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When the power goes out: on habit + ritual

I once asked a native Michigander why, while rain and snow storms are common in Michigan and even tornadoes occasionally pass through, the city where we live—Ann Arbor—seems to largely go unscathed. I expected an explanation about geographical features or wind patterns, but instead he said, “Have you ever looked at a map of the city? We live in the middle of a big heart!”

google map ann arborAnd indeed, if you tilt your head a little to the left and take a look, there it is! Of course, that doesn’t explain the phenomenon in the pre-highway days—I’m still betting on geography and wind patterns—but it’s kind of comforting anyway…?

Add to this “protection” that in our subdivision, all electrical wiring is buried, which not only makes for a more attractive view but also renders us slightly more immune to power outages than a lot of other neighborhoods.

But the other day, a huge windstorm knocked down some trees outside our subdivision, and when I woke up at 2am, my husband said the power had gone out at 10pm. Oh well, I thought, nothing to do but sleep anyway!

When I woke up at 5:30am (woohooo—for me this is sleeping in!), I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep and might as well get up.

Finding the candles and lighting the gas stove to get hot water started were easily accomplished, and yoga and meditation don’t require electricity…but then what?

We’re on the far western edge of the Eastern time zone, so daylight comes late in the winter. Coffee can be made without electricity, but reading is a bit difficult….

I checked the power company’s website on my phone but didn’t want to use the phone or the computer’s battery to much since it was unclear when power would be restored. It’s a trite observation that we are incredibly power and wifi dependent now—but even as a fairly Luddite family, even we are!

We did manage to get our day started after a fashion: my husband used what was left of the hot water to shower and then headed to the office to finish what work was left from the night before. One child took advantage of the situation to sleep in and go to school late. The other was delighted because breakfast was takeout—an almost unheard of treat—to keep from opening the fridge and letting the cold air out.

And the whole time, we went from room to room carrying candles and laughing because we would still reach for the light switches. We have a running joke at our house that the true test of our dependence on electricity is evidenced by how many lights pop back on when power is restored. (We didn’t do too badly this time!)

pixabay candleA power outage makes you realize the extent to which we are creatures of habit, and it made me think about my work as a health coach: a large part of the success clients experience comes by daily taking tiny baby steps—actions so small that they don’t take us too far out of our comfort zone yet move the needle ever so slightly toward better health. The goal is to over time make this small action into a habit, a seamless part of our days, an action we take without thinking.

But the power outage brought something more to mind as well. In a “mind map” I saw recently from The Good Life Project, Jonathan Fields talks about “practice” as having two sides: one is habit and one is ritual. Both are a practice, the difference being that one we perform without thinking while the other demands our full intention and attention: in a way they are practically (haha) opposites.

I couldn’t turn on the lights, check email, or cook breakfast as usual, but I could still do yoga, meditate, make coffee—and all these rituals were somehow more powerful, more intentional in the dark. In a way, making coffee and reading over a cup of it with the power on is a habit; making it in the dark and savoring every sip because you can’t read is a ritual.

There are habits—like flipping on the lights—that will remain mindless. There are practices—like drinking plenty of water, moving our bodies, eating something green every day—that become habits over time. There are rituals—like yoga and meditation—that only become habits when done without intention.

And all these practices are sometimes only highlighted by the unexpected in our lives, by a power outage, whether real or virtual. In this week of politics-definitely-not-as-usual, maybe the time has come to do some thinking about our practices.

The next time the power goes out, don’t rail against the power company; instead, try using the darkness imposed on you to celebrate the habits you’ve developed—perhaps without even realizing you’ve done so—and to bring attention and intention back to your rituals.

[And if you’re wondering about the end to the power outage story: we were told it would be restored by midnight—which would have been about 26 hours—but right after I booked a nearby hotel room, the power company changed their estimate to noon—only 14 hours—and managed to execute even before that. I’m taking full credit for giving the Universe a nudge on that one.]

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