Morning Rituals

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I’ve been asked, more than once, about my morning routine.

The people asking don’t have any real reason to think I have a set morning routine, except that it’s become a truism that folks who seem productive, who have a high work output, probably get up early, chug along according to some kind of ritualized methodology, and emerge around noon, having written a few books, solved a kōan, and learned how to tune a piano in the meantime.

From that perspective, it’s generally a compliment when people assume that I have such a routine, but this truism is a bit odd if you pick it apart. The idea that a particular time of day is more associated with accomplishment and productivity than others, and that utilizing this specific chunk of one’s wakeful hours is a nod toward purity of form and behavior, doesn’t seem to have any rational basis—time is time, right? And yet, in many cultures, that’s the perception.

To exist in the first place, though, this perception of morning-ness required that we develop a precise understanding of time. And although there’s room for debate about time and its illusory nature, the practical, day-to-day perception of time changed with the arrival of a new, speedy mode of transportation: the train.

Back in the ancient world, in technologically sophisticated societies like those of the Romans, the Chinese, and the Inca, there were clocks of a sort, measuring the day using hourglasses filled with sand, water clocks, and windows positioned just right so that the light passing through it would indicate about how much time was left to harvest crops, load up ships, or perform religious rituals.

Even before that, back in the BCE-era Ancient Egyptian empire, the day was divided into intervals, with the time between sunrise and sunset carved up into 12 chunks, those chunks tracked using sundials.

Our perception of days, weeks, months, and years was also quite different from place to place up until relatively recently: the Ancient Romans (and other cultures) had an eight-day week, one of the days set aside entirely for shopping, for instance.

The Mayan civilization and many Native American precursor groups used a calendar based on the Great Cycle, which dates back to at least the 5th Century BCE, and which is predicated on three different “wheels” of time, working together to track different things: the Long Count keeping tabs on astronomical-scale events, each cycle lasting around 2,880,000 days (about 7,885 years), the Tzolkin, or Divine Calendar tracking a 260-day cycle, broken up into 20 segments of 13 days apiece, and the Haab, which is a 365-day cycle that’s divided into 18 months of 20 days apiece, plus one month that’s only 5-days long. These three wheels of different durations and organizations would then be lined up to tell users exactly which of the 18,980 unique date combinations they were experiencing that day, and each of those combinatorial cycles lasted around 52 years.

That level of specificity tells us that the desire to imbue meaning in the time period we occupy is not a new thing: there’s implied significance in the “now,” whatever now we happen to be experiencing, moment by moment.

But new meaning and specificity was brought into this space in the 19th Century in Europe, with the connection of distant place to distant place using then-modern railroad technologies.

Until this point, it was suspected that each church-bell clang, signaling the hour in most European towns, was off-set from each other clang in every town around the continent. But the amount of delay wasn’t measured until it was possible to quickly travel from one place to the next via train car.

The recognition of this misalignment in time-perception led to the invention of “standard time,” which was organized by the Great Western Railway of Britain in 1840 around what they called Greenwich Mean Time. This time measurement system became law in the UK in 1880, though most other railroads in the area had already adopted it by that point.

In 1884, chronologists met up in Washington, DC for a meeting on how countries would engage with each other, in regards to time-measurement, and the UK convinced the other representatives that their Greenwich Mean Time should serve as the prime meridian, the zero-mark, for the rest of the world’s timekeeping. They originally wanted their “noon” to be the rest of the world’s noon, as well, establishing noon as a measurement of midday in London but the middle of the night, elsewhere, but that bit of chrono-colonialism was considered to be a step too far by the other delegates, so they opted to have GMT serve as the center-point for a new system of time zones, instead.

It took a great many years for the time zone system to actually catch on and be formalized into law. In the US, this formalization didn’t happen until 1918, with the passage of the Standard Time Act—so for perspective, there were no formal time zones in the US during World War I; the law passed the same year the war ended.

This universalized perception of time is partly just a series of labels applied to perceptions we already had, of course, but this slow process of establishing universal standards, alongside numerous physical (rather than systemic) inventions, have fundamentally changed the way we perceive time.

One such invention was the electric light bulb, which emerged in its mainstream form in the late-19th century, and both it and the infrastructure to power it spread quickly around the world, starting in big, Western cities. The benefits of having light of a far higher quality and brightness than was previously available, however, was such a useful concept that governing officials around the world made investments and took the time to get it installed faster than many other comparable inventions. So it was a worldwide thing in relatively short order.

This resulted in a theretofore novel situation in which most people in these electrified societies were no longer beholden to the sun for their sleep-cycle, and could thus, if they so chose—or were so required—stay awake for far longer hours, and work during those hours, as well.

The factory mentality of the Industrial Revolution, itself enabled by the emergence of widespread electrification, but also electric lighting, likely played a role in the evolution of a bias toward early rising, since biologically we’re predisposed to lean more toward being early birds or night owls, but those dispositions are then calibrated to the sun, to the light in the sky that tells our bodies when it’s time to get up and when it’s time to go to sleep.

Our internal chemical processes are triggered and changed by this light; which is part of why the deployment of lights throughout our cities for safety, and the always-available lights in our pockets and nightstands, are purported to be a significant component of our contemporary issues with sleep depravation.

Illumination-availability aside, the romantic ideal of getting up early remains strangely embedded in many societies, perhaps because it’s become so abnormal and impractical, perhaps because it hearkens back to a pseudo-rise-with-the-sunshine mentality—the rhythms set by our employers and enforced by the alarms on our smartphones generally taking precedence, these days—and perhaps because we’ve been told so many heroic stories of famous inventors, makers, wealthy and powerful people who got up early to perform magical deeds, that such ideology has seeped into our very understanding of what those dawn and pre-dawn hours are for; what they represent.

There’s an implied toughness in being able to force oneself to work such hours, I think.

There’s also an implied sturdiness and honor in performing rituals—whatever those rituals might be and for whatever purpose—in an age of constant distraction.

Consider the success of video content featuring the creation of handmade knives or a granular focus on the making of scale-measured, timer-moderated pour-over coffee.

The implication of artisanship, of integrity, is predicated in part on the precision of the acts and their adherence to the tenets of the ritual—be they a particular grind angle on the blade, or a particular grind size on the coffee beans.

Part of this predisposition may originate with a human tendency to, at times, prefer orderly, predictable, non-natural things to chaotic, unpredictable natural things: neat rows of trees in an orchard rather than cluttered, unpredictable forests, for example.

There’s also a tendency toward purity that may apply here, which informs everything from how we perceive our own bodies—favoring a sense of oneness and me-ness, over a sense of we-ness that might more accurately describe the microbiome that makes up a human body—to the way we perceive our environments; favoring the comprehend-ability and simplicity of monoculture over a resilient ecological web, for instance.

There’s also a tendency to perceive the traditional as superior the contemporary, which might play a role in this propensity, and which probably stems from status quo bias mixed with a hint of rosy retrospection—the rose-tinted glasses we often wear when thinking about our past, or the imagined past of our ancestors.

Through these lenses, The Youth are wayward and undisciplined, and the elders, be they alive or dead, have a near-magical capacity for monastic discipline. Same as it ever was.

We also may be imbuing difficult or taxing labor with a sense of nobility; a sense that it’s good and pure because it’s difficult, regardless of the quality of the outcome of that labor.

There is something to be said for the process being the point, and a person growing, in terms of self-perception and even happiness, due to the pursuit of big goals and the performance of tricky, even tedious milestones on the way to those goals.

But many things we once did by hand can now be done better, according to essentially every other metric, through the use of technology, making such work more efficient, less tedious, less draining, and often less dehumanizing in the process.

So while chopping down your own tree, making your own bread, and building your own house may be meditative in a sense, this doesn’t imply that all tedious, human-powered things will be superior to the alternative—in terms of the tangible outcome, at least.

The concept that morning rituals are in some way more important, valuable, or even noble than other sorts of rituals, or any other type of behavior, scheduled or unscheduled, planned or unplanned, traditional or truly original, then, is perhaps predicated on our sense of extraction from the biological, our perception of nobility in tradition, and our propensity to romanticize and celebrate the laborious.

Such rituals, then, while not lacking in value, are perhaps perceived to be more valuable than they latently are because of the lenses through which we view them.


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