Habits of the Heart

heart mosaicMost 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!

11 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! You always nail it!This is a keeper.. I agree with Mary Jo everything you write is a deep dive into my next layer-taking your teachings with me shines the light and heals my fear of going there…Thanks!

  2. Thank you Vinita for such a wonderful article, It is really thought provoking. I never imagined that a heart is capable of doing this but in the through sense of the word it does, thank you once more. It is my first time to visit this site,and I found it interesting.

  3. Great article to stimulate the connection between the Examen and habits of heart/being. One could surely use the Examen to track how one is doing in cultivating a desired heart habit. Thanks.

  4. Thank you, Vinita. This is really helpful. I wish I knew this years ago. It would have prevented some heartache. This is definitely becoming part of my journal. Bless you.

  5. Our “habits,” which could also be called motivations for our own actions or responses to others’ actions, are formed by our experience. A simple social example: When someone repeatedly declines an invitation, we cease extending an invitation. Or, as has often been used as an example of insanity: Repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. “Sanity” or simple psychological health dictates that we use our experience as a means of reasonable prediction. If I touch a hot stove, I will get burned. If I reach out to this or that person, he will reject me. “Habits” are not formed in a vacuum; they are the consequences of experience.

  6. Thank you Vinita, you have given so much to us in your writing.
    I will print this(as I usually do) and keep it ready to read, reread,
    and share with those whom I love and care about.

  7. I thank the Lord for your existence, Vinita. You have become my spiritual director despite not knowing each other. Some time ago I used this box asking for guidance on how to find spiritual direction. Your articles have been building a basement in my self, on which my faith has been raised. I am grateful to Ignatian Spirituality for all the support you give away to those who are in the constant seek for God in each and every creature of the universe.

    • Mary Jo, I’m glad you’re with us! We appreciate hearing from people when our material has been helpful. And I hope we gave you the information you needed for finding spiritual direction. Peace–Vinita

  8. Really great article. It caught me with the title immediately as the habit of my literal heart has been tending towards arrhythmia for the past week. I’m in an ongoing dialogue with God about what this means interiorally.

  9. Excellent commentary Vinita. This is definitely worth keeping for future reference, multiple reads and sharing with others. Thank you.

  10. I agree, we can’t change or grow without understanding our motivations. Awareness is the first step. Jesuits and Buddhist have that in common.

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