What is a “Practice,” Anyway?

“We are what we repeatedly do”
Not Aristotle

Let’s start with the big picture:

Suddenly: you exist. You didn’t plan it or ask for it, but existence happened, and now, after a bunch of years bumping into coffee tables and staring at trees and being unconsciously embedded in your youthful umwelt, full self-consciousness has flickered on, and you may be like: ‘wait a second … where am I? Who am I? And how do I conduct myself on this strange planet in this remote corner of the Milky Way galaxy in this Year of our Lord 2018 (Anno Domini), to use our culture’s rather arbitrary Gregorian dating system?’

Excellent questions! Of course I have no idea.

Here’s what I do know:

There is No Neutral Setting*
(*see footnote for mystical caveat)

We don’t just exist; we exist in a particular way – that is, for most of us, our being is actually a doing. We act and think in certain ways, and the more we repeat these behaviour and thought patterns, the more entrenched they get.

We are literally creatures of habit, and for the first big chunk of our lives we don’t choose what habits we’re building. If we’re lucky we may have had good role models to emulate, but even then, we all acquire some unhealthy habits, it can’t be avoided. Habits of stress and reactivity and impatience and self-pity and furious over-thinking and avoidance and all the rest, to say nothing of our many deranged physical and social and (sigh) voting habits.

These habits don’t stay the same either; rather, they get deeper and more entrenched the more they’re repeated. And, for most of us anyway, eventually our unhealthy habits catch up with us. All of a sudden, we realize this thing that we do, this once-subtle habit of reactivity or defensiveness or anxiety that we’ve had kind of going on in the background, is now screwing us: screwing our relationships, our work, our life, whatever. This is our wake-up call, and the call to more intentional practice.

What is a practice?

The simplest definition of practice is some action – mental, emotional, physical, social – that you choose and repeat, so that it can become a habit. It is the deliberate cultivation of habits you want. These habits may begin in a narrow domain – on the meditation cushion, in the gym, in the artist studio – but it becomes a true practice in the broadest sense when it begins to move out into the rest of your life. These kinds of habits are less physical actions, than ways of being and relating.

Contemplative practices are exactly this. They are practices that rehearse how you want to exist. They are very ambitious.

Meditating in stillness provides the ideal training ground for this, because the conditions are so simple and the comparative distractions so few. But the piece that’s important to realize here is any activity can be a practice in this broad sense, because what matters is less the external “form” of the practice – whether you focus on your breath, your basketball game, or your relationships – but the skills and attitudes and intentions you bring to that form. Those skills and attitudes are what we’re talking about; they are the most elemental things a human can train in life.

Elemental Things

This idea is thrilling to me. It’s the riddle I continuously ponder as a journalist and writer and meditation teacher: what are the absolute most fundamental qualities a human being can cultivate that will make a positive difference in their life, and how to you impart that?

There’s no master list here obviously, and the pie can be cut many ways. What’s more, much of this will depend on our personal intentions and our cultural values. But three skills in particular seem to come around again and again. At the very least they underlie all the mindfulness and meditation and artistic and movement practices that I both teach and do myself. I have my teacher Shinzen Young to thank for making them explicit for me.

  • Concentration– the skill of commitment, of devoting attention to some object or in some direction. When we focus, there’s a tendency for the thing we’re focusing on to become more stable, and if we hold our attention long enough, we can have the experience of flowing and merging with that activity or object. In this sense, concentration can be said to create our reality. Concentration is also the great protector, because when we apply ourselves in this way, our anxious thoughts have less room to make an appearance. Concentration leads to more peace and stability.
  • Clarity – the skill of discernment, of awareness. It is the part of us capable both of panning out to a broader perspective, and of zooming in to notice previously unconscious habits of thinking and responding. Over time, if we pay close attention, it can lead us to deep insights about the nature of mind and being. In all these senses, clarity can be said to expand our reality, for it expands what is available to our seeing. It is also what allows us to notice difference, thus, clarity lays the groundwork for understanding and justice. Clarity leads to more wisdom and perspective.
  • Equanimity – the skill of opening, of non-interference with moment-to-moment sensory experience. Equanimity is getting so entirely out of our own way that – in a manner of speaking – we become reality, reality noticing itself becoming reality, again and again, in a backwards loop of cosmic giddy what-the-fuckery? (to quote reality).  That’s the, er, rather over-the-top mystical side. There’s also a deeply practical side: acceptance. Equanimity is the mature and respectful and generous stance of allowing the people around you, the world, and yourself be exactly who and what they are, flaws and all. It is the paradoxical place from which true effective change-making begins. Equanimity leads to more connection and freedom.

We can all use a reminder of these skills. We can learn to implement them even now as we read this. We can carry them in our bodies and into our days. We make life our practice when we deliberately activate these elemental things.

What about love?

Love is what happens when all three of these qualities work together, mutually supporting and reinforcing each other. When we’re committed and aware and open, things have a habit (there’s that word again) of skewing towards more intimacy and compassion. It feels like the most natural thing in the world, for there is less and less of a special self in the world to defend and promote. As we learn to get out of our own way, we make room for more effective and caring responses.

And that’s all I have to say on the matter! Your grandpappy could have explained all this to you, though maybe not with so many fancy words. He’d just say: do things well, pay attention, be humble. Don’t make it complicated. Find your form – your movement, your breath, your work – and commit. The rest will follow.

Practice well my friends.

RE, no neutral setting: one of the central ideas of Indian philosophy is that there IS a neutral setting. They call it “moksha” – liberation. In this understanding, as the practitioner develops in equanimity, less and less reactive conditioning is said to “stick,” until they arrive at a place of complete emancipation from suffering.

Is moksha a realistic destination? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters.  The history of comparative mysticism tells us that, at the very least, it is a realistic direction we can move towards. We may not be able to find final liberation, but we can begin to find more liberation. And that’s what I focus on in my work and teaching.

PS – I recently recorded a guided meditation that’s all about how to find the right practice for your particular interests and nervous system. You can listen to it here.

PPS – see Part 2 of this post, “Practice: Vehicle vs Parts