Habits in an Age of Solitude

This is as much a note to myself as it is a public article.

Recently I’ve had more than enough time to think. Pandemic and Unemployment will do that. But no matter each person’s situation, chances are that most of us find ourselves involuntarily cloistered with more indoor time than ever before — and so our thoughts wander.

In these moments of difficult contemplation my mind rests on the lives of ascetics, monks, and other such orders that voluntarily chose the life of spiritual seclusion. It may be worth seeking inspiration from them, even if just at the surface level. My illustrations and writings are not suggestions to join a secluded order or convert to a religion by any means— but I hope you can see that I was inspired enough to put down my thoughts in letters and colors.

Look Back, Look Forward, and See

In this first part of a “Habits” series (1 of 2), I lay out some musings inspired by ascetic orders or faiths in general. These thoughts helped me in coping with difficulties of pandemic lockdown. I’ve grouped them into 5 categories: Clean, Move, Read, Create, and Rest.

Admittedly most of my points are cliché or remixes, but sadly they are also easily forgotten or often ignored. I wanted to organize these thoughts for myself, but maybe the results could be helpful for others as well. As my words are mostly self-reflective and undoubtedly biased, do treat them as self-reminders and not as unsolicited platitudes.

M: Remember, our main objective is to get through this period as healthy as we can be. Remember to rest, and that you do not need to be productive at the cost of added stress. An obsessive desire to be productive for productivity’s sake may often end up being counter-productive, especially now.

Clean

Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Ancient Babylonian and Hebrew saying

For some reason the image of monks and nuns cleaning has been burned into my brain since I was a kid.
“Why are they always cleaning? It’s not even that dirty.”
“Also — more importantly, why is Mom always telling me to clean EVERY DAY?!”

I think I get it now.

Tidying our space tidies our mind.

Brush, Sweep, Tidy

We’ve all had this concept yelled at us by our elders, reminded by society, and most recently sold to us by Ms. Kondo (I’m not talking spicy, her stuff works. I bought 2 books and watched multiple episodes!) — but our retreat into our caves has made it clear that a certain level of cleanliness is an absolute necessity.

Cleaning also ticks other positive boxes:

  • It gets our body to move, even a little bit
  • It can be meditative since it’s repetitive
  • It gives a sense of accomplishment
  • It’s quick enough to do every day

It’s true that sometimes cleaning projects can take hours — even days, but the feeling of accomplishment of a job well done or a job finally finished (after so much procrastination) is unparalleled.

M: Of course “Clean enough” is subjective. Personally I prefer something along the lines of “Clean, but lived in”. But I’ve met people that prefer “Clean clothes sprinkled on the floor make my room smell nice” or “An OCD robot lives here”. Whatever keeps your mind clear is your way.

As part of my daily ritual I try to clean a little bit every day. I do this right after my morning coffee. If nothing else, make your bed.

Move

We come spinning out of nothingness scattering stars like dust.
Rumi

Before the pandemic, we were moving around quite a bit — even if we didn’t realize it. We were visiting our friends and family, commuting to and from work and study, going to our places of community and worship. Once lockdown started we realize how much we actually moved, how much we miss it, and how movement helped in keeping us sane.

Now we experience seemingly endless sedentary hours of sitting and lying down, which is unhealthy in multiple levels. The ascetic orders knew of the value of moving our bodies, and some even paid special emphasis on the importance of physical exercise and movement to the health of mind, body, and spirituality.

Extend, Spin, Bend

Moving helps us for multiple reasons:

  • It prevents physical conditions, especially related to bone and muscle
  • It is a mood enhancer, can help with depression
  • It is meditative, gives a point of focus
  • It begets more movement, a positive cycle

Now — more than ever, physical activity and exercise needs to be an explicit aim. When we act out being a corpse, what do we do? Not move. (Closing eyes and sticking tongue out is optional). Movement is life itself.

M: My own movement activities consist of 3 categories: Stretching, Dance, and Workout.

Stretch because I need to make sure my lower back and knees are not in pain, Dance because it keeps my mood up, and Workout because my strength has been in steady decline. It may seem intense, but each section started of as 5 minute activities. As I got more used to it, each section is now approx. 20-30 minutes each but sometimes over that — Dance is a constant culprit. But if anything, start with 5 minutes total every single day. You might be surprised at how quickly your body takes to this new habit.

Read

One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.
Carl Sagan

I used to think that holy men and women always had their noses deep in books, only deciphering holy texts or writing their contemplations on them. Turns out that is not all they do, but reading still takes up a big chunk of their time — their scriptures contain spiritual guidance, revealed truths, and vehicles of self reflection.

Read, Read, Read

Also while a healthy mind desires a healthy body, I’d like to think that a healthy body would prefer a well-exercised mind. While visual puzzles, math problems, IQ games, and other analogues such as audio books do exist, I still prefer good ol’ book readin’ as my preferred form of mind exercise. Something about seeing the words and “chewing” on them at my own pace allows me to digest and retain information better.

When I read, it helps me in various ways:

  • For a brief moment, I forget my problems and the problems outside
  • I read about others, their successes and pitfalls
  • It gives my mind new ideas to chew on, to form newer ideas
  • It clarifies thoughts and skills that I have been having problems with
  • It can expose your shortcomings — your own bullshit, but also reveals your strengths

I’ve heard this saying in a hundred different ways: “Our bodies may be ‘shackled’, but our minds remain free.” Whether we want to transport our minds to the history of Ancient Empires, to fanciful worlds of Dragonborns, or wrap our head around learning new skills, there is an Idiot’s Guide for that. There are literally books about anything — in any language you can think of, most of which have not yet been scanned to digital form, let alone turned to podcasts, videos, or games. As majority of recorded human knowledge is still in letters, we read on.

M: Personally I divide my reading into 3 categories: Technical, Recreational, and Miscellaneous. Technical as in instructional books or those that lean towards niche topics related to specific industries or careers. Recreational as in books that I would read for fun, curiosity, or related to a hobby. And Miscellaneous for books that do not fit neatly in either category. I find that this keeps my mind in some sort of balance and keep my readings fresh.

This all sounds intense, but in reality I only read a small portion of each book a day — could be a single page, concept, or chapter. I read in a very stress-free manner, which works very well for me.

Create

[…] Then Doondari (God) came and he created the stone.
Then the stone created iron;
And iron created fire;
And fire created water;
And water created air.[…]
A Fulani Story (Mali)
From “The origin of life and death: African creation myth.” by Ulli Beier

Platonic ideas point to three properties of being: truth, beauty, and goodness. I like to think of these properties as three orientations of human creation: creation of knowledge, creation that please aesthetic sensibilities, and creation of kindness for others. We do all three, with varying mixture of each.

Religious orders are known for their creation of kindness, but it may surprise some of us laymen that some orders use visual or aural creations to contemplate their beliefs and that a monk or nun doing scientific research is compatible with religion — it is a way to admire the work of their deities.

Create Knowledge, Create Beauty, Create Good

As a “Creative” (as our Corporate overlords would brand me) of course I would see the world with “Artistic” glasses. All around me I see creatures who are creators. Those creating paths to knowledge — our candles in the dark. Those creating stories and wonder — salves for the soul. Those creating goodness in the world — acts of service so that we may heal and continue to live again.

My main orientation is Creating Beauty and this expression serves me as a bulwark against depression and anxiety.

Creating Beauty helps me in the following ways:

  • It is a form of communication with others
  • It channels another world, away from the problems of reality
  • It often brings me to “The Zone” or flow state, a great feeling
  • It gives me extreme satisfaction when idea and execution align
  • Failures remind me that life is constant improvement

Whenever I hear somebody say “I just want to do something worthwhile.”, my mind translates that as “I want to create an insight, an object, or an act that is valuable to me, my peers, and society.”

M: To those who know me it’s no surprise that I heavily lean towards Creating Beauty. But I do think that we must all try to embody all three orientations. We can only be better for it.

Seek so you may know,
Sketch so you may see,
Succor so you may feel,
All three so you may understand.

I won’t be a poet, it’s hella derivative, but that little ditty up there made me a tad proud.

Rest

A blade always drawn, rusts.
Unattributed

Even the gods rested.

Some deities even got the wine bottles out. Work is great but it is best when tempered with recovery — both physical and mental. Certain faiths even have iconography showing their gods at rest, and some even mandate one rest day every seven days.

So why, in gods’ names’ do you keep running yourself ragged, Michael?! Why do you feel guilty for resting?! (This part is really for me. If you feel targeted, then this is for you too.)

Breathe, Settle, Calm

Most worthwhile pursuits take a long time and so rest must be accounted for. I believe religious orders know this. They are pursuing spiritual truth — enlightenment, salvation — the project of projects, a marathon of marathons. Stamina is the game, and consistent rest is paramount.

We all know the benefits of good rest but it bears repeating:

  • Better mental and physical performance
  • Better resistance to mental and physical conditions
  • Enhanced mood
  • Beautiful skin
  • Aura that makes everyone attracted to you
  • In better condition to party when pandemic is over

My heart goes out to you if good rest is an impossibility. You might be in a dire economic situation or suffer a health condition. You know and feel the importance of good sleep. As with most things, we only realize the true value of rest once it is taken away.

M: If you are tired and you have the luxury to recover — Stop. Rest.

Conclusion

Putting this article together was very therapeutic. I’ve had variants of these thoughts floating in my head for months, but finally putting down the images and words allowed me to solidify what I mean and also free up some head space.

Creating this article helped me make sense of habits that keeps me grounded, with imagery and categorization that help me remember. If difficulties arise, just remember to Clean, Move, Read, Create, and Rest. I’m glad and surprised that even a shallow glance into ascetic orders and their philosophy has helped me tremendously.

I hope in reading this article it has helped you too.

— Written and Illustrated by Michael Salvador

M: There is a Part 2 of this “Habits” series, where I’ve gone into detail on a set of habit data collected in 2020. There are data graphics which hopefully you will like!

I am an Illustrator and UI/UX Designer with an undying interest in Dance. I write as a means to empty my mind with hopes that it uses that room to grow.