Practice, Part 6: Putting Practice to Work for You

This is the conclusion to the six-part series on practice. Please see also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

photo courtesy of Louish Pixel (Flickr-Creative Commons)
photo courtesy of Louish Pixel (Flickr-Creative Commons)

Over the preceding weeks, we’ve covered the three basic practices that are the foundation of my daily life: meditating, walking, and writing. Today we’ll pull it all together, and get you started undertaking some useful practices of your own.

“But doesn’t having daily practices tie you down?” you might ask. “You’re stuck doing those same things every day, and they interfere with your ability to do what you want, when you want it. With your ability to be truly free.”

I used to think that way myself… and it cost me years of growth and happiness…

I Want to Be Free

When I was younger, I believed that I wanted complete freedom: my days wide open, with no responsibilities, and I could do whatever I wanted, when I wanted, and I would feel good and alive and free. So I lived a life entirely devoid of practices. Well, I did eat and sleep and go to work, but in terms of other things to support my health or my productivity or plans for the future, I didn’t do many of those. Yes, I wrote some, but only sporadically, as the mood struck me. The rest of the time I’d be watching movies, or hanging out with friends, or reading books, or playing video games. Consuming entertainment instead of creating art. Enjoying myself, yes, but never truly making progress…

I have realized now, later in life, that complete freedom is overrated. I’d bought into and followed that old adage “think outside the box.” So I decided not to have a box at all. To not have discipline or boundaries or practices in my life. No parents or teachers or bosses to tell me what to do (okay, so maybe the bosses—but only at work…). I thought I was completely free to do what I wanted.

But really, I lived in a box I hadn’t consciously chosen, but one I’d accepted by default. And I didn’t even know it. Because instead of doing the things I really wanted to do—taking risks and stepping outside that box of my comfort zone—I stayed in it, deluding myself into thinking that I was free.

My Practice Box

It’s taken years to realize it, but now, in the past year or so, I’ve chosen to rebuild my own box to live in and create in. And the practices I do each day are the building blocks of that new sanctuary.

And I hope that through this series of posts you have seen how building a set of practices to live by has been of benefit to me, and could be of benefit to you. I’ve touched on the various benefits in my previous posts, but here are some of the overarching benefits I’ve gained from practice as a whole:

  1. I’m awake. Because of my practices, I’m more aware of myself and my emotions, as I talked about in my post on meditation. It’s been fantastic developing that awareness of self, experiencing when my mind shifts, noting the places it goes, and noting my inner voice and how I respond. Yes, meditation practice is the primary helper here. However, having time to think during long walks, and spending time writing down my thoughts and feelings, are also very helpful. It’s so good to realize when the Gremlin is talking and I shouldn’t listen, or when I’m letting anger or doubt or fear get the better of me. Or when I’m just sleepwalking along, following a pattern that I’ve run a thousand times, but doesn’t serve me, which leads me to…
  2. I’m learning to recognize patterns of behavior. Yesterday Jen and I spent the day donating clothes and other things we don’t need to charity. The process of purging ourselves of excess was incredibly freeing (but also surprisingly exhausting, like when you hold on to a destructive emotion for so long, and when you finally let it go, you are just so tired…). But it also helped us note patterns of behavior we both have around “saving stuff”—whether saving “because we might need it someday” or saving “because it’s worth money and we can sell it on Ebay/Craigslist/Amazon…” or saving “because if we get rid of it now we might have to buy it again.” It was enlightening to be going through that process, and have the self-awareness to back up the change, to recognize those limiting behaviors, and to question them. I don’t always win those battles, but the fact that I’m more aware means I do a lot more questioning, and a lot less just flowing along.
  3. I’m more productive. I’ve found that these three practices together, done first thing, mean a tremendous boost in energy and happiness, which makes the rest of the day go better. Definitely better than the “old days” and better than the occasional days when I miss one or more of my practices (which, anymore, is quite rare). That energy and sense of accomplishment I get from doing my practices is like a wave that carries me through the rest of my day, and I find I get more done.
  4. I’m more creative. Not only do I get more done, but the work I do is better. I’m more focused. I ask better questions, of my own mind, and of other things I observe. I see patterns and connections in things that I otherwise wouldn’t, which I can then funnel into my work, making it more insightful and creative (and fun!).
  5. I’m more relaxed and happy. I’m sure some of this is the fact that meditation and walking are both stress reducers. And the fact that I’m taking action daily on something that’s important to me—writing—is tremendously satisfying. No longer do I have that sense of guilt that I should be writing when I’m doing something else. I do my writing as a part of my scheduled practice, and even if I don’t write any more that day (which is rare any more), at least I’ve done my writing practice for the day. But I also think the act of taking care of myself—and all of my selves, the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, creative, social selves—makes life less full of stress and negativity, and more full of joy and fun and light. And that is awesome!

So instead of the equation:

Lack of Discipline (mistaken for Freedom) = Lack of Focus =
Lack of Direction/Accomplishment/Achievement

we have the equation:

Practice = Discipline (Boundaries) = Real Freedom (within those boundaries) = Progress

This equation, for me, is a much happier one. I like myself much better when I’m following this path than when I’m drifting around with some false sense of freedom. I’m walking a path purposefully instead of wandering aimlessly.

Think Inside the Box

If you, too, have suffered under the delusion that “doing whatever you want” is freedom (or perhaps still believe it…), I encourage you to give boundaries a try. Set up some fences, find your own box, tie one hand behind your back. Test your limits by first giving yourself some.

Here are a few examples of limits you might impose upon yourself, and see what comes of them.

I’ll pick writers to start with, because they’re easy. There are so many ways to constrain and stretch yourself and your writing. Here are a few ideas: If you write non-fiction, try your hand at fiction when trying to get your point across. If you write fiction, choose a character you wouldn’t normally (perhaps the opposite of you) and write from that perspective. If you write free verse as a poet, study the sonnet form and create something with that meter and structure.

This works with other creative endeavors, too. If you’re a painter, mark off a small space on a huge canvas, and just paint in that box. Or find another object entirely and paint on that, whether it’s a wall or a lampshade or a jean jacket. If you’re a photographer, photograph landscapes if you always do portraits, or go black-and-white if you always do color. Find someplace you’ve never been before, and set up a shoot there. Or shoot someplace you do all the time, but find something new within it to highlight.

It also works in business. When making decisions, give yourself some parameters, some constraints. See if you can accomplish the same boring task in a new way (because you’ve taken the old way off the table). What would you learn? Could you find a way that’s even better than “what you’ve always done?” I bet you can.

No matter your work or art or endeavor, I encourage you to see just how creative you become when you give yourself just a few boundaries to bounce off of.

Your Own Practice

And the best boundaries I can think of are to commit to some daily practices for yourself. Yours don’t need to be the same as mine, but having some habits/rituals/practices that encourage discipline and focus and direction for your actions, as well as help you increase awareness of yourself and your world as you travel in it, are incredibly valuable.

If you haven’t done so already as a part of this series, take a moment right now and decide on a practice you’ll begin right away. And then right now, while your intention is powerful, take action on that practice. Find a quiet place to meditate, even for five minutes. Take a quick walk around your office, or your neighborhood, or wherever you are. Set the kitchen timer for five minutes and create something, whether with words or images or acts of kindness or whatever medium your art needs.

And then do the same thing tomorrow.

And the next day.

And the next.

And when you have that practice burned into you, so much that you do it without thinking, and you don’t feel right when you even consider not doing it… then pick a new practice and start the process over again.

There’s all sorts of practices you might try. Some will work for you, and some won’t. Remember that practice is a path that leads you to the person you want to be—the person you are meant to be. So with that vision of your future self to guide you, choose practices—and take the steps—that will get you there.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Make your destiny, one action at a time. Take action today to create practices that support you in becoming the heroic figure you are meant to be, and create the change in the world you were put on this earth to make.


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2 thoughts on “Practice, Part 6: Putting Practice to Work for You

  1. James Michael Taylor

    I’d be embarrassed to say how many years I spent using “freedom” as an excuse for avoiding discipline. I seriously wasted most of my 20s because I was busy being wise over the world, playing video games all day and night and acting like I had all the answers and would never be sucked into the rat race.

    I wasn’t just out of the rat race, I wasn’t in any race – neither for love nor for the making of memories nor for growth nor helping others nor anything of value to the world or to me.

    I can see why it took my ego so long to let go of that fever dream – how crushing the weight of realizing how much time I’d spent just breathing and eating and gaming, then working so I could get more money to just breath, eat, and game.

    I don’t know what I don’t know, but at least now I approach life with that humility, I pray better awareness, and dedication of my time to pursuits which enrich my soul and the lives of those around me (even playing games with my dear kiddos!).

    1. Steve Post author

      Indeed. I think it’s so easy for us to take our time for granted when we are young. There’s plenty of time to “get serious” when we’re older. And while I think play’s a part of a normal, healthy life, to let it take over everything else isn’t healthy. Like the old saying goes, “Everything in moderation.” And I always add “(including moderation)”. Balance in our lives is good, but sometimes the occasional “binge” or “fast” is the right answer, too.

      You are right – ego is a part of that challenge when we’re younger, and realizing we don’t know it all, and approaching life and this world with a sense of humility, and openness, and beginner’s mind can make an incredible difference, to our lives and hopefully to the people and causes we care about.

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