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Practices, Not Resolutions

On the cusp of a new year, most of us look ahead with a mixture of excitement and trepidation to what we wish to achieve in the months that follow. If we haven’t yet written our novel or lost 25 pounds or found a new job, we begin to formulate our resolutions to do so. But I find there is something rigid and punitive in the idea of “resolution,” and—as we know all too well—resolutions can be broken, often before the end of January.

What if, instead, we adopted a practice? In The True Secret of Writing, Natalie Goldberg defines practice this way:

It’s something you choose to do on a regular basis with no vision of an outcome; the aim is not improvement, not getting somewhere. You do it because you do it. You show up whether you want to or not. Of course, at the beginning it’s something that you have chosen, that you wanted, but a week, a month in, you often meet resistance. Even if you love it, inertia, obstacles arise: I can make better use of my time, I’m tired, I’m hungry, this is stupid, I need to listen to the evening news. Here’s where you have the opportunity to meet your own mind, to examine what it does, its ploys and shenanigans. That’s ultimately what practice is: arriving at the front—and back door—of yourself. You set up to do something consistently over a long period of time—and simply watch what happens with no idea of good or bad, gain or loss. No applause—and no criticism. (p. 41)

One “mistake” (actually a learning opportunity in disguise) that people new to the idea of practice make is starting too big: I will write for four hours a day, seven days a week, for example. Instead, Goldberg recommends realistically assessing what is possible and sticking to that. In the book, she describes telling her students that her practice is to sit in meditation for 20 minutes five days a week. When I turned 52, I decided I would write a short creative piece every day for 52 days. My friend Lauren Rutten, a professional photographer, has done several rounds of 108 days of practice (the number of beads on a Buddhist mala bracelet), branching out from her usual routine of wedding photography to train her lens on the surprising and beautiful in the world around her. Another friend posts miraculous images from nature and her reflections every “Wonder Wednesday” on Facebook.

Whatever practice you set for yourself, Goldberg suggests keeping a separate journal to record it, including the days that you skip. She gives the following illustration in her book (p. 43):

March 5th—skipped (First day I wanted to begin, right off didn’t do it)

March 6th—7:30 a.m. to 7:50

March 7th—7:25 to 7:45 a.m. at Mountain Cloud by myself

March 8th—6:25 to 6:55. I sat a half hour. Always relief

It’s important to note the times we skip as a way of staying in continual relationship with the practice, Goldberg says. There is no judging or shaming, only noticing.

What are the fruits of practice? The confidence that comes from doing what we say we will. Creating a reliable space for the Muse to show up. The satisfaction of honoring our deepest desires.

I invite you to consider what practice you would like to engage in the coming year (or some other period of time). It’s a question I have been pondering for myself. Writing this blog once a week is a form of practice, but perhaps there is another I could consider. If you decide to embark upon a practice, I would love to hear about it! Please comment below.

Happy New Year!

Image © Aaron Leighton

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