The Life and Death of Practice

I’m starting to lose my faith in habits.

The conventional wisdom is that anything you do for twenty-one days in a row becomes a habit, and therefore becomes far easier to do – in fact, it becomes harder to not-do whatever that practice is.

Venting About the Con

Conventional wisdom also trumpets a variety of strategies for making habits, such as Charles Duhigg’s three step method in The Power of Habit:

  1. Cue – the trigger that lets your mind (all levels, from forebrain to lizard brain) know that it’s time for the habit to happen.
  2. Routine – the series of actions that proceed from the cue. Opening the journal, picking up the pen, writing the first thing that comes to mind. Pulling out the yoga mat, clicking on the Dirty Yoga shortcut on your iPhone, chanting “Om-Om-Om” just because it’s silly. Whatever, this is the meat of the habit.
  3. Reward – the benefit you get from having done the routine. This may be endorphins, may be the satisfaction of seeing another couple of pages filled with spindly handwriting, may be as simple as “Well, now I know what I’m going to blog about today.” Whatever it is, you feel good about what happened, and that makes you more eager to have it happen again.
What can I say, I think I’m doing it wrong.

Mea Culpa

There are a few practices that I’ve been working on, as part of the larger “Project Home.” One of those is the idea of morning rituals, which are supposed to look something like this:

  1. Sit – Do zazen for fifteen minutes first thing in the morning. The trigger is getting out of bed; the routine is setting my timer for fifteen minutes; the reward is a quarter hour where nothing is expected of me but to sit there. The silence and lack of pressure can be amazingly luxurious.
  2. Write – Not this journaling, not the various other writings for publication, but just writing longhand in my own personal journal. Triggered by the alarm of my sitting timer, with the routine of getting my coffee prepared and sitting somewhere like my dining room with a nice view of Queen Anne Hill across the lake. The reward is that I get breakfast at the end, plus coffee is supposed to be inextricably linked, and hey, that includes chemical addiction to the power of habit!
  3. Exercise – Trying to find some time every day to get away from the computer, to get into my body and use it. The trigger has been a specific time mid-afternoon in between working on video for various clients; the routine has been something like Insanity or Dirty Yoga; the reward is sweaty clothes and endorphins and friends I haven’t seen in a while saying “Wow, you’re looking trim!
Here’s the thing: all of these have been done for twenty-one days in a row. Or more. And yet, for the past couple of weeks, at least, I’ve been scattered in terms of doing them. Somehow I fell out of the habit, and it went back to being a practice – that is, something I had to force myself to do.
Not quite to this point. But close...

I’d get up and check email instead of sitting – or oversleep (as I did this morning) and decide I really didn’t have time to sit. I’d get my coffee, and think that if I was going to get to my desk and working in time (I aim for 8am every day) I’d need to eat breakfast – because breakfast is important, right? And who’s going to really notice if I don’t journal? Nobody, including myself, reads it anyway.

Usually it’s one or two out of three – some kind of exercise, or sitting and not journaling, or journaling and exercising but not sitting. But it’s a scattered practice, and certainly nothing about it is routine. In spite of having done things for twenty-one days or more, it’s so easy to just ignore the call to practice and let the rest of my day carry me past it for another day.
There is, of course, the resolve to go to bed earlier the next night, so that I can be more rested in the morning and more able, theoretically, to simply fall back into practice. However, at the end of the day, the not-so-constructive habit of another episode of MI:5 on NetFlix keeps me up past midnight, and…the cycle continues.

Until the Discomfort…

The problem is that the consequences are only negative in the long term. They are subtle. I have been more irritable, stressed, and tired the last couple of weeks. I’ve been feeling frustrated with a lack of connection to the place I call “home”, and the constant undercurrent of anxiety about finances tends to bubble to the surface more easily than usual.

On the other hand there is an immediate reward in checking email instead of sitting: I’m connected! I’m taking action! And there’s no painful self-reflection or hazardous epiphanies! I don’t have to write about emotions and such, I can just dive into Work and feel like a good midwestern-work-ethic-raised man.

Or there’s some kind of rationalization or justification. You may have noticed (or maybe not, since nobody called me on it) that there weren’t any “Dirty Yoga Updates” on any of my blog posts last week. That’s because when was doing it, I noticed that it was aggravating my umbilical hernia. That can’t be good, I thought, and sent an email off to Jess & Susi (the Dirty Yogis) asking them what they thought.

The advice he gave me – specifically about the yoga – is pretty obviously analogous to the entire difficulty of what’s been going on. After being very open about what he couldn’t, ethically, counsel me on (i.e., a medical condition described in email), Jess added:

…it’s been my experience that guys (especially when they are new to yoga) ALWAYS work harder than they need to. Guys grunt and shake. Even if their faces are contorted in agony and they’ve stopped breathing, they’ll keep going. Sitting something out doesn’t seem to be an option…common sense tells you that you can’t be one of these guys, Gray. Do what you can do and then modify what you need to – nothing should be going “pop”. Know your limits – before you go pop – and work within them.

Turns out this isn't the recommended gear for Dirty Yoga.

Yep, that’s right, I was trying to “win” at yoga. In fact, it was a little disconcerting, as if the screen on my iPhone was actually a two-way camera. I did, in fact, grunt and contort, and it’s a good thing my practice space in my bedroom is so small, so that when I tilted out of balance I could reach out and grab a wall or a bed before I hit the floor.

Leo Babauta talks about it in his How to Fail at Habits post, of which I can identify a few different ways that I had sabotaged my own practice. You should check it out; you might see something that looks familiar.

Picking Up the Practice

What do you do? Well, yes, there are some things that you can do to change the practices if they really aren’t working. However, I’m not certain that it has to be more than a change in attitude. This morning, as I mentioned, I overslept. I went right upstairs and was making coffee, plotting my work day, when I just stopped.

I thought about the past few weeks. I thought about what I hadn’t been doing. I thought about how un-centered I’d felt, and I sighed, put down the coffee cup, grabbed a mat and went to sit outside for fifteen minutes. The flowers in my backyard are amazingly fragrant.

I then made some coffee, opened my journal, and wrote a couple of pages. There were some cracks and crumbling noises as some old defense mechanisms gave way under the pressure of self-awareness. It wasn’t as much painful as it was startling.

Breakfast, shower…I didn’t get to my desk until about 8:30. But I came here with a reward of feeling centered, prepared, and ready to write this post. It may not be a habit yet, but the act of practicing has its own reward, and by focusing on that, perhaps it will eventually reach the level of habit.

Day one, and we start again.

1 thought on “The Life and Death of Practice”

  1. I was going to write something similar to this, but you beat me to the punch.

    When I started my “training” back in October(?), I was going full tilt. And then, a few events and lots of work later, life slowed me down.

    But recently I had an epiphany: I worked out 5-6 times a week because I actively thought about it. I planned it for my next day like I did for my meals or my commute to work. I made it a part of my routine because it was (and still isn’t) an automatic habit.

    So now, starting again, I worked out two days in a row. I missed today because snooze felt so good this morning, but I have plans for tomorrow.

    When you fall down, you can either stay stuck on the ground and wallow or pick yourself back up and try again.

    (And I didn’t call you out on Dirty Yoga because I wasn’t sure when you were going to start 😉

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