What Matters Most

What matters most?

When I was in college, my answer to that question was God, my mind, my friends and family, and my health, in that order.  While in some ways I still like that answer, I’ve got to tell you that those priorities did not by themselves enable me to live well.  In fact I was a pretty miserable person.

I suppose every person has to answer that question subjectively.  Still science is beginning to be able to tell us objectively what it means to live well.

One of the founders of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has come up with an acronym for five essentials to well being, PERMA: positive emotion, engagement (i.e., of our attention), positive relationships, meaning, and achievement.

Where is your practice taking you?  What do you practice, and why?

From the time we begin our formal education till the time we’ve finished with it, the focus of our practice tends to be on the last piece of well being, that is, on accomplishment.  We study hard to get good grades, to go to a good school, to get a good job.  We run and lift weights to be stronger and faster, to be the best at our position on the team, etc.

Competition can make us better.  It can make us beautiful, and it can make us ugly.  It can lead to a win at all costs mentality epitomized by Lance Armstrong.

Remember your humanity.  Your practice should in some way touch on all the five essentials.  Take care of your emotions, pursue those ideas and skills you are passionate about, cultivate positive relationships, and build meaning from your faith into your work and community.

By so doing your practice will make you a blessing to those around you, and you in turn will be blessed as well.  You will have transcended success, and discovered happiness and significance.

Open the Mail

It may seem strange to think of cleaning house as a practice, but I absolutely do.

For some of you, cleaning house is as easy and natural as falling out of bed in the morning.  But for me it has always been a struggle.  I can remember being a college student, and looking at my room knee deep in papers and trash, completely fed up with my life as a slob; yet having no idea where to begin.

One of my favorite books on practice is Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art.”  I love this passage from his book:

When I lived in the back of my Chevy van, I had to dig my typewriter out from beneath layers of tire tools, dirty laundry, and moldering paperbacks.  My truck was a nest, a hive, a hellhole on wheels whose sleeping surface I had to clear each night just to carve out a foxhole to sleep in.

The professional cannot live like that.  He is on a mission.  He will not tolerate disorder.  He eliminates disorder from his world in order to banish it from his mind.  He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.

Every day I fight two battles.  One is to write at least one essay.  The other is to process the mail.

I hate the mail.  It is pile of decisions that have to be made one after another.  And each decision requires subsequent actions: recycle, shred, file, record, pay a bill, or write a letter.

And if you put it off, the pile quickly becomes a tower of Babel, a black hole of chaos and entropy.  Just the sight of such a pile can immediately suck the life right out of my day.

Hence the keystone habit of my household practice is to process the mail every day, and don’t stop until every decision and action has been taken to its penultimate step.

Practice and the Meaning of Life

How do we make sense of the world?  Where does meaning come from?

What are trials and tribulations?  What are those memories of life you most cherish?  Oddly for me, they are often those things suffered through.  Especially those where I entered into a deep darkness, and finally after many trials and tribulations, find myself in a breaking dawn of bright sunshine, green grass, and the fresh smell of spring.

We practice those things we care about doing well, or those things we think are important.  And practice is often frustrating, can even be discouraging.

Practice is suffering under control.  It is pain with a purpose.  It is the legitimate suffering neurotics avoid.

When we hang onto our practice through thick and thin, we become aware of our own perseverance, of our power to endure, and of the value of our goal.

The longer we endure, the longer it takes to reach, the more meaningful it becomes; and the more meaningful our life becomes.

On the other hand if we say something is important to us, yet we don’t practice it, in what way is it important?  Anything important takes time, and the way we spend that time is the way we practice.  No time means no practice.  No practice means no importance.

What am I saying here?  This is where journaling can help.  Take a moment to step back.  What are you practicing?  How are you spending your time?  What is important to you?  Are they in alignment?  If not how can you bring them into alignment?

I think a midlife crisis often comes of practicing things that don’t matter, to acquire things that don’t last, to put points on a scoreboard that doesn’t count.

But the practice itself will have taught you the discipline, the persistence, the faith, and hope necessary to change the pursuit of success into the pursuit of significance.

Why wait?

The End of Practice

Why do we practice?

I first began to learn to practice when I began to play football.  I was skinny, weak, and slow.  I didn’t play much, and didn’t play well when I did.

The shame of it drove me to exercise, and the anger of the shame made me work hard.  I got bigger, stronger, and faster.  I played more, and played better when I did.

My best friend got kicked off the team for smoking at the end of my junior year in high school, and I quit out of despair.  I decided I wanted to be a Jedi Knight, and practiced yoga and karate.  I suppose I wanted power.

I went to college.  All the things I was interested in were very mathematical (besides writing of course.  I couldn’t possibly earn a living as a writer.).  The only problem was I wasn’t very good at math.  I hated math through grade school and junior high.  It seemed the most tedious subject on earth.

I decided I’d better get good at math, so I could learn the things I was interested in.  I discovered mathematical beauty, and changed my major.  I worked hard, did well, and made some friends with others so enamored.

One of my math buddies turned me on to the Russian authors, and I fell in love with books.  Ten years later I discovered audio books, and I spent the rest of my mundane moments in the ether of words.

My practice hasn’t made me an expert; it hasn’t even made me a master.  But it has made me happy.

The Enneagram as Practice

The enneagram of personality is a powerful means to self-discovery and self-acceptance.  The practice takes time and discipline to bear fruit, but is worth the effort it takes to learn.

I first became acquainted with the enneagram about three years ago at a seminar on spiral dynamics.  I asked the presenter whether focusing on the various memes wouldn’t lead to making comparisons of oneself with others, and hence to psychological dissonance.  She replied that such might indeed be the case with me, and that I would do well to be aware of it.

Her reply really pissed me off.  And try as I might, I couldn’t seem to shake this feeling of anger.  I tried breathing through it.  I tried to focus all my attention on what she was saying.  But still I was positively glowing with anger.

At the lunch break she was sitting at a table with an open seat, so I sat down across from her and told her of my reaction.  She asked me a few questions about myself, and then told me she thought I was a “4” on the enneagram.  Turns out fours are driven by envy, or rather a sense of inadequacy.  They focus on what is missing from their lives.

In spite of being aware of my jealousy since college, and thinking I’d overcome it, I immediately sensed the truth of what she was saying.  The anger went out of me like water from a flushed toilet.

I began to learn about the enneagram, and something called shadow work, coming to terms with the least desirable aspects of myself.

There’s a saying in psychology that goes something like this, “Whatever gets repressed gets expressed,” or “if you don’t express it, you project it.”

Shadow work begins with being aware of what’s going on in your body.  What emotion are you feeling and where is it in your body?  As you become aware of this you can move into it and accept it, “Oh yeah, I’m feeling jealous,” or “I’m feeling inadequate.”  And somehow that recognition and acknowledgement allows me to exhale.

That’s my ego’s defense mechanism engaging.  But that’s not me.  I am in that ineffable witness beyond labels that experiences these thoughts and feelings, and yet transcends them.

Blessed Are the Ordinary

Blessed are the ordinary, for they are accepted and complete in Jesus.

Does that raise your hackles?  Sounds like heresy doesn’t it?  “Good enough isn’t good enough!  Don’t settle for anything less than excellence!”  After all, this blog is supposed to be about practice right?  About getting better?

The work of the enneagram is embracing the shadow, the part of ourselves we wish to deny; the part we hide from the light, from the gaze of the other, from the eye of God.  The grace of God has redeemed the shadow, as well as the False Self, the mask we forge to face the world.  By grace we are saved through faith into a single whole, our genuine self, an ordinary person.

Accepting who I am, the “bad” with the “good,” has been the most blessed and powerful experience God has ever given to me – the blessing of being ordinary.

The greatest gift God has given me is the gift of self-acceptance.  If everything I do has to be extraordinary, then nothing I do is good enough.  If nothing I do is good enough, then I must be a bad person; a fig tree that bears no fruit, fit only to be cast into the fire.

It’s hard to practice when I’m plagued by those kinds of thoughts.

We don’t despise a bouquet of roses because they look like every other.  We accept them gratefully as beautiful.

The odd thing is that being ordinary allows me to write, allows me to meditate, and allows me to practice.  If I am accepted and complete in Jesus, then I can gratefully bear the fruit God has given me knowing it is enough.

Shaming children who fall short of the 10,000 hour rule may be the road to greatness, but it is not the road to blessedness.  Enjoy the work of your hands, and with it bless the world, even when it’s only ordinary.

Practicing Perspective

About 25 years ago I was in a conversation with someone in our book club when it dawned on me the person I was talking to had begun to fear for his physical safety.  My body language and tone of voice had become positively homicidal.

Since then I’ve tried to be aware of both my body and my attitude when engaging in conversation.  What am I feeling and why?  What is my purpose?  Am I trying to understand the people engaged in conversation, or trying to win an argument?

If what the person is saying is producing an unpleasant reaction in my body, I know it’s time to be careful; time to focus on my breath, and try to understand what the person is saying.  What are her assumptions?  What is her point of view?  What is her life experience?

Sometimes someone will say something that just pushes my buttons, which produces an immediate bile dump in my gut; my blood pressure goes through the roof and my breathing becomes rapid and short.  When this happens I need to breathe through these feelings and calm down before I open my mouth.  Often times this is a signal to me that I am feeling disrespected in some way.  Sometimes this comes, not from any intended disrespect, but from my own sense of inadequacy.

If the person says something I don’t understand, or uses a word I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll ask her what she means.  If I’m unsure I’ve understood what she said, then I’ll try to paraphrase what I think she’s said.  If I think I disagree with her, I’ll try to understand what she feels is important in the situation, or what life experiences have influenced her conclusions.

How do you practice perspective?  Do you have a method for psychologically distancing yourself from the conversation in some way?  Or is your source of perspective from something other than conversation?

Practicing the Presence of God

For in him we live, and move, and have our being; (Acts 17:28, KJV)

Several years ago I was turned onto a beautiful book by a friend from church, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monk of the 17th century.  Since then I have tried to make a practice of being aware of God’s presence.

God is inescapable, and his presence is always Here and Now, regardless of where we are or what state we’re in: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there (Ps 139:8, KJV).

In the Bible the Hebrew word ruah means both breath and spirit, as when God, “… formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.” (Ge 2:7, New Living Translation)

So it is natural for me to associate God with my breath, and whenever I want I can come into God’s presence merely by observing my breath and knowing that God is in it, and in me.

Another way to come into God’s presence and into his joy is through praise, “…but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;” (Eph 5:18-20, KJV)

This “giving thanks always for all things unto God” is so powerful and so simple a way to come into God’s presence; and it is not just the big things but the little things especially we can take notice of and be grateful for.  Read the poem Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins.  I think this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote those verses in Ephesians.

God’s presence is all around us; all we need to do is take notice to walk with him.

Persistent Behavior

Persistence comes of our belief that we will accomplish what we’ve set out to do.  How do we build that belief if we don’t already have it?  Where does that belief come from in those that do have it?

I remember reading in Duhigg’s The Power of Habit about Michael Phelps.  His coach, Bob Bowman, believed the key to winning was building the right routines.  Routines built of small wins; small wins that built preparedness, confidence, and a sense of calm; which in turn led to a series of record setting victories on one of the world’s biggest stages: the Olympics.

My secret dream since college has been “to be a writer.”  But as soon as I turn my thoughts from “practicing writing” to “being a writer” I’m a deer in the headlights.  It was the same way with “practicing mathematics” versus “being a mathematician.”  One perspective keeps my pencil moving, the other keeps me from even getting started.

I thought writing a 250 word essay every day would be easy.  It isn’t.

“Being a writer” isn’t a small win.  In fact it isn’t even well defined.  Does writing this essay make me a writer?  Or writing a book that never gets published?  Or writing an article for a newspaper or magazine?  It’s too vague; and “Being a writer” focuses on identity rather than practice.

Obviously I’m no expert on this matter.  But I suspect the key is to have a well defined and very specific routine that leads to the behavior required to produce the desired outcome.  For example if you, like me, are interested in writing essays here is “How to Write an Essay – 10 Easy Steps.”

How about you?  Do you struggle with persistence?  Or are you one of those who seem able to beat down any obstacle that stands in your way?  Do you understand where your persistence comes from?  Please share your thoughts with me.

Virtue: the Practice of Well-being

Well-being is that state of wholeness, meaningfulness, and connectedness we associate with happiness, the good life, or a life well lived; a life that aims to fulfill its potential.  Virtue is the practice that leads to well-being.

These ideas of well-being and virtue have been discussed and debated by philosophers and theologians down through the ages.  But it is only recently that science has begun to investigate them.

In 2004 Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues, an attempt at a scientifically derived catalogue of the healthy human character.  They made “a comprehensive literature search of lists of virtues critical to human thriving” that was both interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, and made a determination as to whether those lists converged.

Their research strongly indicated an historical and cross-cultural convergence identified by what they describe as six core virtues:

  1. Courage: the capacity to overcome fear; the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition.
  2. Justice: that which makes life fair; broadly interpersonal, relevant to the optimal interaction between the individual and the group or the community.
  3. Humanity: relating to others, interpersonal strengths; positive traits manifested in caring relationships with others; dispositions to tend and befriend.
  4. Temperance: moderation; positive traits that protect us from excess.
  5. Transcendence: meaning or purpose larger than ourselves; that which allows individuals to form connections to the large universe, and thereby provide meaning to their lives.
  6. Wisdom: hard fought knowledge used for good; exceptional breadth and depth of knowledge; creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective; positive traits related to the acquisition and use of information in the service of the good life; cognitive strengths.

If well-being or happiness is our aim in life, then it behooves us to find one or more practices to inculcate each of these virtues into our lives.  I will be inquiring into what the nature of these practices might be over the next few days.