I’ve been going to the John Barrett Salon, located in Bergdorf Goodman, for 15 years. Today I had an appointment with my hair colorist there. As I left after my appointment, I reminded myself that I had to walk to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue to take the 4/5/6 train. That’s a change for me; I’ve always taken the N train from Fifth Avenue and 60th Street back downtown to Union Square.
Except that, as of five weeks ago, I’m not living in my old home anymore. I’m currently staying on the Upper East Side.
As I walked to 59th and Lexington Avenue, I took in the familiar and changing landscape around me. This was old hat — Bergdorf’s is across the street from the GM building, home to the law firm where I started my career. I’ve walked those blocks thousands of times over the years.
Going for a Ride
I reached 59th and Lex and descended into the subway station. As I approached the turnstile the local train was there and I decided to hop on, rather than run down for the express train.
When the train stopped at 51st Street, I had a moment where I thought, something feels off, but I couldn’t place it. I’m on the Lexington Avenue line almost daily, especially since I’ve been staying uptown. I typically take this line express, though, so I chalked it up to being on a local train.
Then we get to Grand Central–42nd Street and suddenly I hit on the thing that felt off:
I got on the train in the wrong direction.
Instead of taking the train uptown to where I’m staying, I was heading downtown, to the home that is no longer mine.
Fortunately, Grand Central Terminal is an easy place to switch direction. I hopped off the train and went upstairs to get to the uptown track, laughing at what happened.
Lost in Habit
I had wondered when something like this would happen. I’m so habituated to enter this station on the southwest corner of 59th and Lexington, heading downtown. I forgot that I needed to cross the street to go uptown. Even though I had just reminded myself that I was going to the Upper East Side.
It was a moment of mindlessness. It was an action directed by my unconscious.
It was habit.
I laughed at the irony. During my hair appointment I had been working on a piece about my work in creating rituals and breaking habits. The specific distinction I reinforce for clients in this work is that this work is about breaking out of the trance of mindlessness.
Many people endeavor to create habits as a path to automating behavior. I can tell you that even after 5 years, going to the gym every day is not automatic. Today was day 1,026 in my daily meditation streak. Also not automatic.
So it’s a good thing that’s never been my goal.
Breaking Free of Automaticity
In fact, my journey began with a desire to break out of the trap of automaticity. I was trying to break habits, through the process of creating rituals.
I have been motivated by a desire to live a more intentional and conscious life. A more mindful life.
And here I was, mindlessly getting on the subway in the wrong direction. Further proof that it’s harder to break a habit than make a habit.
I’m so habituated to getting in the subway at 59th Street heading downtown, I didn’t even notice.
In fact I am actually really proud of myself for catching it at 42nd Street. I could’ve easily gotten absorbed in writing or reading on my phone and not noticed until Union Square.
Today it was just a minor detour. But in the bigger picture of life, this is the risk of running on autopilot:
The Conveyor Belt
After a while, a life of automaticity becomes a blur. It’s easy to lose track of our destination. We may not even notice the scenery.
It’s like riding the human conveyor belt at the airport. It may be less work and effort to get from one end to the other, but you become removed from life as it passes you by. Caught up on the ride, you’re unable to get off and interact with what’s around you, to stop, explore, experience, or expand a moment.
To be sure, there are certainly things that are useful to do on autopilot. But fewer things than we think. At least that is if you want to live a meaningful life.
A Meaningful Life
A meaningful life is a life lived fully awake and aware. We find meaning when we break out of automaticity and live in full presence.
Today reminded me of one of the downsides of habits: when we are living an automated life, it’s much easier to get taken for a ride. I create rituals to get off the conveyor belt so I can seize my moments and opportunities.