Choosing a Practice to Build Will and Skill

March 31, 2010
Choose a practice, or routine, that will strengthen your intention to follow through on all those things you say you want to do but don’t seem to get around to doing.

DaffodillsBefore I left for the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, DC, nine days ago (where I took this picture of spring daffodils in a lovely botanical garden), I wrote that I would be sharing some of what I learned when I returned.

I will begin by telling you about the keynote speaker on Friday evening, Natalie Goldberg, who is a poet and author of books on writing such as Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library) Her workshops, often given near Taos, New Mexico, include not only writing but yoga, meditation, and nature.

In a year-long writing group, she asks the students to select a practice on a regular basis, preferably daily. Perhaps someone would make a commitment to set aside time every day for meditation. Or it could be something they wanted to “practice.” For example, a woman whose son was sent to Iraq would write haiku each day to deal with the anxiety of knowing her son was in harm’s way. By the end of his year’s deployment, in addition to discovering a way to contain some of her anxiety, her haiku had improved considerably and flowed beautifully.

Another woman was harassed at work because she had been there a long time and earned much more than  recent hires. Consequently, there seemed to be a concerted effort to make her unhappy so she would quit and they could save money. She was determined not to be forced out and chose as her practice to swim in Berkeley Bay for 27 minutes five days a week (how she settled on that amount of time I don’t know), even when the bay was cold, before going to work. After a few months, she discovered she was happy, even though the conditions at work were still unpleasant.

Still another woman chose as her practice to read one book a day and write a review about it. Of course, she had to give up some other things she might have done instead, but by the end of the year her reviews were well written, concise, and informative. I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it because I’m a very slow reader. But it illustrates the way in which committing yourself to doing something on a regular basis can help you tap into resources you may not know you had.

I look at this kind of commitment to do something on a daily, or almost daily, basis from the perspective of my training in psychosynthesis, which places a strong emphasis on strengthening the will. Here it’s important to understand that the will to which I refer is not the Victorian-era “will-power” that causes us to grit our teeth and tough it out, like getting through a difficult job or stopping smoking. Rather, it is the “will” that comes from the center of who we are and guides us to achieve what we set out to do.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons we tend not to accomplish what we set out to accomplish is because our will has not been exercised. Rather, it becomes flabby and useless like a muscle that has atrophied. However, choosing a “practice,” and following through on a committment to work on that practice, builds the will. Not only do we improve whatever it is that we are practicing, but as we increasingly work on the practice, we develop a rhythm that creates a deeper imprint in the body and mind than we would have if we were less committed to whatever we do. Once we strengthen the will, we can tap into that resolve and self-control for other goals that have nothing to do with our practice. In the process, we discover the strength of character and self-control we need for a full and vibrant life.

It is important to note, however, that if the practice feels like a burden, it will lose its power to transform and will likely be discarded, leaving you feeling guilty. That’s why it takes a while to choose the practice that feels right for you.

What practice I will choose? Will it be to exercise 30 minutes every day even when I don’t feel well and my feet hurt? Will it be to read a chapter of a book in a pile of books that ask me to read them, but which I ignore because there are more interesting, or seemingly more pressing, things to do? Will my practice be to write in the blog every day (or let’s say five days a week) and perhaps in the process encourage all of you to choose a regular practice as well?

I don’t want to jump into something that I can’t follow through with. But I decided that for today I would add an entry to the blog and get up tomorrow and write again (rather than wait a few days as I generally do). Whether I continue will depend on how long it takes me to write. If I spend too much time, I may not be able to attend to other things that must be done, though it is possible that by doing it each day I will be able to eventually write more efficiently.

What I do know is that I feel determined to do something. After hearing Natalie Goldberg, something tells me that if I can select a practice and keep at it, I can develop the will to focus on one task at a time and, in the end, get much more done with less stress and pressure.

I’ll let you know what practice I choose.

What practice do you think would make a difference in how you managed your life?

7 thoughts on “Choosing a Practice to Build Will and Skill

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