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The Incredible Lightness of Daily Practice

 

This is part 13 of a series on the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice. To see the first post, click here.

Naturally, you want to take your daily practice seriously. At the same time, you want to hold it lightly. You want to bring some effervescence, some joy, and some ease to your daily practice so as to prevent it from sinking like a stone. Picture the difference between coming to your daily practice wearing a 60-pound backpack or wearing summer clothes. Bringing a summer-breeze attitude keeps your practice from feeling ponderous.

Your daily practice should matter to you, as a source of pride and as the primary way that you accomplish what you intend to accomplish. But piling rocks on it turns what might have been an effortless hour, one that you enjoyed today and won’t dread tomorrow, into something so heavy that it brings with it a whiff of despair.

How do you engineer that lightness? We are not birds who soar. We are not butterflies who flit from flower to flower. As a species, we are quite a bit heavier than that. We carry pain, bad memories, and old wounds. We carry a sharp awareness of injustice and of our own mortality. We do not possess all that much lightness, and we know it. That’s why we’re thrilled to see a great acrobat or dancer almost defy gravity.

We’re thrilled because that lightness seems miraculous, given our human heaviness. To bring lightness to our daily practice is nothing short of a miraculous embrace of something that is not really us. It is us finding the way to say, “I do believe that I can float for a bit, like a soap bubble.”

When I sit down to write, I do not consciously say, “Lightness, please.” But somewhere inside of me, I am saying exactly that. I am relaxing into the work, not charging into it. I am floating rather than hunkering down, dreaming rather than tensing. I am attaching but also detaching. I’m announcing that the work matters, but I’m also chuckling just a little bit, keeping this hour or two in perspective. If I make a mess, so be it! Maybe I’m picturing that happy cartoon pig jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

If your life has been hard, it makes sense that it will prove that much harder for you to bring lightness to your daily practice. Wouldn’t you come to it already frowning, already burdened, already half-unequal to the task? That seems likely. If I have a single overcoat to remove, that heavy overcoat of burdened humanness, you may have two overcoats to take off, or maybe three. What a lot of labor to arrive at lightness! And yet, maybe you can.

How can you manage to feel light, given how heavy life usually feels? One partial answer may be that you are only asking for lightness for the length of your daily practice. Yes, it would be lovely for that lightness to inhabit you always. But for now, you are setting the bar in a different place, at 20 minutes of lightness, at 30 minutes of lightness, at 40 minutes of lightness. Maybe that is possible?

Just a brief period of lightness, not so much longer than the life of a soap bubble, or how long it takes for a hummingbird to flit from one bush to another, or the length of time it takes a paper airplane to fly across the room. Well, yes, your practice is a bit longer than those. But it doesn’t go on for hours and hours. Can you picture lightness lasting for maybe a full hour? For just that long?

We also must factor in prospective meaninglessness. If you’re a student of kirism, you know that the activity you undertake in the service of meaning, some meaning investment that you make or some meaning opportunity that you seize, may not feel meaningful in the doing. It may serve your meaning needs to write your novel, but that heavy writing day, when words won’t come, or only the wrong ones present themselves, is likely to feel anything but meaningful. So, how can you feel light in the cold darkness of empty space?

How can you feel light if you are accompanied by that sensation of meaninglessness? By consciously invoking lightness. You sit there, playing your oboe piece for the thousandth time. How heavy that feels! You prepare to send out an email that may start a commotion and embroil you in conflict. How dangerous that feels!

Maybe it’s impossible to feel light as you play that passage or hit send on that email. But you can still invoke lightness. You can still whisper, “Lightness, lightness, lightness,” and maybe float a little bit off the ground, even if it’s only a bare quarter-inch.

Larry, a colleague of mine and an advocate for children’s rights, explained: “What I do each day weighs me down. Every case is painful, and even the successes, when we win a big judgment against a pharmaceutical company or get a legislator aboard our agenda, somehow just remind me of all the places where we’re losing. I can’t do very much about all that heaviness. But I have learned to sigh. That sigh is my way of growing lighter. It’s a sigh for all of us, a sigh for humanity. I sigh, and I feel lighter, and that helps me put my nose back to the grindstone because the children need me.”

Your daily practice may feel heavy on a great many days. As an antidote, invoke lightness. You and your practice need it.

Previously published on Psychologytoday.com.

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