There is a story I want to share with you. A story of a sword master and his apprentice. That conveys exactly why I’ve stopped focusing on building habits and doing specific practices like journaling, reading, or working out every single day.
Numbing the Mind With Habits
The apprentice takes his stance. His master is a few feet in front of him. Both hold up their swords, which glisten in the afternoon sun. The master has a relaxed look on his face. The apprentice looks focused and holds on to his sword for dear life.
The master moves around not losing sight of the apprentice. Holding his sword with the slightest of effort. He waits. He listens to the birds, observes the apprentice’s movement, and…
Then the apprentice strikes. Swiftly, and perfectly according to the master’s training. In a fast and sudden motion, the master moves out of the way. The apprentice’s sword barely misses the master. In the same movement, the master swings his sword. It clashes on the apprentices’ sword. The impact creates a loud cling and the apprentice drops his sword. In a single swift blow, the master disarmed the apprentice. He bows and puts his sword back into its sheath.
The apprentice picks up his sword and bows. The master walks away and sits on a stone near the small river where they were training. The apprentice sits next to him.
“Master” the apprentice starts. “What did I do wrong? It seemed so easy for you to disarm me, yet I was so convinced that I was doing everything you taught me.” He asked with a defeated look on his face. “You defeat me so easily, master.”
For a brief moment, the master starred at the flowing water. “You are too rigid.” He sternly replied. “You have been training a lot. You have been practicing the routine. I’ve seen you perform this attack a million times, and it has become very skillful. But it is useless in a real fight.” The master says.
The apprentice looks confused. “Why is it useless? Didn’t you teach me how to perform this attack?” The apprentice asked.
“Yes, I did. But I did not teach you to perform it as a routine. I did not tell you to do the same attack over and over again. All I told you was to understand the movement. To feel the swift motion of this attack and become one with it.” “But didn’t I do that?” The apprentice interrupted.
“You did not. All you did was practice the same action. The same attack. The same blow over and over again. You think you have mastered this attack, but you haven’t. You barely understand it. The way you practiced and repeated this attack over and over again has made it similar. Predictable. Every trained swordsman can easily disarm you. Your attack is rigid, dull, uninspired. For you have created a routine, a habit out of performing it. Not understanding the movement of the sword. Not understanding its balance. Its use in a fight. The way your body and sword work together. Your practice of routine is a disgrace to the art of sword fighting.” The master says sternly. His gaze was still fixated on the water.
The apprentice doesn’t understand. And asks the master why it’s such a bad thing to practice something a million times. He believes that mastery is in the act of repeating a practice. An action performed over and over again.
“My young apprentice let me explain this to you. The repetition of practice, of action, is a great thing. It helps you to get accustomed to the movement, to the way of doing things. It is practice and repetition that will lead you on the road to mastery in life. Yet a true master never gets used to the practice, to the action. He does not create a habit out of it. Repeating it over and over again in the same fashion. A master swordsman doesn’t learn how to strike by making his attack a mechanical routine movement. It is that mechanical routine, the habit of doing something over and over again that helps us quickly get the hang of a specific practice, but leaves us in dark of truly understanding and feeling the practice.” The master breaks his gaze at the water.
A master always moves with excitement, passion, and understanding of the movements and stances he performs. He doesn’t bluntly repeat a swing of his sword, he understands that swing deeply.
“A master always moves with excitement, with passion, and understanding of the movements and stances he performs. He doesn’t bluntly repeat a swing of his sword, he understands that swing deeply. How the wind, and resistance work on the blade. How the movement of his enemy can parry its attack. A master never follows habits or routines, for it is what will make his mind dull, boring, uncreative. Which are all qualities of a man which isn’t truly alive, but is only living in the illusion that mastery is something to be acquired by the repetition of things.” The master takes a deep breath.
The apprentice understands. He sees how he has been blindly following the practice of his master, but with no real understanding of it. He simply performed a habit, a routine. Which didn’t make him a better swordsman. It made him a rigid, dull, and uninspired fighter. One that could easily be defeated by any practitioner of the art of the sword.
How to Master Something Without Routines & Habits
“Master, how can I train without routine. Without habit. Wouldn’t it make me sporadic, undisciplined? I fear that I will not be able to be a successful swordsman without it.” The apprentice asked.
The master touches the surface of the water. Slowly letting the water drip from his hand. “You must not ask me this, for it would only make another routine, another habit out of it. If you truly want to be a master at any craft you must learn to pay attention, to observe, and deeply understand what it is you are doing. You must pay attention to the movement of the sword, to the muscles in your body, relax them as you swing. But also observe your opponent and understand his movements. You must not simply repeat what I say to you, or show you. You must feel and understand how you move your sword, how you swing, and parry. How you move with your opponent in the dance of the sword.” The master answers.
>You must not simply repeat what I say to you or show you. You must feel and understand how you move your sword, how you swing, and parry. How you move with your opponent in the dance of the sword.
“I’ve spoken to many young men and women all coming here to tell me that they want to learn the dance of the sword. They tell me how disciplined and strict they are with their practices and routines. How they will follow every move that I will teach them. And I turned down all of them. Told them to come back when they understand the rhythm and way of life itself. Each one of them looked questionable, and most of them never returned. You see, life becomes dull, predictable, systematic when we focus too much on creating habits, routines, and systems for ourselves. We become mechanical, robotic. But we are feeling human beings, we should remain passionate about what we do, and pay deep attention to the action and movement of the things we do each day. Not merely repeat an action because someone told us to. Not making our minds go numb and dull by strictly following routines and habits. This is a disgrace to the art of living. Now stand, we fight again.” The master says and he gets up in one swift motion with his sword ready in his hands. His stance relaxed. His movements are fluid and according to the flow of life.
You see, life becomes dull, predictable, systematic when we focus too much on creating habits, routines, and systems for ourselves. We become mechanical, robotic. But we are feeling human beings, we should remain passionate about what we do, and pay deep attention to the action and movement of the things we do each day. Not merely repeat an action because someone told us to.
A Disgrace to the Way of Life
Following habits and routines, creating systems for ourselves is a disgrace to the way of life. I have always believed that following a strict routine each day would impact my life, make it more beautiful, make me happier and more successful. But in the process of doing so, I destroyed the natural rhythm of life. It’s a disgrace to live and merely repeat an action over and over again. Creating a mechanical routine out of it.
Yet it has become popular. A popular topic on becoming successful in life. But at what cost? I truly doubt if routines and habits are making our lives better, let alone if they are the road towards mastery.
Shouldn’t we strive to deeply understand what it is we are doing? Feeling it, paying attention to every action we take in life.
Shouldn’t we strive to deeply understand what it is we are doing? Feeling it, paying attention to every action we take in life. To not merely practice day in and out. Doing the same movements and routines each day. To not have a strict morning routine that dulls the mind, making us go numb to the beauty of the morning, all for the result of being successful.
I do not want to tell you that you should stop following habits, and creating systems for yourself. For that would be the exact same thing as telling you to keep following habits. You would be following my advice, not thinking for yourself, not understanding this for yourself. I only want to invite you to think about this. To instead of mechanically following daily habits, start feeling and understanding yourself. To feel what it is you need in every moment of your day. To not merely repeat any action, but too deeply understand that action.
Like the master swordsman doesn’t just move his sword around, repeating a specific movement, but has become one with his sword. Deeply understanding how it works with its body and the space around it. He understands its movement, its grace, and flow. He doesn’t strike with his sword, he dances with it.
And so we should dance with the natural flow of life. Fall in love with its rhythm. Because today you live, let’s make the most of it.