A little self reflection

When we moved to the United States we had no tradition of Thanksgiving. We gladly joined friends to celebrate, but couldn’t quite “get it.” It’s likely that such cultural rituals, with associated traditions, foods, smells, and memories, are fixed during childhood. We felt like outsiders looking in. But, in time we developed our own Thanksgiving tradition ... a retreat to the ocean, for a few days relaxation and reflection. It happens that Thanksgiving falls near the beginning of Advent; a period for Christians of self-examination. Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter—two extended times a year to tap into Socrates’s “the unexamined life is not worth living”! By the ocean is, for me, the perfect place for such self-reflection. So these last days I’ve been taking stock and thinking through a few things. In my seminars and workshops on meditation and stress management I encourage folk to maintain a “life practice.” By that I mean a set of mundane rituals and habits that give to life a sense of order and meaning, in the midst of much disorder and meaninglessness. To develop my thoughts on a “life practicel” I have mined the wisdom of the ancient sages, who empahsized the role of ritual and habit. The Chinese tradition is rooted in the Confucian understanding that helpful ritual makes for a humane life. Aristotle gave us the insight that building good habits shapes good character, and good character leads to a life of well being. Bring the two traditions together and it suggests that a humane life of well being—a flourishing, compassionate life—is achievable through a life practice that is molded by ritual and habit. But rituals and habits get a bad press. Rituals are seen as a dry, rote “going-through-the motions.” Habits are boring and uninteresting. Most of us, I suspect, would prefer a life of spontaneity and freedom. Fair enough.  Here’s a counterintuitive thought: Sponctaneity and freedom ride on the wind of ritual and habit. Examples abound. To enjoy the freedom of riding a bicycle you have to build the habits of riding—balancing, steering, braking, and sundry other skills. To play jazz piano with spontaneity you must do the ritual drills of scales, chords, and complex rhythms. Any worthwhile activity that appears free and spontaneous is developed by the building of good habits. A life practice, then, being a broader enterprise than bike riding or piano playing, is no less demanding in its requirement of rituals and habit. Such a life pracrice will differ for each of us, but here’s a few incomplete notes on how such a life practice can be developed.
  1. Habits of mind: Developing what in Chinese philosophy is called xin and yi, the emotional mind and the wisdom mind. 
  2. Rituals for the connectedness of mind and body: Something like taiji, reiki, meditation, and breath control. 
  3. Habits of relationship nurturing: Kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, listening, and such like. 
  4. Spiritual rituals: This will depend on your tradition. For me this includes spiritual reading, making Eucharist, prayer, meditation and mindfulness. 
  5. Habits of service: Practically placing the needs of others ahead of your own needs. Other-regardingness rather than self-regardingness.
All begins with “baby steps.” You can’t do it all at once, but you can build habits and rituals that shape who you are. Each of us would have to work it out for ourselves. For me, a fourishing compassionate life seems a reasonable goal for which to aim.  Enjoy the journey! +Ab. Andy