Most of us are interested in spirituality because, at the heart of things, we want to be transformed. We want our lives to change for the better, in small ways and big ways. This desire for ongoing, positive change compels us to sign up for classes, join prayer groups, attend religious services, participate in faith rituals, and search—again and again—for the practice or information that will help us become the people we truly want to be.
And yet, at the core of true change is a shift in our habits. For the purposes of this brief article, I’m going to skip over our physical, outward practices such as attending Mass or giving to charity. Let’s focus instead on the interior habits: habits of the heart.
We cultivate habits of assumption.
I assume that certain things are true and that others are false. For instance, I assume that life will go well for me if I obey the law and generally behave myself. But is that true? If I cling to this assumption, what happens when life does not go well for me? It may be fine for me to hope that life will go well if I live well. But perhaps the better assumption would be: Life might go well for me today, and it might not. Regardless, I want to live a certain way. If, every day, I remind myself that life does not owe me a good day, then I have established a habit of the heart that will not set me up for regular, if not constant, frustration and disappointment.
We can nurture habits of assumption about others: She is judgmental; he’s not really inappropriate, just a jokester. And so on. We nurture assumptions about people, organizations, our own identity. (I am misunderstood. I am unwanted. I am more [spiritual / smart / sensitive] than others.)
What assumptions do you make about yourself? About your work, or your children, or anything else? Do these assumptions set the stage for your responding with grace or not?
We cultivate habits of reaction.
These habits form early, in childhood. Have you ever noticed that some families tend toward anger and complaint, and other families focus on making others comfortable and welcome? I believe that every family has its default emotions and reactions. In one family, every emotion somehow comes out as anger: disappointment, fear, anxiety—no matter, it turns into anger. Another family might have practiced the habit of fear for generations.
When you are surprised, or hurt, or worried, or put on the spot, how do you respond? What are your default modes? Is your first response to a situation to identify who is at fault? Is your first response to assume that you, yourself, have messed up again? Do you react to pressure by panicking or by coming up with a plan?
More important, what reactions would you prefer to cultivate?
We cultivate habits of being.
These are tough to identify, because they lie a bit deeper in us. A habit of being is more like a posture you take toward your life, toward God, and toward others. Some of us, thanks to situations and events, have developed a posture of defense. Our foundational habit of being is to protect ourselves. This is totally understandable, given the many wounds and difficult memories that we carry. But eventually we must ask ourselves, “Is this really the way I want to situate myself to life and the world—and to God?”
A habit of being might be receptivity and openness. It might be an eagerness to learn. My habit of being might be to always seek calm and comfort, and your habit of being might be to always try to take apart a situation and work on it.
What is my awareness of my habits of the heart?
I hesitate to label habits of the heart as good or bad, because our habits form according to what we experience. There’s a time to be self-protective and a time to be calm and a time to be more aggressive. The real issue here is our awareness of these interior habits. Do I know what my habits of the heart are? Am I satisfied with them, or do I think they’re not serving me well?
- After I have identified these interior habits, I can choose to accept them as fine or to work on adjusting them. Ex.: I choose to stop focusing on placing blame every time something goes wrong.
- In my prayer, journaling, and conversations with trusted spiritual allies, I can name my habits of the heart and voice my intentions. Ex.: God, help me eradicate this vindictive tendency I have. Friend, when you hear me place blame, please call me out.
- By using a prayer practice such as the daily Examen, I can do regular reviews of my interior habits and thus keep assessing and adjusting. Ex.: Okay, I spun into that vindictive space during the status meeting today, but I caught myself and changed course when I started to do the same thing on social media a couple of hours later.
Blessings and graces to you, as you work with the Holy Spirit on this crucial aspect of spiritual growth!