Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sustained focus on our goals:New tools for my spiritual disciplines

The season of Lent this year revealed much to me about the practice of spiritual disciplines. One of the insights that I value from this experience is the realization that I can be pretty tenacious about a disciplined behavior when it has a fixed (and short) duration. For Lent, I chose to give up shopping for books (gasp!) and all non-real food.

Those may seem strange goals for Lent, but here was the rationale: the book thing was becoming for me a habit of mind--when I had free time, one of the things which occurred to me was to go check out what's new at the local bookstore. I have limited funds with which to buy books, so it wasn't a matter really of stewardship so much as, well, lust. I wanted to know what new books were out and what great deals I could find at some of the local book shops. I wanted to add to my collection, I wanted new ideas to think about, I wanted new adventures to experience in the form of fiction. The habit of mind was becoming intrusive, so it was time to chain it up for a while and teach it some manners. The diet thing was similar--chain up the desire for worthless food: cookies, cake, fried junk, candy, chips--the stuff that has no nutritional value but rises higher on the "I-want" list than bread and beans (and makes the bathroom scale rise higher too). Hence the Lenten fast.

I didn't find it terribly difficult to give up either of these things, mostly because I knew it was for a limited duration. Granted, when Melissa baked cookies for house guests or when we came to dessert time at Home Community, my eyes certainly locked on the goodies for longer than was healthy. But all in all, not too bad.

The really interesting part for me was the transition following Lent. Once I could return to the bookstore and the bag of chips, I found that my desire for them had changed. The habit of mind had shrunk significantly for both items, and I found that life pretty much went on just fine without either thing. Of course, like an idiot, I started eating french fries again just because I could and now I'm back to craving them all the time. But it didn't have to turn out that way. With better management of transition between the season of tight discipline and returning to a normal order of life, I could have put minor behaviors in place which would have maintained the discipline without it really being a discipline--instead, it would have become a change in habit.

Which brings me to my new tool: the 21-day discipline. Lent was too long and has too many other worthy and powerful spiritual components to be repeated more than once a year. But, taking what I learned from the short-term discipline part of it, I am implementing a new strategy in reaching the various spiritual, financial, emotional, and physical goals I have set for myself. I pick one thing to address for a period of 21 days and set up a discipline around it. Then, through prayer and the application of my own will, I seek to free myself from habits which obstruct the accomplishment of my goals.

Also, taking what I have learned from the transition out of Lent, I'll try to take advantage of the loosening of the old habits and put the minor behaviors in place which will maintain and nurture the new habits until they become "nature".

For example, on May 5th, I began a discipline intended to open the way to one of my goals: to become a published writer. As a pastor, husband, and father, I don't have an excess of free time, so finding time to write has remained a real challenge. Add to that the fact that sleep and I get along very, very well, I have set for myself the goal of adjusting my sleeping habits and schedule to allow for some disciplined writing time. For the last ten days (excluding Sundays, the day for celebration and rest from your discipline; another thing I learned from Lent), I have been getting out of bed at 6:00am and writing for two hours. Actually, it works out to more like 45 minutes, once I get some cereal down, make coffee, and stare at the screen until I wake up, but the idea is the same. That's 45 minutes more per day than I have ever had in my life.

The trick will come at the end of the 21 days. How will I maintain the discipline of rising early while setting down the hard work of forcing myself out of bed at 6:00? It's already becoming a habit, but what happens when I am "free" to sleep in whenever I feel like it? And oh, will I feel like it come May 26th. I wonder.

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