I remember a remarkable episode of the old Bill Cosby show, in which Dr. Huxtable and his wife surprise Dr. Huxtable’s father on his birthday with the gift of an all-expenses trip for two to Paris. His father is touched, grateful, and a trifle embarrassed.
“We can’t go,” he says sheepishly to his son. “Why not?” Dr. Huxtable says. “You’ve always wanted to go to Europe.”
“Well,” the father says, “I’m used to getting up in the morning, getting the New York Times from the front porch, and sitting in my favorite chair with my coffee and reading it. I’ll miss that if I go to Paris.”
The touching point of this moment is the matter of routines as we grow older. When we are young we imagine we can do anything. We are spontaneous; we’ll go to Europe at the drop of a hat. But as we are older, and our youthful energy wanes, we fall into routines. These are not just habits, though they can be.
They are also a honing in on what works for us, what we enjoy, what is the best use of our energy. There is a kind of wisdom in routines. Of course, for me and for Buddhists who have been to retreat, lived in a residential practice community, or lived in a monastery, the practice life is all about routines.
“Just follow the schedule,” is the instruction for new monastics or new retreatants. Somehow routines seem to free the mind and heart for deeper things. The routines of aging can be practices like that, if they have the directionality of wisdom. Many of my Zen friends have been sitting Zen meditation once a day without fail for years or decades. Once a day we visit the realm of unconditional truth, of just being here. My teacher Shunryu Suzuki liked this spirit of daily practice.
On the surface, there’s not much to see, but underneath, there’s a lot.
“People may think we’re crazy here at Tassajara monastery,” he once said, “just getting up, doing meditation, eating, working. So boring.” And then he laughed. “It’s all right. Pretty soon we’ll find out who is crazy.”