Habits and practicing: to succeed, learn discipline

My educational program for this fall includes taking an online class called “The Creative Habit: Cultivating a Daily Writing Practice” – and committing to stick with it. You see, I’ve always liked writing, and I’ve both taken creative writing courses and enormously enjoyed them in the past. But how can I say with a straight face “I like writing” if I hardly ever write? The word “habit” is the hook that attracted me to the course, and the reason why I think it will work. By prompting participants to write for 30-60 minutes every day, it seeks to instil the discipline of writing: to support the birth of a habit, if you will.

51ue4ydsgylA few months ago I had the opportunity to attend a speech by Gretchen Rubin based on her latest book, Better than Before. It’s about habits, or how to “decide not to decide”. It’s easier to go out running every morning if you’ve set out a rule for yourself that says “I will run every day, first thing in the morning.” You don’t have to make a decision to run, to debate with yourself whether to run, to negotiate with yourself how many times you will run this week, to wonder if the weather is good enough for running: you’ve organized your life so that each morning you run, no questions asked. It’s a habit.

Because different people form habits and stick to habits in different ways, the book offers several strategies: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, Accountability, Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Distraction, Rewards, Treats, Pairing and so on. The author avoids being prescriptive about which strategy you should adopt – you know best – or even about what habits she recommends. It’s a good toolbox, although it won’t give you the sense of urgency you need to start a new habit tomorrow.

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More recently, thanks to my friend Laura‘s recommendation, I stumbled into Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning. While the book’s tone is all optimistic bounciness (you may feel like you’re watching a TV preacher; the cover image doesn’t help), the substance of the practice the author illustrates is very much about making it a habit to do the things you want to do. And if you don’t have time, the answer is easy: get out of bed one hour earlier in the morning. He describes spending that hour practising each of six things for ten minutes: meditation (or gratitude, prayer, silence); affirmations; visualizations; exercise; reading; and writing (journaling). It doesn’t make sense, I thought at first, that doing any one thing for ten minutes would change your life. Yet, open the app store on your phone and look for “seven minute workout”: you will be surprised by the number of results. And who am I to criticise small bursts of activity, when since the beginning of the year I have spent fifteen minutes a day learning French on Duolingo? And surely, if you only have ten minutes a day when you read, that’s better than not reading at all.

81x9tdjfjrlIn yoga, too, we are familiar with the concept of the daily practice, which is called sadhana; Swami Satyananda Saraswati even wrote a book about it. A sadhana is given by the guru to each disciple for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. (But if you don’t know whom to ask, you can even request a Sadhana online from a Satyananda Yoga ashram). It has to be practiced every day until perfected, at which point the disciple should request a new sadhana.

Daily repetition is key: there is no sadhana without habit. Life in any ashram, monastery, or other place of spiritual growth is a routine, a long sequence of habits.

All of a sudden, habits seem trendy. But yogis knew about habits all along.

Connecting the dots on the self

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to read a good number of books, and sometimes to connect the dots among some of them, as much as they came from different writers, experiences, and historical periods. Here are three that, I believe, are about essentially the same central idea:

  • René Guénon, Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta (originally published in 1925);
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966);
  • Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014).

The central concept is perhaps most vividly expressed in the Alan Watts book (see a good Brainpickings summary here):

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Alan Watts, a Brit, was a lapsed Episcopal priest and lifelong student of Zen Buddhism who transplanted himself to California in the 1950s. He wrote one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism, The Way of Zen (1957), but was also influenced by Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and Chinese philosophy. He came in contact with many figures in the Human Potential movement and earned a large followership through a weekly program on a Berkeley radio station. He lived his later years between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mt. Tamalpais.

René Guénon, born in central France, became acquainted with Hinduism and Taoism in his student days in Paris; in the early 1910s he embraced Islam and was initiated into Islamic esoterism, taking the name Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. He researched and published extensively on Eastern doctrines, becoming one of the first Westerners to popularize the darshanas, or “visions”, of Hindu philosophy and devoting a seminal text to Vedanta darshana, the most metaphysical of them all. In 1930 Guénon moved to Cairo, where he joined a Sufi order and lived for the rest of his life.

Sam Harris is a living author from California, so I’ll leave it to his publisher: Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers […]. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, violence, human reasoning—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. 

The Book, by Alan Watts, is challenging and accessible at the same time, and I highly recommend it. It is a delight to read and poses a true conundrum to the reader, especially at a time – like today; I am writing barely two weeks after the terrorists attacks in Paris – when separateness spikes up, and none of us can imagine being leaves from the same tree as the perpetrators. And yet it offers me a lesson – the self is illusory – so important, and so radically different from everything else I might think about what I am, that, if I could learn it, it would provide me with all the empathy and the humility that no worldly doctrine or practice has yet been able to teach me.

Guénon’s book on Vedanta is dense, obscure and technical; I only recommend it if you’ve had at least a crash course in traditional Indian philosophies, as his attempt to decipher the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras relies on the reader mastering at least their basic vocabulary. Nevertheless, if you find an edition with good explanatory notes, it can be deeply rewarding – and it is plausible to me that at the core of Guénon’s reading of Vedanta there is the same insight that, forty years later, compelled Watts’s book.

Harris’s Waking up suffers from a few idiosyncrasies (for example, he seems to have quite enjoyed a number of brain-damaging drugs in verifying that they would indeed open the doors of perception) and spends too many pages quibbling with phenomena of marginal interest, such as near-death experiences. The author acknowledges his debt to Advaita Vedanta and to Poonja-ji, the teacher he practiced with. But the spiritual path he has found most rewarding is a different one, which is little known in the West, and seems irresistibly seductive. Dzogchen, a stream of Tibetan Buddhism, offers – in contrast to the many “paths of gradual ascent”, whereby a student adopts a practice like meditation for years or decades – a “path of sudden realization”, where a qualified teacher may precipitate an insight such that the pupil may “take the goal as the path”, experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of awareness in every moment: “the freedom from self that one might otherwise seek is the very thing that one practices.” No wonder our Western minds struggle. The author himself admits that, at his level of practice, the freedom from suffering allowed by the sudden insight of non-duality lasts only a few moments, although these moments can be repeated, and “punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference”. If you are a seeker, this may not be the solution for you or even your cup of tea (to the extent that “you” perceive yourself as a separate self). Still, Waking up is a worthwhile read if you are willing to be open-minded, to challenge your view of the world, and to glimpse what a different experience of reality might feel like.

 

Yoga for all

A few days ago, the yoga world mourned the death of B.K.S. Iyengar, an enormously popular and influential yoga scholar and teacher. All three of the men who became the main conduits of yoga into the West are now dead: Satyananda passed away in 2009, the Belgian André van Lysebeth in 2004. Their work is continued by legions of followers, and a body of knowledge that had languished in obscure ancient texts until the middle of the 20th century is now, in one form or the other, a daily practice for millions of people worldwide.

The significance of Iyengar’s passing and his impact on the Western world were underlined by multiple tweets from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, in my study of these masters’ teachings (in which, as you may know, I am partial to Satyananda’s), I have sometimes found that the Iyengar style, with its emphasis on rigorous execution of forbiddingly difficult asanas, scares people away from even trying their first approach to yoga.

Mayurasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

By now, people look at the popular depiction of a yoga practitioner – a 20-something woman in designer gear with a lithe physique stretched into a contortionist’s pose – and say: sorry, yoga is not for me. I can’t do that.

I disagree. As you know, yoga is routinely taught to pregnant women at all stages of pregnancy. I know teachers who teach the elderly in retirement homes; I know teachers who teach inmates in jails. There are now people who teach yoga to former pro wrestlers: yes, those guys with spines made practically unbendable by multiple injuries, stiff with thick layers of traumatized muscle. If these folks can benefit from yoga, everybody can benefit from yoga.

So: don’t be afraid to try. It is not a competition. It is not about whether and how you fall short relative to others. Ignore others. You set your own bar, test your own limits. Your practice is about your body. Stick with it, and it will be about a lot more.

Yoga am Fluss

Who know what’s worth recording in a blog, for the sake of posterity. Or even for oneself, as one tends to forget.

Yet I know this much and I want to remember it:

  • Every time I spend an hour practising yoga, things look better afterwards. The winter spleen recedes, the rain looks less bleak, problems feel easier to solve.
  • Finding a good yoga teacher is not unlike finding a good shrink, transfert included.
  • If you’re looking for classes in Zurich, try Yoga am Fluss by Susan Connor.