DENOUEMENT: The Morning Micro-Retreat

Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading … Today’s god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like a skin.

- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

My morning routine shifted from blitzkrieg busyness to encapsulating in micro moments what historian Arnold Toynbee described as ‘withdrawal and return’: ‘The withdrawal makes it possible for the personality to realize powers within himself which might have remained dormant if he had not been released for the time being from his social toils and trammels … withdrawal is an opportunity and perhaps a necessary condition ... for transfiguration’. Toynbee also warns that a withdrawal into solitude ‘can have no purpose, and perhaps even no meaning, except as a prelude to the return of the transfigured personality into the social milieu out of which he had originally come … the return is the essence’. (To which, Edward Abbey responds: the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society’).

Solitude comes easier for some more than others (just as ‘society’ comes easier for some more than others). Though ‘the appetite for silence is seldom an acquired taste’*, our sacred spaces are ‘a fragment of time / in this fragment of the world’.* For me, volitional withdrawal readies me for each day and ensures mindfulness over my meager supply of days. ('What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule … is a net for catching days', Annie Dillard).* Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Elected Silence, sing to me And beat upon my whorled ear, Pipe me to pastures still and be The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb: It is the shut, the curfew sent From there where all surrenders come Which only makes you eloquent.

Space for yourself means creating your own window from which to view the world and comprehending your place in it. One hundred years after Hopkins, Wendell Berry’s words add another chorus to the paean and profit of solitude:

In the low room within the weathers, sitting at the window, he has shed himself at times, and been renewed. The spark at his wrist flickers and dies, flickers and dies … Look in and see him looking out. He is not always quiet, but there have been times when happiness has come to him, unasked, like the stillness on the water that holds the evening clear while it subsides -and he let go what he was not.

Whether you believe in a symmetrical, strict order (‘O holy ritual of everydayness, without you time is empty’)*or the serendipity of randomness (‘always to demand established routes, habitual ways, then, is to go against the grain of life’)* it is inarguable that to achieve either, one must create space, space for happenstance or space for structured sanctuary - both attain an elegance (‘effortless beauty and simplicity in movement or execution’) while reaping the rewards provided by waking well, the art of life's purposed pause.

(For inspiration and other ideas on waking well, check out the site My Morning Routine and also this beautiful infographic: Daily Routines of the World's Most Famous Creative People).


*Resources cited (in order of appearance):

Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard The Bhagavad Gita, Eknath Easwaran (translator) 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story, Dan Harris Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi The Emperor's Handbook, Marcus Aurelius, David Hicks/C. Scot Hicks (translators) The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, George Santayana The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich The Essential George Santayana Collection, George Santayana A Study of History Volume 1, Arnold Toynbee New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry ‘The Habit of Perfection’, Gerard Manley Hopkins Still Life With A Bridle, Zbigniew Herbert Blue Highways: A Journey into America, William Least Heat-Moon

All photos taken Beyond the Commonplace with my Olympus E-PL5.

Postscript: This post is the second in a series of posts entitled Toward An Elegant Order (originally titled: 'Less Stress' which is one-in-the-same), you can read the intro to this series here. If this article’s tone sounds self-righteous, please know: I fail far more than I succeed but I  write to galvanize my convictions. I'm also plagued by the self-centeredness of the essayist but I believe in the efficacy of shared experience and the heuristic possibilities of the web, including making it your own didactic resource.