While we tend to designate a habit as “good”or “bad,” it is the unexamined and fixed nature of our habits – whether behavioral, emotional, assigning meaning, or perception itself, that binds our freedom to move with life.
When we are not awake to our intentions, needs, or desires, we “practice” what we know.
Our choices become limited, our choosing becomes fixed.
Whether in response to caregiving received from our imperfect parents, or to personal and cultural insults and traumas – our shattered egos creatively, masterfully and poignantly craft survival strategies so that we appear unscathed and whole, clothed in armor-like yet shape-shifting habits.
The most persistent unexamined habits are born to protect and defend us: they are masters of disguise and ardent guardians at the gates of awareness.
The adult defended ego, bound by fear and habit, longing only to secure for us our unique and particular place in the world, continues to try and protect us in outmoded ways. Ever-vigilant, it takes refuge in false urgency, conflict, blame and shame, denies suffering, and misdirects its extraordinary creative energies.
The greater the perceived threat to survival, the finer the camouflage, the further from awareness, the greater the resistance to change.
And so we fashion a default position for every aspect of life: relationships, work, financial decisions, food choices, ethical dilemmas, conflict. These habits can be quite functional, and make for a pleasant, and comfortable, or at least a manageable life. They save us time and energy while freeing us from the strain or paralysis of constant choosing.
Our habits may reassert themselves after minor assaults, but eventually they fail to help us negotiate some major movement of life, some disruptive event – birth, death, job loss, the end of a relationship, an injury or health crisis or a developmental crossroad in life.
In such a situation we often respond by questioning another’s motive or intelligence, good will, or by questioning God or Reality or by questioning ourselves.
Or it may be that some combination of restlessness, longing, curiosity, that driving sense – there must be something more. Or – I am so tired of this —– pattern, I have to get to the bottom of why this keeps happening, or why I keep doing this. Or – why is there so much suffering in the world?
At such moments, we have broken “the shell that encloses [our] understanding” and we are in pain. (Khalil Gibran)
And off we go on the age-old journey – whether as philosopher, spiritual seeker, scientist or theologian. Therapy. Workshops. Retreats. Spiritual community. All of these can provide insight, breakthrough, supports, or temporary refuge (as well as a crutch.) Still, we have only our own self for continuous companionship.
It’s not that through a life of practice we are after becoming either habit-less creatures or egoless creatures (as if we could!) – we simply want to increase our freedom to live each moment freshly and vividly, rather than by a script penned by our least awakened parts.
They offer us new information or possibility, bring us face to face with both the unknown, which we can explore and learn from, and the unknowable that does not yield.
We come face to face with our own suffering – some of which we may be able to solve by breaking out of an outlived story fraught with sorrow, anxiety, or dissociation. Some of which may prove to be unsolvable, bound not so much by our particular and unique, sometimes isolating personal history as by an existential, and therefore shared dilemma of human life.
Take Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice: “Live the questions now.”
How much of honesty, how much kindness?
If you consistently bind yourself with one self-judgment after another, regularly fall short of your own expectations, and can barely give yourself a break, you will apprentice yourself to kindness, take her on as a faithful companion and let her teach you.
If you give yourself one break after another, and have a stash of Things You Avoid Seeing or Talking About, you will study the impeccability of honesty, learn how that strengthens the backbone and changes your posture and gait as you make your way through life.
Most of us need to learn quite a lot from both these masters and come to a more and more nuanced discernment of applying the beneficial and healing dose in the countless variation life calls for.
A life of open-hearted inquiry, cultivated awareness of sensation and emotion, and nourishment for the body awakens and heals the ego and lightens its footprint, making it possible to be at home within yourself and among others.
Through such a life of practice you can assume compassionate and soul-stirring agency for your life, you can un-cover the gifts within your limitations, hold the mysteries of the unknown and of paradox, come into relationship with the unsolvable nature of suffering.
As we practice waking up in ways small and large, we begin to sense that honesty and kindness, along with all the splits that we try to solve with “either/or” “both/and” or merging with another or with God are held in our One Life, which is no longer abstract or idealized, but vivid and lived.
And we liberate an enormous amount of creative energy that we have used to keep our personal monsters out of awareness, abandoned in a locked, dark and dank basement.
As you do this, falling down and getting up again – you also heal the world.
More and more you are whatever limited and human size you are in the moment – skilled and able, timid or inflated and inadequate. More and more, you take your daily actions responsibly in hand.
As you do this, you hold yourself and others less and less captive to roles in a world you have made over in your own image, for your own safety. The people around you are able to relax and become more themselves also: ripple effects of lightening the egoic footprint.
You assume agency and freedom in your one particular, ordinary and precious, dignified and sane daily life, a life shot through with illuminating mystery.
You live with intention and attention, heartfelt and holy, choosing in the only moment that any of us can know: this one, and this one, and this one.
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