This year I have resolved to become a better human being. It recently occurred to me that every day I have the chance to wake up and live exactly the life I want, and I am sort of blowing it. The fast follow-on to that realization was having to admit that after a year of hanging out with myself, I still don’t really know what I want, beyond a general sense, or how exactly, to discover and accomplish such a thing. This is so embarrassing. The trouble with values is that they’re context dependent. They’re much more dynamic than rules, and although they can be clear, they’re not specific.
What I want more than anything else is to have peace in my heart, and for every action I live into the world to be an offering and reflection of that peace. I am a long, long way from being able to do this with any consistency, if at all. So this year is about honoring the hope I have for my own beauty, and learning what it takes to close the gap between my beloved ideals and the life I actually live.
I have never accomplished anything important to me without working hard at it – why should becoming a kinder, wiser, happier person be any different? I have much respect and affection for the thinking and writing of Alain de Botton, who champions the idea that living a rich human existence takes effort and thoughtful cultivation. There is a pervasive cultural myth that somehow, once we reach adulthood, our psychological, emotional and spiritual developments are complete. That somehow, everything we need to know about being a good parent, child, spouse, friend, and community member are understood and immediately available to us. That somehow, we all know how to accept ourselves and others, not to mention the surprising nature of the universe, and that help with those things is an abnormal failure of some sort – one that is best relegated to the dark cloisters of disdain and weakness, also known as the church or therapy office.
So I am dedicating this year to calling bullshit on that notion, and seeing what happens. I am dedicating each month to living one of my values by setting specific goals and activities in service to manifesting and reflecting on that value. My best guess for how to develop insight into my experience is to answer the following questions:
- What do you value?
- What do you want?
- Where is the resistance?
- What are your expectations?
Lofty notions and honest guesses are all well and good, but they don’t mean much without action. My plan for each month is to follow this basic structure:
Clarify Intention: (wk. 1) Written reflection on the intention and choice of the value. This step is about articulating what a highly subjective, abstract value like “kindness” means to me. Using intentions will help me stay focused on the value I’m working to cultivate, within the boundaries of the exercises I’ve chosen.
Select Goals and Activities: (wk. 1) Choose 3 – 5 specific activities to engage in the theme. These are designed to create the chosen value in my inner or outer world, in order to develop the kinetic knowledge of experience. They are the quantified objects for my qualified reflection.
Clarify Expectations: Write down what I expect will happen as a result of my practice. Expectations are the qualified stand-in for outcomes, so I have some way to evaluate how what I imagined compares to the reality that occurred. Outcomes are often the tangible thing we select to represent the hope in our hearts. We love them because they’re so clear, and so easy to work towards in a categorical way – they give us a feeling of control that is deeply satisfying. But too often, we fixate on the outcome without being clear about the expectation that created it. Once we achieve it, we are surprised and disappointed that our happiness is not as great or enduring as we imagined it would be. Or, we achieve the outcome, but at the cost of something we valued much more than the result itself. When I do this exercise honestly, sometimes ludicrous stuff ends up on the list; better, I think, to meet that up front, and chat it up along the path.
One of my biggest challenges is accepting my own limitations. As a kid, the notion “you can do anything” was drilled into me. By and large, I still actually believe this, but the deeply enmeshed subtext of that message is “you can do everything, and you should do it to an externally defined (and often changing) standard.” This part is seriously not true, but I harbor all sorts of notions that it is.
Identify Gained and Lost: (wk. 1) Something is always gained and lost but I tend to assume that the only losses will be negatives I want to shed, or I simply focus exclusively on what I expect to be gained. The positive aspects are nicer to focus on, but it’s not representative of the full experience I’ll have. This step is important for being honest with myself, having a way to evaluate how good I am at predicting my pain points, and shedding light on them ahead of time. It’s a critical step for learning how to be accepting and gentle with myself around my most difficult and unpleasant parts, which I believe is fundamental to being that way with others.
Activities: (wks. 2 -3, and throughout) This is the activity-based portion of the practice. It involves doing the work I’ve laid out, and being flexibly disciplined about my commitments. The most important part of this is being accepting and creative in the face of the (inevitable) obstacles that arise, and making a complete effort to fulfill the commitment I’ve set. I.e. do my best, and accept that it won’t be perfect.
Review and Reflection: (wk. 4, and throughout) Since this whole project is about growth and discovery – about investigating if something like this will actually work – actively engaging in the experience is perhaps the most important part. It’s my sincere living practice as a householder. Throughout the experience, I will journal to document and reflect on what happened. Week four is dedicated to exploring my experience in full. What did I learn, and why does it matter?
This work takes a different kind of effort than the kind I’m good at. It is not the effort to accomplish a specific outcome, but rather the effort to work diligently and accept the outcome. It is about living in the space between the intention and the result, and mining the wisdom that lives there. It is accepting the invitation, and stepping into God’s speakeasy, the rough and holy place where you meet your soul.
Themes of Cultivated Practice