You break a habit, like you would a bone or a pair of new shoes – with blisters. Practice makes perfect – but is perfect what you want?
As I fill up my fall calendar with soccer practice and violin lessons, fencing practice and math tutors, I wonder about these words and their baggage, which is hefty. As I try to break habits of my own and get my kids to consider breaking a few of theirs, I wonder: Just what are we doing?
One practice to which I’m trying to dedicate myself: Rising at 6:00 AM to do yoga. I rarely succeed. And then I harp on myself (a practice at which I am tops; a habit I’d like to break). I did it for a month, I reason. I want to do it. So WHAT is wrong with me? (Because obviously something is.)
And this way of thinking leads me to other weaknesses, other so-called habits that I can’t quite overcome. The chocolate in my pantry: a habit I can live with, and yet I sometimes harangue myself for it anyways. The wine in my fridge: a habit that I’m ashamed of. … though I’m increasingly more interested in the shame than the fact of the wine itself. As my friend Mary said, my every-other-day glass is hardly the stuff of a Lindsay Lohan rehab scenario. What is it doing for me – this 5:30 pm, take-the-edge-off-while-cooking fix? What stories am I telling myself about why I should stop?
Break the habit. Embrace the practice.
Should. That’s a big word that applies to both habit and practice. When applied to the former it’s a negative; when applied to the latter it’s a positive: as in you should stop X versus should do Y. I think of what I tell my kids. You shouldn’t suck your thumb versus you should practice violin. You shouldn’t say “hell” versus you should read every day. Break the habit. Embrace the practice.
Sometimes I’ve actually convinced myself that I am constitutionally unable to develop a new practice or to break a habit. I am too weak … or so I tell myself.
After waking for 26 days successfully at 5:50 a.m., and now finding myself unable to do so, it’s easy to believe this story. But take a moment, Self, and examine the story. In July, I was waking up with 20 other people at the same time – a cacophony of alarm clocks would hardly let me do otherwise. There, I was walking down the hall to a big room to practice with others and be led by a teacher. Here, I am swimming against a natural habit of sleep, taking myself out of the warm bed that I share, and going down to a solo mat in an increasingly dark room with a dog who upon seeing me needs to be fed and let out and let in and let out.
And I have already embodied so many lessons. Last night, as my yoga teacher reminded people to breathe in unison with the movements, to come out of a pose as consciously as you enter it, to align your toes and your heels I saw that these lessons have already been learned by my body-mind. They are in me. Just as my body needs to stretch daily – a practice it cannot ignore; just as it needs greens and is increasingly disinterested in very much sugar; just as I feel different when I don’t write – these practices are in me. They are lessons learned, habits developed as a result of repeated action. I practiced and the lessons, ultimately, became unconscious.
Hemingway–who wrote standing up (yes, that’s him there)–used to stop writing mid-sentence, just as he was into something good, something that had energy and flow behind it. He’d leave the paper there in his typewriter, waiting for him to return the next day. Rather than break habits that are no longer serving me or my kids – the thumb sucking, the wine – I’d rather find a way for us to enter the flow of what makes us happy. I think here of the flow theory of Csíkszentmihályi. When in flow, a person experiences joy and even rapture; the emotions are harnessed in the service of performing and learning.
Practice will most successfully “stick” if it comes from a good place. I walk a fine line with my kids, encouraging them to read more, to take up an instrument. I try to gently nudge them toward the edge of the stream so that they can – I hope and imagine – at some point fall into its waters, full of rapture for the pleasure of the words, the joy of the music. Just as I roll out my mat when I can in order to feel alive in its waters.
And my habits? Until I no longer need whatever they are serving, until I can find something as effective to take their place, can I love them? Can I find peace with them? I dare say it, but I should.