On Familiarity and Habit

It’s amazing how quickly things become familiar. I was having an average night cooking in this RV when I suddenly realized that cooking in this RV is not an average night at all. Rather, it’s a remarkably new experience that six months ago I never could have foreseen. I remembered that I am living in an RV on a farm in Fort Collins when six months ago I was teaching English at an all-boys Catholic high school in Kansas City dreaming about moving to Colorado. Lately I’ve been struck by these sudden moments that seem to gleam in mystical light. The novelty of everything around me is revealed. I realize that the people I am spending time with and laughing with and debating with and growing with are people I never knew existed a month and a half ago. The bed on which I sleep is not my own. Each realization is a beautiful experience, for it makes me feel profoundly grateful, and when I feel grateful, I am really stoked to be alive.

Familiarization must be the mind’s way of feeling at home in the world. So quickly it turns an unfamiliar environment into something familiar, something we can categorize. It’s when we are experiencing something that the mind can’t categorize that tension enters. The mind can’t become familiar in moments that are too uncomfortable, cause the mind’s established limits are threatened. Then the ego might break. So we cling. We try to hold it together. We search for a place of comfort in our minds. Go to your happy place! they say.

But we must continually embrace discomfort. Cause when we do, we open to letting go of our illusory identity.

When we let go, we open ourselves into a new environment, and the mind finds room to explore territories it previously did not know existed. Those territories can be very frightening. But so much possibility exists in them, and we open to evolution.

So the mind creates something familiar amidst the unfamiliar. I am sure our ancestors did the same thing. It’s the only way we can feel home in a world that is still unpredictable and not always safe. It’s amazing how many places we’re able to find comfort in today’s world.

This summer I took several road trips. The first was with my good friend Ryan, whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Ryan drove us through the Great Plains, exploring the open space of Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. At one point we stopped in Ogallala, NE to grab a burger and a beer. We sat in an old saloon and ordered from a waiter who seemed he’d never left the small area. Within minutes of sitting down I had filtered away all the novelty of the situation. I was just thinking, I wonder what burger I’m gonna get? At one point I looked around and recognized I had never seen any of this before. Suddenly the world illuminated in possibility.

That keeps happening. I know it’s going to continue to keep happening, because my next steps in life are developing beyond this farming experience, and these steps will once again be very new.

I keep thinking this is paralleled with our minds. What I mean is as we establish these patterns of comfort in our external circumstances that can lead to a decreased sense of the novelty of each moment, so we reside in comfortable patterns of the mind. What’s interesting about the mind though is that sometimes these “comfortable” patterns are actually very uncomfortable. For instance, for many years, I resided in the mental pattern that I am a very rotten person at the core of my being. (I theorize this has something to do with the embedded notion of Original Sin.) It alway felt terrible thinking that, yet it seemed it was the only perception available. It’s taken listening to new perspectives and pausing to hear deeper internal voices to recognize that these notions are false.

For some reason, our mind creates this limited perception of ourselves that so often veers toward the negative. These thoughts become so familiar that they convince us of their absolute truth. It’s really hard to break away from these. It might be a lifelong journey. There is no shame in seeking help—therapy helped me get the ball rolling with this ongoing path to open my mind to give and receive love. I mess up all the freaking time. I get angry for stupid reasons. I convince myself of stories about myself and my surroundings that don’t correspond to truth. But I always strive to question my current state of mind, especially if I notice my external habits getting out of whack. That’s when I know there’s something internal in need of addressing, because external habits and internal habits work in conjunction with one another. It’s helped me a lot to recognize that these limiting, self-defeating thoughts are simply habits. When I have grown accustomed to feeding the wolf of fear and doubt, I focus on feeding the wolf of confidence and self-love.

It can be very hard to change an external habit. Internal ones are even more difficult. But because they are connected, changing the external is one of the best ways to change the internal. Haven’t you ever cleaned a room and felt like in the process you cleaned your mind as well? (1)

So sitting in this RV and recalling the novelty of this entire journey helps me realize that it’s time to keep letting go of these overly-familiar habits. Everything around me is unfamiliar. Everything is new. In this newness, this space outside the limits of perception, there’s a whole lot of energy and love.


1: This idea is beautifully explored in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Through fixing his motorcycle, Pirsig is really fixing himself.)

2 Comments on “On Familiarity and Habit

  1. Sean,
    Being open to change, external and internal, takes a lot of vulnerability.
    You are very brave!


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