Art in Action: 4 Things That Make Something a Practice

what makes it a practice 050916

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

What does it mean to have a practice? By its very nature, a practice is personal, so I suspect there are as many definitions as there are people practicing. Based on my own experience and conversations with other practicers, here are four distinguishing characteristics of a practice:

1. Do it regularly no matter how you feel or how it’s going

A practice is about showing up ~ even if (or especially if) your day is busy or your body feels creaky or it’s not coming out the way you think it should. If I only meditate when I’m on retreat or only when I feel relaxed, it’s not really a practice. A practice is about the consistent attention to the process, not the outcome.

2. Devote yourself to the activity for its own sake

Immerse yourself in the specificity of the activity and commit to it. Learning how to do Crow Pose or a Cross-Front-Cha-Cha-Cha might not seem to have any direct applications to your life. Trust that the gifts lie within the details of the practice. Avoid autopilot: do your heartfelt best every time you practice. Some days you’ll be sharper than others, of course, but keep aliveness in the activity. And especially if you have been doing it for a while, be willing to learn something new. Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

3. What you learn and do in the activity informs and supports the rest of your life

A practice can provide you both foundation and guidance. A practice gives you support that you can rely on and guides your choices especially in unfamiliar or difficult situations. Not long ago a customer at my friend’s restaurant cut himself deeply on a broken plate. My friend stayed centered in the midst of the panic and blood – and she saved his life. After it was over, she realized that it was the presence that she cultivated in her practice that allowed her to keep calm in the midst of chaos.

4. Your practice brings out the best in you

Notice if what you think is a practice is (or becomes) an obsession or a compulsion. It’s not a practice if it takes over and leaves you out of balance. A true practice allows you to step into your true potential. A question I often ask is, Am I leaving the place (be that my body, my life, the world) better than I found it?

That being said, lots of activities can be a practice. Anything from prayer to running, writing to gardening, making art to preparing food are all practices for some people and not for others.

If you don’t have a practice and you want one:

Go shopping. A practice doesn’t have to be formal or religious or fancy. It does have to be something that you are interested enough in to commit to doing it regularly. Working in the garden can be a chore done just for the resulting vegetables or a practice of connection with yourself, nature, your creativity and your impact on the environment.

If you used to have a practice but you’ve fallen away from it:

Begin again. Your practice is a most forgiving friend. She’s always ready to meet you where you are and start again.

If you have an active practice:

Notice what parts of your life are impacted by what you practice. Does your practice change the way you talk to your teenager, what you notice on the way to work, or what you buy at the grocery store? Do you feel more grounded or less rattled by the unexpected? Oddly, it may be challenging for you to see the effects of your practice since change is often incremental. One of my teachers reports that his children notice first when he isn’t meditating regularly. “Dad,” they say, “Time to get back on the cushion!”

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