Practice as sacred habits
Defined succinctly, I think of practice as sacred habits. This is an intentionally broad definition. One of the hurdles to having a practice is that we too narrowly define what it means to practice. We think that practice should be yoga poses, or even a specific sequence of poses done for a particular amount of time. Or we believe that only sitting meditation counts, and only if we have a particular quality of mind.
These ideals are too lofty for most of us. We don’t have the time or the inclination to practice in this way, no matter how good we think it will be for us. But deeper than that, a practice too narrowly defined will often miss the mark: it doesn’t adequately address our actual needs, and with our needs unmet, we readily move on and don’t develop the habit.
Habit is an easy enough concept to understand. A habit is something that we do easily and without thought because it is something that we do regularly and consistently. Our muscle memory takes us where we need to go. If we have a habit of flossing, then every evening after putting on our sleeping clothes, we go into the bathroom to care for our teeth. If this is a habit, it requires little or no conscious effort.
It’s not hard to see that flossing our teeth would not be called a spiritual practice in most cases, especially if it is so engrained that we do not even realize we are doing it, as is often the case with deeply engrained habits. There is nothing sacred about mindlessly going about tasks, even if they are helpful and healthy and serve our best interests.
Habit may connote mindlessness, but I would argue that a habit is not necessarily mindless. I have a habit of taking a long walk in the woods everyday, and very little of this is mindless. I know it’s habitual though because I do it regularly and consistently without a lot of mental effort. The time comes and I pack up the dogs and lace up my hiking shoes. While some planning is involved, I don’t typically fight myself over whether to do it or not do it. I also know it’s a habit because of the way I feel if I don’t do it. After a couple of days, I will have the distinct feeling of something missing from my life. My body longs for the quiet tiredness that comes after a long walk and a sense of restlessness and even irritability infuses my life. The moment I resume my walks, I feel at home again in my body, comfortable and at ease. It’s not that different from the feeling and taste in the mouth when the teeth haven’t been brushed.
Walking in the woods is a much more complex habit than flossing, but is it a spiritual practice? Is it sacred?
It depends. What does it mean to be sacred? I will define sacred as a quality of actions that bring us closer and closer to our true nature. In vedantic philosophy, the backbone of traditional yoga, the primary spiritual principle is that at our core, we are not separate from divinity. We are, in fact, divine. This divinity is obscured by all kinds of things: desires and cravings and delusions. Our main problem in life is that we are confused and we mistake our true nature for other things: our thoughts, our actions, even our material possessions and accomplishments.
For an action to be sacred, it needs to bring us closer and closer to the part of us that most closely resembles our highest ideals. That will be different for all of us. Some of us will say that our highest ideal is God, so what is sacred is that which brings us closer to God.
God to me is an ephemeral concept. I want to understand spirituality in a concrete and palpable way. It’s easier for me to understand that feeling I get when I am at ease and content, when no matter what is happening, all seems right in the world. This is a feeling I get when I am aligned with life; I am not fighting anything or anyone, especially not myself. Let’s call this feeling equanimity.
So an action is sacred to me when it brings me closer and closer to this ideal state of being that I am calling equanimity.
Flossing my teeth doesn’t bring me closer to being aligned with my highest self. Walking in the woods does, even if it is incremental, and even if sometimes I am more concerned with how many calories I burn or getting to the top of a mountain than I am with noticing the trees and my breath and the songs of the birds sharing the path with me. I definitely don’t get it right every time. Most walks don’t immediately feel sacred. But, over time, I know they bring me closer and closer to who I really am.
My walks help me shed the layers of my being that obscure my deepest self. My walks quiet my mind and tune my body. They narrow the fluctuations of my moods and keep my body healthy so that I am not distracted by feeling ill mentally, physically, or emotionally. This brings me closer and closer to my highest self, and is a state of equanimity.
Conversely, sacred practices that aren’t habitual are also available to us in abundance. Activities such as sporadically attending religious services, taking a yoga workshop, or sitting for a 10-day silent meditation retreat are all sacred. These activities may jumpstart a practice or deepen it, but they are not the practice itself. I would consider them ceremony or ritual, useful in their own right but not what we mean when we speak of practice, which is sacred activity done routinely.
It will be helpful to identify actions we are already doing that we can make more sacred or more habitual. We want to build on what we already have right instead of scrapping everything and starting over. In this way, we are more likely to stick to what we are doing because it is much easier or more sustainable to make adjustments here and there than to completely revamp our lives.
What are you already doing that is habitual? Are there any obvious tweaks to make these activities more sacred? Let’s brainstorm here; we don’t have to commit to anything yet.
What do you already enjoy that feels sacred but is not habitual? Are there activities on this list that could be done regularly for a time?
How do these activities make you feel? How do you feel before doing them? How do you feel after?
Again, we aren’t committing yet: just noticing what we are already doing and making some guesses about what might work long-term to bring us closer to equanimity, if that is our goal, or God, if we are believers.