My son is a bass player. He has rhythm – great rhythm. Because of him, I have great appreciation for the steady backbone of a band that a bass player provides – the very heartbeat of the music. I was never particularly aware of the bass when I listened to music before he started playing. Now I see how it allows the other musicians to develop melodies without the added worry of thinking about keeping a beat.
Do I love talking about my son? Of course! That is not the purpose of this post, however. I started thinking about rhythm, rhythmic motion, and habit recently while visiting him in Seattle. I was actually on a treadmill at the time . . . thinking about ideas for my blog . . . walking at a good pace . . . while trying to hold, and periodically take sips from, a cup of Seattle’s claim to fame (coffee!).
It’s interesting what I learn when I least expect it. My pace on the treadmill was very steady – It’s a machine, after all! – but holding the coffee cup caused me to split my attention between the coffee cup (“Don’t spill it!”) and my walking. The usual steady swinging rhythm that my arms naturally take when walking was not possible while holding the cup. Add to that the extra complexity of actually sipping from the cup – now that is really an exercise in coordination that requires some thought!
I was getting frustrated by my inability to focus on my mental task. Walking or running are usually great for my creative thinking process. What I noticed was that the coffee cup added a degree of complexity to my otherwise rhythmic activity, making it difficult for me to concentrate on anything more. My AHA! moment came when I finally finished my coffee, put it in the cup holder, and resumed the rhythmic motion – minus the distraction.
My arms started swinging in perfect time to the movement of my feet, and I was truly in the “zone”. “This is more like it!” I thought. All of a sudden, my head was clear of the clutter. I was now on auto-pilot, free to allow creative thoughts to enter, and free to deliberately think and develop ideas. I didn’t need my conscious thought to focus on my movement anymore – I could use it for something else.
Relaxation techniques are examples of how a rhythmic activity can calm the mind and allow for peacefulness and mindful awareness. Conscious attention to deep breathing, rocking, walking – these are all simple ways to reduce stress.
Rhythmic activity can also be a feature of mindless eating however. Who is not familiar with the mesmerizing effect of the hand to mouth activity of eating from a bag of chips?! The repetition makes it unnecessary to think about each movement in the process. We do not consciously think, “I will now open my mouth while I grab a chip.” The repetitive motion lets us put the brain in “sleep” mode.
That is why the key to breaking any bad habit is to disrupt the usual sequence of events, not unlike my coffee cup example. All of a sudden, we simply are required to wake up. All too often, the jolt that causes people to awaken is the feeling of a hand hitting the bottom of an empty bag!
Habits in general develop a sort of rhythm of their own. They always involve repetitive sequences of activity. That is what makes them so effortless – the automatic quality of habits allows us to shut off conscious thought about them. They just happen – or so it seems. Habits help us streamline everyday routines, which can be helpful, but unhealthy habits can become hard to break.