|A puzzle can’t be assembled without knowing the full picture. (cc) Ella Phillips.|
I’ve been an artist as long as I can remember. My father is a traditional oil painter whose work usually involves realistic landscapes. Being works of realism, his paintings have always been very detailed (one can literally count the leaves on some of his trees). This influenced me toward realism and hyper-detail in my own drawings growing up. I would often begin a drawing by working on one little spot at full detail, moving around the page, until the whole thing was complete.
It was not until I went to college, majoring in fine arts, that I learned to loosen up and approach a drawing as one large composition. I was frustrated and surprised when, in my first life drawing classes, we’d be given just minutes or even seconds to draw a figure before the pose would change. We were told that we should be able to stop at any point, and the drawing should be complete in its form – but simply at varying levels of detail. This forced me to look at an entire composition as a snapshot. At that point, I could develop shade, form, and detail to whatever level desired. This had several effects on my work: I was able to achieve greater accuracy in proportion, better composition, and it added a great deal more expression and movement to my work.
In recent years I’ve noticed a similar principle can apply to our spiritual practice. And, by this, I mean all of our life practices – not just the ones we typically think of as the official “spiritual practices”. Many ancient philosophers recognized that our aim is to ‘live well’ and, by this reckoning, there is no real distinction between matters of ethics, health, spirituality, or wisdom. They are all habits we try to build in living well.
In the past, I had always thought it would be too much to try and do everything at once. For example, if I decided I’d like to build a habit of journaling, or eating right, or meditating, etc – I would take on that one project, and imagine that I would build the habit until I was perfect in it. Then, after that point, I could look at building another habit, and so on.
Inevitably, I would not be perfect at it. I would continue to falter. Frustratingly, sometimes I would build a decent habit and then flub up. At that point I would feel defeated and then cease my efforts. This process of repeated failure to build the one habit meant I’d never get to the others. Or, if I did, it would be absent the first habit I had tried to establish earlier.
But lately I’ve found – for me at least – that I am typically more successful when I don’t try to divide and conquer. Instead, I think about everything I want to do better, and then try to do it all at once – diving into my new life.
This seems counter-intuitive. If I couldn’t handle one habit, how could I possible take on all these ideal goals at once? In my personal practice, some of the major elements I try to build are: regular exercise, good diet, daily meditation, daily journaling on my progress, continuous mindfulness, compassion, kind demeanor, and better attention to duties. There are some other occasional things, such as educational reading and so on, as well. But, without ‘right effort’ as the Buddhists put it, the default state would include a lot of laziness, snacking, couch-potatoing on the computer or TV, and so on. Only through an examined life and continuous effort can progress be made along such a path.
What I have found, is that by taking it all on at once, you build a network between your practices that somehow seem to support one another. But here’s the catch: this kind of approach forces you into a situation where you will not help but fail. And fail you will, again and again. But in a ‘fail-inevitable’ environment, you are forced to come to terms with imperfection, and in so doing, build a strategy that includes a tolerance for failure. It also forces you to give up things that aren’t as important.
Here, instead of giving up when you falter, you press on. The next day you pick it back up. You don’t wait for the next week or for some period after some time has passed, where you weren’t trying, to try again. You just continue on – like stumbling and then making the next step in your stride better. Because your practice is not one habit, but a network of habits, you haven’t really failed on the larger scale. You just have a gradation of imperfection that improves over time.
And, as you press on, it’s important not to punish yourself or try to ‘make up’ for missing different things. If you don’t work out one day, you don’t exercise doubly the next. You just continue your practice normally and, like a stone smoothing under running water, improvement will happen in time. Stay focused on the present.
It is just like drawing a picture by quickly sketching out the entire composition and then making it more perfect over time. You’ll have a ‘bigger picture’ view of things and won’t mind those little pencil strokes that go this way or that – that will simply add to the ‘energy’ of the whole endeavor. It is also much like meditation. As you try to focus on the breath, stray thoughts and distractions will arise. Simply put them aside and stay focused on the present effort – without frustration about the past or trepidation about the future.
Although I still fall short of my mark many times, I’ve found this integrated and holistic approach has been working for me fairly well. If you are having trouble building the habits you’d like in your life, you might consider ‘jumping in’ and taking it all on at once, rather than focusing on building one at a time to perfection. You’ll be messy; you will stumble; but it will paint a new picture of your life that you can continue to shape.
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