habit forming

A habit is the link between inspiration and self-realization.  Sometimes the hardest part of an undertaking is not when you start out (you have your initial enthusiasm) and not as you near the end (you have the anticipation of being almost finished) but the middle when your motivation dwindles and all that you seemingly have is your resolution.  That’s enough.  “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said.  “Excellence…is not an act, but a habit.”

One Continuous Mistake, Gail Sher (pg. 18)

The first day of each year is a starting block.  Like the ones used to position sprinters, I brace against it and breathe, waiting for that starter pistol.  The last two years, the block has been more of a chock block – the kind you use to keep a truck or airplane from wandering off on an adventure of its own sans chauffeur.  And certainly, there have been moments – no, lengthy time spans – in which the blocks got pulled out and I wondered who was driving this buggy.  When I would reflect, it seemed to boil down to practice.  What was my practice?  What was I practising? For all the dedication to formal and informal practice, it seemed there was an accumulating incongruity between areas of my life and between the inner and outer practitioner.

In the Fall, Frank and I made the tough decision to move sangha to our farm.  The decision has been two years in the making and yet it was likely the most painful decision I had to make.  (I say “I” had to make because Frank has been more reasoned in his process of letting go although I don’t think it was any less difficult.)  We shared our desire to make the move with sangha and, as is often the case, the heart-words were inexpressible.  What came out and what was heard was a litany of “can’t” – a can’ticle of rationales?  In end, we expressed it as this: our deepest aspiration is to create a sacred space in which the joys and suffering of all who visit can be cooked into a strong broth of well-being.

To do that we, as a couple and as community leaders, need to be in a space that encourages practice.  We need to approach the hour of formal practice steady and quiet in our being.  It seems selfish and self-serving but the alternative is an edge to our leadership that violates the Prime Directive of Practice: “…help… but at least do no harm.”  What we needed to create for our personal path was a space in which practice can become habit-forming.

So, on the first morning of the this new decade, the starter pistol fired and I set out to clear space.  The zendo, as you’ve seen is already set up.  But my personal practice space – for what Sher calls “invisible practice” – was a mess.  It reflected two years of surrendering to chaos.  Because the zabutons and zafus needed a home, they took up the shelves and nooks and crannies of my study.  Books, art materials, recycle bins stuffed themselves into whatever horizontal openings were left over. It is not possible to be authentic in my formal practice if the rest of my life qualifies for an episode of “Hoarders.”  When the principle guiding my life is one of disregard of well-being, then any truth I may speak is automatically a lie.

So I started with the art table:

Take all this...

organize it on this...

to look like this!

The order of the table is comforting, like the rituals of offering incense, bowing, and dedicating merit.  Sher quotes Issan Dorsey on cleaning: “You just go around and make things look like somebody paid attention to them.”  Paying attention to the spaces that feed me, interestingly, generates a readiness in me to be fed, to receive the feeding (paraphrasing Edward Espe Brown).

The zabutons and zafus found a new home as well.  I had long-resisted putting them in the zendo because I am childishly attached to wide, open, uncluttered spaces.  That is, I was until I realized it was an untruth to have an “uncluttered” zendo if it meant creating and hiding the mess behind closed doors.  The environment Sher speaks of that supports practice is not just external.  In fact, it is not so much the inner or outer practitioner that is important but the congruence between them.  So, the Z’s found a new home:

Notice the stack in front of the altar.  That’s our two Z’s for practice every morning.  No quarter given!

And look what happened in the study:

Thich Nhat Hanh warns that lone practitioners are like tigers who wander alone into a village and come to a hasty end.  Sher refers to this allegory and adds (in the context of writing but equally applicable to the practice of any art) that “(y)ou must use your heart and your will to create an inner environment of “prowling” intention and an outer environment that is harmonious with your goals and includes like-minded prowlers.”


Thank you for practising,


6 thoughts on “habit forming

    • Thank you! I’m in Ottawa ON. I’d appreciate a listing of our sangha’s blog http://www.sanghaarana.blogspot.com (Sangha Arana is already listed in your directory). It is located in Navan/Vars/Cumberland and area.

      BTW, Sumeru is an amazing website and a deep bow for all the effort you put into it! I think it’s the only one that’s up-to-date and so informative. 😀

  1. Nice post about taking care of the big things that really matter, and attending to small everyday tasks that make up looking after the greater good. Great reminder to start the new year.

    I love this line: “Issan Dorsey on cleaning: “You just go around and make things look like somebody paid attention to them.” Cleaning and tidying are tasks I love intensely, now I know why!

  2. How beautiful… So much here that I relate to – blocks being pulled out, wondering where this “buggy” is going; the revelation of incongruencies, etc. Love the aspiration of being cooked into a broth of well-being and surrendering to chaos (9 years here). And learning to pay attention to the spaces that feed us, the nurture us, creating an inner (and outer) environment that supports…
    Great way to start the New Year…

  3. Pingback: Area ministers encourage regular Bible reading

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