On Habit, Discipline, and Practice

February 10, 2009

When undertaking the study of Taiji (Tai Chi), qigong, or meditation, it is essential to adopt an attitude that recognizes the importance of daily practice. Daily practice can be defined as the intention, desire, and attempt to practice daily – even if only for 15 minutes. Of course, we should eventually work up to one hour per day at a minimum, but in the beginning, 15 minutes is sufficient. What is important is that we need this type of attitude in order to progress. What this attitude does not entail, however, is guilt at not practicing, which is really just a self-defeating reaction from the ego. To understand how this dynamic works, it is useful to look at the nature of habit and discipline, and how they relate to the proper attitude and approach to daily practice.

Habit is anything that we repeatedly do. It is the nature of our body and mind to acquire habitual patterns. Without this, we couldn’t do anything – speak, eat, drive, stand, or walk. Habits are developed to serve some function – be it creative, protective, or distractive. When we undertake the study of Taiji, it is instructive to understand that – as with any high art form – it is a discipline that we are engaged in. Taiji is a discipline in the positive sense: regulation, self-control, instruction, and a branch of learning – not punishment. However, discipline requires restructuring of habits. For progress to be made in Taiji and internal development in general, we must let go of old habits to make way for new – and ultimate more useful – ones. But although this discipline is geared towards a positive goal, the sense of identity or ego that is aligned with the old habits will find it to be punishing. And at this point an internal contradiction arises: between the desire to change and improve on the one hand; and the resistance to change and its requirements on the other.

Daily practice requires the continuous application of the intention, desire, and effort to do so. In the beginning this discipline feels like an impossible requirement. Even only 15 minutes of our waking life – for most people that’s less than 2% of their day – seems difficult to relinquish. The strength of this resistance is directly proportionate to how challenging the discipline is to our pre-existing habit structure – not merely how physically demanding it is or how much free time that we think we have. In general, when we begin Taiji practice, we find it convenient to practice by following a teacher, more difficult to practice when told to do so separately in class, and most difficult to do so at home, on our own time. However, each of these, in succession, is more likely to lead to genuine breakthroughs. We must practice with a teacher, then we must attempt to copy his movements, but most essentially, we must take what we’ve learned and experiment with it in our own life. It is only by taking the teaching home, so to speak, that we can change how we live there. But at home, of course, is where our identities and habits are most surely fixed.

Learning Taiji or studying meditation thus becomes a dance between the teacher, the teaching, and the student. The student is at once desirous of becoming like the teacher, resistant to give up old habits, and yet continuously being exposed to a teaching that demands just that. Continually throwing oneself into this relationship is the real discipline of Taiji or spiritual practice in general. The big danger is that this dance becomes another expression of some form of narcissism or neurosis on the part of the student (or the teacher, but that’s a separate subject). If we mistake the goal (less suffering, better health, calmer mind, etc.) for the practice (being “good” at something) it is easy to fall into self-loathing, guilt, or lethargy when skill at the practice is not achieved quickly. However, these negative feelings are part of the old habit structure (we usually learn how to be hard on ourselves or lazy quite early on) and only serve to keep us from really engaging in the discipline. Thus we shoot ourselves in the foot by seemingly “trying too hard.” The desire to become “good” is the ego’s dream of omnipotence masquerading as a wholesome goal. What is much more constructive is to focus on how we feel after having practiced: calmer, more centered, etc. Then as we continue to practice, we notice that our identity begins to shift from the neurotic one to a more grounded, healthy, and relatively happy one.

Thus, as we persevere, we are granted what can be called “achievement of discipline.” What was once too difficult to contemplate (e.g., practicing an hour every day) becomes not only habitual, but joyful. We look forward to practice, as it feels good and helps us in many ways. Our lives begin to be re-organized around our most virtuous activities, and instead of it being difficult to practice, it becomes difficult not to practice. At this point, our habits have at least partially been reorganized in harmony with the practice. We are not, however, fully accomplished, or at the end of any path. On the contrary: at this point, we can truly say that we have begun the practice.

For the goal of discipline is not to make something perfect out of something imperfect, but to recognize and nurture the perfection inherent in our true nature. It is by slowing eradicating the habits that stand in the way of integrating practices such as Taiji and meditation into our lives that we lay the foundation for deeper understanding and realization. It is by our willingness to have our identity reshaped in the pursuit of something greater than ourselves that we truly become Taiji or spiritual practitioners – and not just dabblers. And it is through the gate of authentic practice that our predecessors achieved their accomplishments. Our choice is simply whether or not to follow their example.