For almost all of us, the regular voice inside our heads is one of self-judgement, harshness, disappointment, criticism, negativity. Learning to overcome that voice in order to be kinder and gentler to yourself is a step toward maturity, for it allows the space for true growth and transformation. Living in a space of self love is also a step toward being kinder and gentler to others, for the way you feel about yourself dictates your feelings toward and treatment of others. Your inner world paints what you see in your outer world.
In this chaotic modern world full of noises, lights, sounds, and human and planetary drama, I have learned the necessity of respecting time in my path toward peace. It takes time to change anything – especially to change that deep-rooted inner voice.
I have only recently conceptualized that the best way to respect time, to work with time, is to have a practice – to approach the daily things you do as practices, over the course of time, rather than as isolated events. Think of the difference here: “Today I will meditate” vs. “I have a meditation practice, and it is now time to meditate.” For the former, a meditation session that is unfulfilling easily brings self-criticism and judgement. For the latter, the person who defines her meditation as a practice, an off day is to be expected, with a rueful smile, the satisfaction that she showed up, regardless, and the knowledge that tomorrow may be better. If tomorrow is not better, the certainty remains that the next day she will still arrive at her meditation space at the appointed hour. It is a committed practice. The inner voice has nothing to say about it, for it is not finished, it is on-going, it is a process. One cannot judge a painting until it is finished – one never knows what the final piece will look like.
Life can feel tumultuous, but to live it well and to feel stable as you move through time, you need to commit to the practices which will steady you as you do your work in the world. In fact, your work in the world is, of course, also a practice. Playing the piano is the joy, even if the attainment of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto Number 2” helps steady the course for a while. With every attainment, every acquisition one can pause for a breath of air, have a sip of a cold drink, but then, the journey continues. The playing is the practice, the path upon which you make forward progress.
In being on a path, you don’t really know where you will end up (though you may have a goal), and you certainly don’t know what you will encounter along the way, but you do know that you must stay the path or you will not get anywhere. You know the path leads you in the direction you need to go.
Commitment to the path, the practice, is the key. Every day you wake and you are committed to the practice. You go to your meditation space. You go for your run. You do you yoga practice. You write. You read. You walk. Whatever it is, whatever you do, this is your practice. And, there is dignity to the practice. You are becoming an archetype, a spiritual dedicant, and you are becoming more peaceful, stronger, calmer, more relaxed. Over time, you allow yourself to relax into the practice. Your practice, because it is ongoing, becomes the time when that negative voice is silenced. Eventually, your practice proves that that negative voice is wrong: through the practice, you prove that you have self worth, that you have determination, that you are a valid human being doing age-old noble human things as you move through your life.
Angela Duckworth’s best-selling nonfiction book, Grit (2016), gives many examples of the challenges and the rewards of sticking with a practice. When she was a child, she says, her father used to say to her, “you’re no genius.” As an adult psychologist who is spending her career studying grit, (a “combination of passion and perseverance”, determination and direction), she now understands what he meant:
If you define genius as being able to acccomplish great things in life without efort, then he was right: I’m no genius, and neither is he.
But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being – then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, … and, if you’re willing, so are you.“
Being gritty, Duckworth’s research shows, is the biggest predictor not only of success but also of happiness in life (more than IQ tests, more than any other assessment). Being gritty means sticking with things, choosing those things wisely, and showing up, day after day, with the inherent passion that comes with your choice, with the will-power and perseverance to get through the hard sessions, to your practice, the holy space into which you find the courage and strength to grow roots.
Steven Pressfield, in his book Turning Pro, describes the difference between what he calls the professional and the amateur. The professional, he says, shows up to work every day, even when it’s hard. “The pro mindset is a discipline that we use to overcome Resistance. To defeat the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness, we enlist the self-strengthening habits of order, regularity, discipline, and a constant striving after excellence.”
He is explaining that this commitment to a practice is the only way to creating any lasting work in the world – and, I would like to add, the pinnacle of your work in the world is you, in a sense, you are the canvas of your magnum opus, you are creating and becoming your best self with the time you have been given on this planet.
This is how Pressfield defines a practice:
What is a practice anyway?
To “have a practice” in yoga, say, or tai chi, or calligraphy, is to follow a rigorous, prescribed regimen with the intention of elevating the mind and the spirit to a higher level.
A practice implies engagement in a ritual. A practice may be defined as the dedicated, daily exercise of commitment, will, and focused intention aimed, on one level, at the achievement of mastery in a field but, on a loftier level, intended to produce a communion with a power greater than ourself – call it whatever you like: God, mind soul, Self, the Muse, the superconscious.
It is this communion that obliterates the critical, judging inner voice. When you adhere, with discipline, to a practice that allows you to regularly transcend the individual self, soon the fragile, scared voice of that individual self gets lost. It was always Oz-like, full of pomp and false prestige behind the big wall of smoke and mirrors, but in reality, just another human being, and a small one at that.
Peace and power come from adherence to a practice that allows this connection to the energy that unites us all with each other and with all other forms, seen and unseen. You will be greater for this union, and humbler, for with it comes acceptance of our humanity, acceptance of the work it takes to overcome our procrastinating, lazy human natures, acceptance of the avenues of time and space as safe platforms for transformation.
Interestingly, don’t judge your practice. Trust it. You won’t stick with it if you don’t have passion and joy. If I allowed my inner voice to judge and choose, I would think that I should devote myself to volunteering at the local soup kitchen. “There, that seems a worthy practice.” I should garden. “That seems a worthy practice.” But for me, those choices would wither with time. For me, a choice that has longevity and allows for passion and perseverance is tennis. I cannot judge its worth; I just have to trust that a practice is a practice. A life is a life. A chance to become a better human being through devotion to an art is a gift beyond measure.
So I show up on the court, paying attention to my breath, paying attention to the calmness or anxiety in my body, working my way (if I am lucky that day), through movement and relaxation, to a state closer to peace. It is my practice, and I know, since it is a practice, that I will have hard days, and I will have days that are not as fun. But there will be tomorrow, and the court will be there, and the people will be there, and I will come again, a little better each time.
And with each morning upon waking, the greater court of life will be there, the people will be there, my daughter will be there, and I will treat the entire day as a practice, as consciously as possible, and I will do my writing, and I will do my meditation, and I will do my parenting, and I will walk the dog, and I will do the laundry, the dishes, the cleaning, the creating – and all of it, is life, all of it is the practice of life. All of it is worthy.
I have this older dog – she is so sweet, a shepherd mix, a big dog. In her prime she weighed close to eighty pounds, but these days (she is 16), she weighs more like 55. Her eyesight is not as strong as it used to be and her hearing has weakened, too. Her back legs struggle at times. But I marvel, each time we take a walk together, at her perfect ability of being a dog. She has so much interest, still, in the smells other dogs leave along the edge of the sidewalk, she has so much interest in padding along, smelling when she can, and choosing, wisely, her own spaces to mark. Her practice is her self. Her practice is being a dog, what she was born to be. Even though she is aged, even though her faculties are not as strong, she is really good at being a dog!
In the same way, when we find our practices, we are more able to become what we were born to be. With our sophisticated brains, our ability to judge and second-guess, we too easily sabotage our greatest hopes and dreams. Our best chance of finding them again, of attaining them again, is with the ensuing humility and growth that comes with dedication to a practice. Great dignity – and peace – comes in being whomever you were born to be.
Stay the path. Don’t get lost down roads of drama. Don’t get lost down roads of false worries and anxieties. Stay the path. You will find your heart, your brain, your courage. You will find your worth. You will find peace.
Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Boston: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
Pressfield, Steven and Shawn Coyne. Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work. NY: Black Irish Entertainment, LLC., 2012.