Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2011.08.17 Habit & HIgher Level Spirituality

Vacation time is so gloriously sluicy it skitters by almost unnoticed or marked, a bit like retreat time. (That’s why this post is longer than my usual posts.)

Vacation is un-timed time. I love it in limited hunks. At the end of two weeks of vacation I feel both sad to leave and also glad to be getting back home to my routines.

I find comfort in my habits and quickly wonder if I’m therefore deficient spiritually. It’s like judging rosaries as rote and therefore spiritually immature. Still, I’m routinized more than I like to admit, and I need it.

In a wonderful book I’m reading by Judith Shulevitz called Sabbath World she researched human habits and discovered that we humans are wired for habits. Habituated behavior can change the shape of the brain enabling automatic responses to stimuli. That sound like instinct, like animals not of the human kind. Shouldn’t the human brain be beyond that?

The power of habit according to William James is the “flywheel of society, a conservative agent.” Oh yuk. Now I feel defensive and repelled. Conservative?

Shulevitz writes about the value of keeping the Sabbath. A a Christian priest I ascribe the same value to participating in the Eucharist. You gotta do something holy with your body, not just talk about it. And you gotta do it over and over again.

Shulevitz points out that we would rather be masters of our fate than creatures of habit but that, according to James, habit is necessary and efficient because it “reduces unnecessary expenditures of physical and intellectual energy AND FACILITATES HIGHER LEVEL THINKING.”


Thinking leads to doing and back to more thinking. So I see what it is that habits conserves, more energy to stretch yourself, and life itself. One value in keeping “sabbath” is that it becomes a habituated sanctuary of time and place to cultivate leisure, silence, love found in relationships with loved ones. Such habits are not dependent on the force of will but create AUTOMATIC core values on which to build a civil society—PEACE.

Once a toddler grandchild had mastered walking to proficiency, made it a habit ie. few falls and faster paces, he then developed higher level thinking which consisted in his case of a new activity: piling up a box, a hassock and a couple of blocks to get up to the counter to reach his heart’s desire: the missing box car to the train he was assembling.

I remember hearing a nine year old concert pianist execute prodigious musical wonders. The conductor asked him how he got his small hands to extend over the octaves required for the compositions he so skillfully played. The child thought for a minute and said simply, “Practice.”

I’ve practiced prayer, just talking to Godde and sometimes shutting up to listen in the silence, since I was a small child. Originally I did it to assuage loneliness and exercise my curiously religious imagination. Now it’s a habit. I just do it, like walking.

Prayer as habituated spiritual practice gave me the context in which self, Godde, church, Jesus, eucharist, priesthood, soul, and the occasional mystical experience thrive.

Ritual/habitual prayer and sacrament facilitate HIGHER LEVEL SPIRITUALITY—closer to Godde or the missing toy box car.

On vacation I take time off from good habits even organized prayer. Wherever I am is sabbath, is church, is prayer. I let myself float about in un-timed time, maybe eating lunch at five and dinner at 9, taking 3-4 walks a day, gazing at the sea or kids in the sand, indulging in random reading and writing like this. I pray with no pattern and make gratuitous assumptions about Godde’s presence.

But after a couple of weeks I need my habits back, those practices that make me both pharisee and monastic—until the next spate of un-timed time.

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It just occurred to me that memoir and its current popularity may relate to the human need for habituated spirituality because it provides, for reader and writer alike, an anchor in time and space, some stability amidst time that is more fluid than fixed. Zazen, eucharist, sabbath serve similar purposes.