Quality of life is determined by quality of practices. The good life is determined by good practices. And to put it differently yet again; practice makes perfect.
One of the most important lessons I have learnt this year is that life is all about practice and habit. Four of the books I read this year, in their own different way, have really helped me to see more clearly this ancient and basic principle – a principle whose full implications I feel I have only begun to scratch the surface.
Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, was the first book that really led me to think deeply about practice and habits. In his book he shows how different technologies have different structures that come with their own set of practices in how we access the content and use the technology. Print books come with practices that encourage and cultivate the capacity to focus and concentrate for long periods on a single object, and the tendency to reflect and think. The internet, digital devices and media on the other hand with their environment of prompts, notifications and hyperlinks encourages us to interact with multiple streams of information simultaneously thereby encouraging and rewarding divided attention and multitasking. These habits diminish our ability to ignore irrelevant information – we become more susceptible to distraction.
The lesson there is that technology is not neutral in how it forms us. We can easily develop habits around technology, which is a major part of our lives now, that are working against the type of people we want to be even if we use it for good ends; the how we use it is equally important as the what we are using it for.
The second book is The Intellectual life written by AG Sertillanges, a French Catholic theologian. It is a delightful book about how to live a life devoted to thinking well. One of the essential principles that he discusses is that thinking involves the whole human person, and therefore cannot be detached from ones’ character and virtue; “Purity of thought requires purity of soul” he reminds us. The virtues of love and humility must under-gird our pursuit of what is true; to think well and properly our souls must be ordered properly.
But it is his wisdom on praxis that shines forth throughout the book. Thinking well, deepening the mind, developing one’s capacity for good judgement requires one to organize their lives around certain practices and disciplines. Good judgment is the fruit of good praxis. One of the practices, or rules as I call them, he talks about is simplicity – simplifying your life. How does simplifying your life help you to think well – I asked myself.
Simplicity is about directing your time and attention to a few things that are most valuable and worthwhile, rather than scattering and dissipating it across too many things and ending up skimming the surface. Simplicity does not ask whether something has utility or pleasure (all things generally do), rather simplicity asks how this something enables us to gain traction towards the things we have decided matter; is it a good means to help me live out what I value. Does it divert or focus? Simplicity is depth over breadth; breadth is needed because it prepares you for depth, and it is in depth where wisdom is gleaned. Simplicity is the art of choosing quality over quantity, signal over noise, and is inextricably linked to good judgement.
The third book is Mortimer Adler’s How to read a book: An Intelligent guide to reading. Adler’s intention is to equip readers with the skills required to enable them be good and effective readers, readers who are able to get the most of out a book and increase their understanding. One is a good reader to the degree to which they are able to follow the practices and rules offered as a means to that end.
The fourth book is written by Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the disciplines: Understanding how God changes lives, and it confronts directly the role of spiritual disciplines and practices in the transformation of the human self. The book is intended to answer the question of what is our role and responsibility, given the free gift of grace from God, in the process of our spiritual transformation. Our role, our work, Dallas answers, is to “sow in the Spirit” which means it is to organize and arrange our lives around the same spiritual disciplines that Christ himself, as well as his disciples, ordered their lives around. Spiritual disciplines such as meditation, prayer, solitude, silence, worship, and fasting are the means of grace. They are not the means through which grace is earned but rather they are the means that God has chosen and intended for us to cooperate with his grace in order to transform us to be like Christ; to be a person with the highest possible capacity to love God and love our neighbours.
“The disciplines are activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order.”Dallas Willard – The Spirit of the Disciplines
Each of these books in their own unique way, showed me different aspect of praxis, and helped me see that the good life, happiness, virtue , character transformation stem from the practices we organize and arrange our lives around; whether intentional or not, we are always engaged in practices that are forming us. Our principle task then is to choose whether we will “sow to the Spirit” and “reap life”, or we will “sow to the flesh” and “reap corruption”.