The Practice of Becoming.
Yesterday was my birthday.
As I grow older, I am thinking about my practice. Life continues to be full and priorities shuffle and reshuffle. My practice changes accordingly. What I practice, for how long, and where or when it happens all continue to adjust. In the midst of all the shifting, I count large amounts of focused time, and subsequent discoveries as gifts.
I have spent much of my life in high-achieving environments, focused on learning, honing, and displaying specific skills. As an artist, I have understood the connection between my personality, and the art I make. This, especially evident in the context of improvised tap dancing. I am thinking of practice differently now. I’m learning how to practice towards a particular way of being. Instead of acquiring a particular skill, I am focusing on becoming a kind of person. Instead of working out the connection between being and doing, I am working towards growth in my being, and letting the doing work itself out.
This idea of inner formation seems to align with Jesus’s proposition of a rebirth. There is a mystery here. Namely, the ability for a person to become new – to become rooted in the Spirit of God (a dramatically new personality) rather than their own blood lineage, their social relationships, or the habits of the world around them.
Pursuing inner formation does not mean that I won’t acquire any new specific skills, nor that the connection between being and doing is no longer important. On the contrary, I have already seen the birth of new skills, or rather personal attributes, and an even deeper vision of the connection between being and doing.
Instead, I have had to confront the idea that the formation of the inner being is the harder work – changing outward actions is easier. The practice now happens all the time and everywhere. My medium is now time and space and relationship – the stuff of life. There are indeed times of concentrated effort and keys to the training. Frameworks like V.I.M. (Vision, Intention, and Means) and the wisdom of spiritual disciplines come to mind. These are not the focus of this writing, but I’ll likely explore those in greater depth soon. If you don’t want to wait for me, please explore the work of Dallas Willard. He is the well spring from which I’ve learned much of what I’m thinking through here.
Many of the things I find myself desiring to address in my inner being cannot be addressed directly. For example, I can’t become a less angry person, simply by working on being less angry. There is another work. There is contemplation upon reality that births a compassion for whomever might cross my path that is far greater than any anger that might arise. There is the cultivation of a sense of well-being that is so deeply rooted that no offense may ever unhinge it to the point of anger. To go at anger directly is practically futile. In fact, anger will likely be the outcome of any attempt to uproot it that is completely reliant on self-will. This brings us to the idea of indirect action. Indirect action is “Doing something that I can do, so that I can do something that I can’t do through direct effort.” This is the underlying principle of the spiritual disciplines, honoring the mysteries of the realm of the unseen (namely, our individual inner worlds and the Kingdom of Heaven).
For the sake of my own inner person, I’m on the search for the harder work. I can’t even know my own heart completely, so I ask God for help. “Search my heart…” Then I ask Him to tell me what we’re going to work on together, and to teach me. This is an ongoing conversation – daily even – and something I know I can’t do alone. As someone who is easily distracted, I need support to keep this practice as my central focus. The things of life can overrun my best intentions.
So now I have a practice of focusing my practice! The nature of such things to fold over onto themselves is a function of immersion. This practice is supposed to be all encompassing. It should take over my life – immersing me in a new reality. It should be the foundation of my life – building my house on solid ground. With that in mind, here are a few things, like guardrails, that I’ve found helpful in my thinking:
Practice “becoming” more than “doing.” The being is the focus, the doing is the feedback.
Practice the harder thing first. Everything else will fall into place.
Practice more than you think you will need. It takes time for these shifts to take hold.
Practice at a slower pace than you’re comfortable with. Don’t let the habit of speed rob you of what you are learning.
Don’t be a hero. This isn’t the Olympics…it is much more important than that.
Be kind to yourself. God is, and you are no better than He.
Draw connections. Use what you already know to get to what you don’t know yet.
Review what you already know and what you’ve newly discovered. Don’t assume knowledge, check your work.
Integrate new discoveries into your life quickly. This isn’t theory, this is daily practice.
Review your practice and iterate. Check out what is working and what is not. Play with small changes.
Be excited when something shifts in you. Your comfort zone has grown. Your play space has become larger. Your knowledge has expanded. You’ve given yourself a little margin. Celebrate, and don’t stop the practice.
Don’t worry about what might be next. Enjoy the journey (with God).
This list is working for me. Try some of these on for yourself if you like. If they work, keep them. If they don’t, chuck them. The goal is not the perfect system of practice. It is learning to move towards being the kind of person we are drawn to be. This is the practice of becoming.