A habit is a routine. While it may have begun with intention, it no longer needs thought behind it — it is part of one’s Automatic Pilot dashboard. It achieves some task: teeth get brushed.
A practice is just that – practice. It implies “rehearsal” for something more real?, permanent?, or better done that will occur at another time/place/space. A practice also implies it has been taken on with an intention attached to it. Part of that intention is to improve over time. I don’t think of my habits as necessarily having an element of improving.
A Caution about Practices
However, engaging in a practice may sometimes get in one’s way. In his book The Exquisite Risk, Daring to Live an Authentic Life, poet and philosopher Mark Nepo puts it well:
All the practice in the world can’t instigate enlightenment or revelation. It can only make us ready vessels for when these moments occur. … practice implies practice for something, usually a readying of the self…for the unexpected moment of life…
“vessels for…the unexpected moment of life…” Why do we practice meditation? Why do we introduce the practice of going to the gym each day? We must not forget the purpose behind the practice.
“Like Uncle Sam!” Lou says. “Remember all those times we had to eat cold Thanksgiving dinner because of waiting for him? He was always having to get his run in after he meditated for an hour, and meanwhile the whole family had to wait for him before sitting down — and Aunt Grace seemed always to time the turkey to be ready just as he went out the door, remember? When I was little it confused me like mad! When I got older I was really annoyed. Hungry! I mean really — one day outta the year you can’t change your schedule dude?”
I commiserated with Lou, having privately thought the same thing, and wondering why his sweet wife hadn’t thought to time her meal differently — or let us go ahead without him. Sam’s rigid meditation-cum-run devotion had not seemed to deepen his well of compassion or cooperation. Ah, well. Things change. We’ve moved away and now have our own hot Thanksgiving dinner, sans Sam and Grace. Still, I miss them, actually.
Lou is still thinking out loud about habits and practices…
“But habits — hey, we have to do something when we close down the screen, right? Before your Big Mr. Universe comes knocking at our door, beckoning us out into the cosmos! I can just see Mr. Universe! Big Hairy – oh, oh! Okay, MS. Universe. Hairy Ms. Uni — Oh! Oh! OKAY. The Universe has no gender? What?”
By this time I am hitting Lou over the head with a pillow from my chair. He squeals and runs out laughing and yelling something about pacificism and beauty and practicing what I preach.
But Lou, as usual, has a point. With the TV, computer, phone off and our automatic pilot off — that Captain of Habitual Activity — we might as well choose to intentionally practice something. So let’s practice True Beauty. It really does include a great deal of variety: Being funny, being quiet, walking or swimming or some such, any kind of art or production, looking at everything, hanging out with friends, giving and getting some loving – not too difficult, eminently satisfactory.
For once, Lou might agree with me.
Meanwhile though, make sure that in the name of your “practice”, you are not avoiding life. Life, with all its glory, it’s messiness, and oh yes — it’s unexpected sprouts and spouts.