Getting started with daily practice is hard. I will not deny that. I know the challenges too well. But one of the reasons it is hard is that we try to have a full-blown and developed daily practice on day one. It is a whole lot easier if, instead, we work to develop one.
Daily practice might look, from the outside, like having the discipline to commit to something every day. But if we want to accomplish something, rather than just admire it from afar, we will need to understand what it is essentially: what are the parts that make it up?
The top three essentials of daily practice are, in no particular order, clear purpose, clean space, and committed practice. Without clear purpose, we will always find something more interesting to do. The clean space allows us to create an internal clarity. The daily practice itself helps us build our internal strength, resilience, and flexibility.
The goal is to do all three of these things not just as chores, but as part of who we are. At first, they will totally be chores. They will suck. But after we do them for a while, we really will start to improve our lives. And once that happens, we’re stuck. Because these things, which were once chores, now become necessary parts of our lives. This is when we start to see real change in our lives.
As it turns out, we already need to make a huge effort in order to create and sustain a habit. Doing so willy-nilly, or when the rest of our environment is a mess, is really hard. Doing the thing, when there is no good reason, is about impossible.
To put it more succinctly, it is easier to practice daily when the space you are in (head space, physical space, etc.) is not a disaster. But that does not mean that we need to have a completely clean house before starting. Rather, it means that as we get going, we may find it necessary to make other improvements in our lives.
ProTip: When we are looking to improve our lives, trying to decide on a first step is often a trap that keeps us stagnant. The answer is do anything. Speaking from experience, when we find ourselves enervated and unable to move, sometimes all we need to steel ourselves and get moving. It does not matter so much what we choose. Count breaths? Do the dishes? Ritual? Exercise? The key is to pick one you can do right now, and forge ahead. And remember: Daily practice is only today.(*)
In the beginning, we make the mistake of thinking that all we need is committed practice. And then, when we inevitably fail, we believe that the problem is inherent in us. We take it as a sign of our character — which it is.
What we do not understand, because we were never taught this, is that character can be cultivated. The whole point of magic, the whole point of spirituality in general, is to develop our own spiritual power and clarity. In other words, we want to develop our character.
When we come to the path, we carry with us a hundred reasons. When we stay on the path and develop ourselves, we come to realize that there was only ever one reason. We came to change our lives.
If we could sit down and bust out a five-minute meditation without breaking a sweat on day one, then there would be no point to training, and no value in it. Instead, we sit down for the first time and can’t manage anything for a good while.
Initially, we do not have the skills to accomplish our goals. But even after we begin to develop some skill, we do not have the power to sustain our effort. It is in cultivating that power that we start to change our character.
Though perhaps we do not have the words, for most of us cultivating character the whole point of daily practice. We all need reasons to get off the couch.
It is as obvious as the nose on my face that we shape our surroundings in ways that reflect our inner state. If we are in a state of confusion, we do not do the dishes, make the bed, or sweep and vacuum the floor. But in the world of the spirit, our state and our surroundings are not simply related by cause and effect. Changing one changes the other, and it does not matter so much which one we start with.
For most of us, we do not have the first idea how to begin to develop any kind of internal clarity. Our lives are set up to prevent it — and mostly by people who benefit from our poor choices.
We argue with ourselves in a thousand ways every day, trapping ourselves between saving money and buying that new book, pair of shoes, or game. There is no way to have everything we think we want. We were never taught how to balance these desires. Our culture, in fact, exacerbates this problem!
But we do know how to improve our surroundings. Although most of us did not have a particularly mystical upbringing, we were taught the basics of self-cultivation. The first level of cultivation is not mystical meditations or elaborate rituals.
There is an old Zen teaching story that perfectly exemplifies this idea. A young student approaches his master and asks, “please teach me to cultivate myself.” “Well,” says the master, “have you cleaned your alms bowl this morning, after you ate? That is self-cultivation.”(2)
ProTip: While keeping your surroundings clean and orderly can help in developing internal clarity, the practice can be taken too far. The house that looks unlived-in is probably a sign of a life unlived as well. Cleanliness and orderliness are only of value as much as they either reflect or assist us toward our goals.
Both knowing why we are doing something, and having a space conducive to it, are necessary to daily practice. A simple commitment to practice is the third leg of the tripod. Daily practice will change your life for the better. It is hard work, but it has an excellent return on investment.
The key word here is “investment.” Daily practice is about investing in yourself. That is all self-cultivation really is. It sounds fancy, but it just means taking actions to make yourself more, well, you.
This is the “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink” part of daily practice. Having clear purpose will improve your life immensely all on its own. Clean surroundings will speak for themselves. But in the end, we have to make the commitment.
ProTip: If you are looking for a daily practice and nothing appeals, you might start with making your bed every day. Make that a ritual, and make it a daily practice. If there was ever anyone who thought making his bed was the biggest waste of time, it was me. Because, you see, intellectually, it is.
Why make a bed you’re just going to get back in so soon? Logically, it seemed like a waste of time. What I failed to understand was that making my bed was not about efficiency or logic. It was about self-cultivation. Such tiny practices really do beckon clarity and purpose into our lives.
(1) Daily practice is only today. Trying to deal with all the tomorrows that might be, you will find yourself overwhelmed and paralyzed. Instead, focus only on the practice today. Tomorrow, you can do the same thing. If you skip tomorrow, nothing was lost. Start again the next day. I have not missed a day in a while, but I know that someday I will. And when that happens, I will have to start again the next day.
(2) Paraphrased from Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness.