Five Specific Ways From Japan to Establish Routines

Our routines are gone. It's time to get new ones.

Posted Oct 24, 2020

Without the routines that we enjoyed and had to adhere to before the pandemic, a lot of the troubling emotions we kept at bay are now disorienting us, making us scared and miserable. Work and play had a rhythm before things shut down; that made it possible to distract ourselves and deny painful emotions and their causes. Now that it’s clear that things aren’t going back to normal any time soon, we have a chance and responsibility to create new routines. These new routines make it possible to embrace life differently than before.

The old routines--at work, in our homes, when we are out and about — took years to establish. But the routines we relied upon for well-being did not take place suddenly.

Five specific ways to establish new routines that I learned from studying Japan are explained in great detail in my book about the culture: Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance. These ways can be woven into our highly individualistic lives. By adding to what we do here and respecting the cultural differences, we integrate approaches rather than appropriate them. To me, it’s like a good marriage between two people who aren’t much alike: We learn from one another.

Here are five ways to establish routines by way of Japan:

Change takes place incrementally. Make a small change in your life, and watch how other things will change slowly and surely as a result. It ought to be very practical. For example, I take my dog a few mornings a week to the city park; as a result, I’ve met people I never knew before and we have started to talk about our families. These individuals are now part of my routine. On Tuesday, only on that day, a local bakery sells walnut bread; when I buy that bread, I plan a dinner around it. Both being in the park and knowing that on Tuesday it’s time for walnut bread create a rhythm.

Any routine that makes you and others feel good is better than no routine. Keep it simple. It can be going to the park, it can be calling an older family member to check in on her each week at the same day and time. It can be ambitious: I run about two miles every day. Whatever it is, stick to it until it becomes something that is part of your new way of life.

What does nature expect of us? Shintoism is based on understanding and observing nature. With the pandemic curtailing what was, the question now ought to be: What is? Rather than struggle against the bonds that are on us, the restrictions, how can and must we adapt to this period of incubation? What are nature’s expectations? If we can figure that out, it’s not so bleak. It’s not time to demand a return to what was. It’s time to demand of ourselves what is.

How do we fit into nature’s demands? With few exceptions, as human beings, we crave social contact, the sound of others’ voices, the period of time getting to know another person, and sustained intimacy. Now nature is demanding something else of us. Within our confinement, we can use the solitary states to observe better. I read more, my ability to listen has (I think) improved, and I appreciate the pleasures and magnitude of silence more than ever. This time won’t last: What can we do to appreciate what it has to offer?

Do nothing. Zen Buddhist traditions in Japan enforce the outlook that "everything is nothing," meaning that in very practical ways, our personal stress is temporary. No stress lasts forever. By recognizing that, we can accept the temporary pain. I’m a huge fan of naps, tuning out, and engaging in nonverbal activities. Listening to a lot of jazz, cooking, and dozing off.

The key is acceptance: Our new routines will replace the old ones, and soon enough the ways we once relied upon for well-being will be memories. The new routines will be better because they are more in line with who we are now rather than who we were then.