Advancing Practice

Last night at temple services, I was speaking with a woman who I’ve developed a passing acquaintance with. She mentioned that she sometimes feels judged for her lifestyle choices relative to the expectations that (she perceives) other practitioners have for her. I’ve heard this kind of sentiment expressed numerous times. Rightly or wrongly, we feel like we fail to measure up to some standard of practice, some goal of improvement, some quantity of Doing It Right. Expecting ourselves and others to arrive at some standard of practice, especially one that is self-directed and motivated by highly private factors, isn’t reasonable. It’s not fair.

The fear of inadequacy is spread wide and deep in our overculture. It has permeated me personally to a degree that I always find surprising. Surely I don’t believe that I’m a poor devotee, an unqualified priest, a sub-par seidhrworker just because (insert enumerated list here)? But I do.

This fear often manifests as a strong resistance to being told that we could, perhaps, be different – if we wanted to. We interpret lists of practice possibilities as a threat or attack; how dare this author/commentator/dead guy judge the quality of my participation? Can’t I experience the full measure of worship, communion, practice, etc. just by virtue of my enthusiasm?

Well, not quite. But that doesn’t mean we’re being judged. See, practice arrives when you’re ready. You might not even realize that you’re ready.

I think a lot about my favorite childhood toys when I start getting down on myself about my non-advancing practice. If you had told me at 5 that I’d eventually throw over My Little Pony for tree climbing and calligraphy, I would have had a little kid meltdown (I really liked Ponies). If you had told me at 8 that I’d eventually ditch puzzles for Legos or Legos for spy novels or spy novels for esoteric publications, I would have expressed distress, disbelief, or just simply ignored you. I’m quite sure that I would have been very stubborn in my insistence that I’d *never* quit thinking my Hot Wheels were the best thing ever.

Heh.

I remind myself that each thing was set aside and taken up in a very natural way. No one forced me to play with one toy instead another. I wasn’t encouraged to read one sort of book over another (for the most part). No one ever tapped their foot with impatience and said that I really ought to be done with making worry dolls (I made so many, many, many worry dolls).

Why then do I insist on telling myself that I *should* be ready to give up one habit and adopt another? Why then do I judge my progress on how many disciplines I have taken up – or not? Because I fear inadequacy. I fear not being good enough.

This fear is real in the sense that it has real consequences, that it has a marked influence on the choices I make and the reactions I have, but it is a fear that I have, in many ways, allowed to flourish. Practice advances naturally. Practice arrives when you are ready.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t set goals and attempt new things. This is a great way to learn – but it’s also a spectacular way to set yourself up for failure. I try things, fail, then get mad that I can’t possibly give up the Hot Wheels habit and dammit, why are you judging me??

No one’s judging. No one’s telling me that I need to quit playing with Hot Wheels. Someone’s just pointing out that at some point I might wish to play with something else.

Though making the attempt is valuable, I have to remember that my practice arrives when I’m ready. The path teaches me at every step. I have to trust that it will rise to meet my step at each new stage. There are quiet periods and periods of stagnation. There are growth spurts when I feel like I can barely keep a handle on all the new information coming in. Patience is required, and perspective.

I’m approaching a new facet of practice that is quite simple and small; it’s diet related. It’s a matter of diet I’ve struggled with for a very, very long time. It’s one of the final of what I imagine my preliminary dietary changes encompass. I’ve known it was coming for a while and just thinking about it made me nervous and resistant. I didn’t want to change. It wasn’t a change that was important. I didn’t need to change. Then one day, I was ready. This is the way that practice advances. Expecting it to be any other way is to expect a radical shift in the way every other advancement in my life has taken place. Expecting this isn’t reasonable, so checking it every time it comes up is valuable.

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