In the field of perceptual psychology, there is a concept called “habituation”, which refers to the process of becoming less sensitive and responsive when being repetitively exposed to a constant stimulus. A simple example of this phenomenon is seen when we easily become experientially deaf to the sound of a humming fan overhead after being exposed to the sound for several minutes.
Stop and Hear the Songbirds
As I write these words, I’m noticing the sound of songbirds that I did not hear a few moments ago when I was very focused on the composition of this article. Focused, one-pointed attention can have the effect of blocking out extraneous sights, sounds, and other sensory stimuli. About 30 years ago, as I was taking the national licensing exam for psychologists, I was so hyper-focused on the multiple choice test that I did not notice how forcefully I turned each page of the exam until I saw a nearby fellow examinee startle in her seat every time I turned the page! That perception allowed me to orient to my behavior and thereby modify it; my page turning immediately became kinder and gentler.
You can easily become oblivious to your routine thoughts, speech, and behavioral patterns unless you take the time and space for developing a sense of mindfulness—present centered awareness—about them, without judgment. Mindfulness can break the trance created by your repetitive routines. As someone who enjoys various routines, I know that a routine can be functional and skillful or dysfunctional and unskillful. For example, I consider my physical exercise habits to be healthy; when I reflexively check the email on my computer or iPhone, that’s another story.
The habitual words you use to describe your self, work, relationships, and life in general can have the effect of diminishing your awareness of the implicitly influential messages communicated by them.
Retreating is Advancing
I have been musing about the words that are sometimes habitually used to express the work that I do. I’m sure you can relate. One day, when a friend asked why my wife and I enjoy facilitating “retreats”, I jokingly replied that, “they’re more about advancing into life than retreating from life.” Reflecting on my stream-of-consciousness reply, I came to appreciate more fully how intentional retreats can support people in evolving their ways of thinking, speaking, and acting in the world. To retreat is to also advance!
From Retirement to Advancement
As a baby boomer who is doing work and experiencing life much differently than I did 30 years ago, I sometimes get mistaken as being “retired” or “semi-retired”. I’m playing with the idea of an alternative to the word “retirement”. Sure, people do retire from occupations. However, retirement sometimes carries a subtle or not-so-subtle connotation of retiring from life. Perhaps the term “advancement” would be a more suitable descriptor.
To Vacate or to Inhabit?: That is the Question
When we travel to other locations for rest, relaxation, adventure, or cultural exploration, it’s easy to use the term “vacation” to describe this process. As my perception has shifted over the years, I have come to consider the word “inhabitation” as a light-hearted replacement for the word “vacation”. Yes, it’s true that I vacate one location when I travel to another place. However, I take so much with me (e.g., thoughts, patterns, values) when traveling to other places that it’s really another form of living life, an expression of moving towards something of value rather than running away from the core aspects of my life. Living life in other locations has taken on the meaning of inhabiting my life rather than vacating from life. This is more than a semantic distinction, and reminds me of the difference between a tourist and a traveler. A traveler is one who can take the time to sit down with a local and enjoy a different culture from firsthand experience instead of busily rushing through the “Top Ten Tourist Activities” list to acquire more experiences that will quickly be forgotten.
A couple of years ago, while on a cultural exploration of my ancestral roots, my wife Linda and I found ourselves in the small Sicilian town of Delia, which is located in an agricultural area where most tourists would not be likely to visit. Being hopeless foodies, we did our homework and found a restaurant to our liking. As we began to order our lunch, the other two guests in the restaurant departed, leaving us, the headwaiter, and chef-owner Francesco Lucchese the only people in this beautiful establishment. We exchanged pleasant conversation with the waiter and owner of the restaurant. Upon concluding our meal, I said to the chef, “I understand that there is an ancient Norman castle in your town, and we would like to see it. Can you please tell us how to get there?” Chef Lucchese pondered for about 3 seconds and then abruptly said, “Follow me!” He promptly closed his restaurant, took his waiter with him, and had us follow behind him in our vehicle as he guided us to the castle. Walking up the path to the castle, we engaged in half-Italian/half-English conversations that spanned philosophy, spirituality, culture, history, and of course—food (the photo above shows Linda with the chef and waiter on the path to the castle, at the beginning of an unplanned adventure that we will always remember). When our personal tour of the castle was over, the chef then invited us to a local farm, where we met a kind grandfather and grandson who were tending to their sheep and horses. After the farm tour, we were taken to an olive oil factory as we continued to engage in animated conversation with the chef and his waiter. It was clear to us that this was not a vacation experience; this was our life being lived, appreciated, and experienced through a connection co-created by four people engaged in openhearted communication. As the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “I have arrived. I am home.”
Home does not have to be defined by a location; it can be identified as a state of being—at home, in the present, wherever you are.
Questions can be useful tools to expand the frame of perception beyond habituation. Consider these:
Where in my life might I be habituated? Look for areas of low energy, negativity, self-defeating routines, or uninspired patterns of behavior.
What routine labels do I use to describe myself, my closest friends, my partner or spouse, my life, and my work? Do these labels support or diminish my ability to be kind, grateful, compassionate, joyful, and fully alive?
What common words, phrases, or explanations do I frequently use in my work? Has their frequent use dulled the meaning or intent of the words? If yes, how? If not, why not?
Am I mostly vacating from my life or inhabiting my life? How?
ENCOURAGEMENT FOR THE ROAD
Now is the time to fully inhabit your life, the only life there is. Forget the vacation—inhabit!