The Examined Life in Practice, Step 4: Build Healthy Daily Habits

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Four: 
Our daily habits are like the fixed recurring expenses in a balanced (or unbalanced) budget.  They are the ways that we take care of the basics of life in ways that form the foundation for the extras of life, and when our habits do not cover some aspect of living that requires regular attention, we end up with problems.

I am addressing this part of living as my fourth step (instead of as an earlier step) because we learn and reinforce habits from and through our community, and because adjusting those habits requires a growing knowledge of who you are and where you are.  When we see that our personal resources of time, energy, and circumstances do not lead us to good daily and weekly habits, we need to be able to figure out WHY before we figure out what to do about that.

The Values and Habits of Your Community of Origin
Before you can remember your daily life, you lived in an environment and routine created for you by your parents and/or caregivers.  You internalized their rhythms of sleep and activity, their times and rituals in preparing and eating food, their ways of interacting with each other and with you, their times of personal grooming and housework, and every other observable aspect to you of their daily lives.  You absorbed their real values as they demonstrated them to you through years of these routines.

Not far along the way, they worked to incorporate you into this small society in which they lived.  They tried to get you to sleep when they needed to sleep and eat at times that worked to not disrupt the rest of their habits.  They tried to groom you and dress you in ways that fit their culture's values.  They tried to teach you to interact in ways that fit into their own community.

Morality, for many of us, never goes beyond what we internalized at that young age: good people adapt to the community around them, learn to do what is requested of them, and learn eventually to teach others to do the same.  Bad people question those routines and interactions and get in the way of a smoothly-functioning life.   For a small child who is just learning to walk and eat and play and form friendships, this is a good and healthy place to start.

For those of us who are adults, morality must go beyond this construct if we are to actually build healthy daily habits, because our world is never the same as the world that we were born into, and because it is not possible to build effective daily habits for ones adult self unless one has a morality that considers whether ones daily habits are contributing to the life one wants for oneself and ones community.  To consider this, we continue the habits we were taught until we have reason to believe that they are broken.

The habits we were taught are broken if the life or community they produce is chaotic in some way or leaves basic needs unmet in some way.  If there is some large gap in a needed resource because of our habits, or if there is some obvious task that needs to be done but is neglected because of habits that were never previously needed, then it is obvious that habits need adjusting.

The habits we were taught are broken if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to continue certain habits in the same way that we were taught.   This may not  be evidence of changed circumstances or resources, but rather evidence of shifting values or different personalities.  This requires discernment and is why healthy community and healthy self-knowledge are so important.

Creating and Tweaking Health Habits

We begin with the habits we have today, which either mimic what we were taught to do, or show our rebellion against what we were taught to do, or reflect our best attempts to develop habits to this point that would take us where we want to go and make us who we want to be.  If they mostly work, awesome!  If not, put down the 20 objects you are juggling and pick up just one, in this moment.  Leave the others.

You are allowed to let things deliberately "fall apart" for a few hours or days as long as you feed the baby or dog and do nothing criminal.  Your goal is to quickly get up to speed in meeting the responsibilities that only you can meet.

So consider your basic responsibilities.  You need to to care for your own body and health.  You need to groom yourself and dress yourself.  You need to pay your bills.  You need to do your share of housework and care for any vehicle you use.  You need to maintain basic relationships and care for any persons or animals or plants that are dependent upon you.  And you have other basic responsibilities you can add to this list.

Then consider your daily and weekly habits, and how well they address your basic responsibilities.  What does not work?  Why?  What can be changed?

Next, ask for any help you may need in making changes that will be effective, and ask for permission to neglect any responsibility that you really cannot fulfill and that someone else could take over.  Keep doing the daily things that work, and stop doing the daily things that get in the way of it all.  Remember, it is a budget, and if you have more responsibility than time and energy, something is going to be neglected.  Choose deliberately what to neglect so that you do not let life or others cause you to neglect the things you personally most value.

Daily practice:

Each day is an opportunity to spend your time and energy on the things that will create the life and world that you want to experience during your life and that you want to help leave for those who come after you.  Your daily habits will either help you accomplish that, or will keep you enmeshed in someone else's vision at the expense of a shared vision -- or worse, will be a reflection of your inner rebellion against following their vision without doing the work to create and live your own vision.

Each day will be a give and take between the habits you create that allow you to be in the moment and grow wise and strong, and the unexpected daily circumstances and interruptions that force you out of your plan and habits and into reality.   You get to juggle your plan, your reflection, and your responses.  You get to decide when to lower your expectations of yourself or change your view of reality.  You get to acknowledge new information about what brings you joy and new information about what exhausts you.  You get to do a daily accounting for your resources and time and energy and what you spent them on and how you grew them and how you shared them.  Or you get to put your head in the sand and let it all go away, unexamined.


The steps toward the Examined Life in Practice begin with our community, but ultimately belong to each one of us individually.  We are taught daily habits by our community before we even know what it is to learn.  There are societal pressures and internal pressures on each of us throughout our lives to simply conform to societal norms, and to show that primarily by our daily habits.   And in our daily habits we determine whether we are actually living an Examined Life in Practice, or whether we have just enjoyed the mental exercise of analyzing the life we share.

Paint the life and world you want to see, one brush-stroke at a time.  Your habits are those brush-strokes.

Step back and look at what you are painting each day.

Then pick up the same brushes, mix the paints for the next layer, and add the next layer -- stroke by stroke.

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The Examined Life in Practice, Step 3: Start from Where You Are and Who You Are

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Three: 
There are a million articles, books, blog posts, and sermons out there about starting from where you are.  They are worth looking at!  But my perspective is just a little narrower than that, probably because of my evangelical daily practice of prayer over the course of my life, and my love of the Bible.  So my "texts" for this post are The Serenity Prayer and the first chapter of the book of James.  

The Serenity Prayer:
The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr has an interesting history and many versions.  I invite you to take a look at the Wikipedia page on the Serenity Prayer, because it it interesting!  However, I am referencing the version popularized by 12-step programs:

              God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
              Courage to change the things I can,
              and the Wisdom to know the difference.

We all get a lifetime course in this particular prayer, whether we sign up for one or not, and whether we actually ever pray or not.  This prayer is not only a prayer, but a description of maturity and of understanding life and our personal relationship with life as a whole.  We can make that course easier and more rewarding if we choose to pay attention to the lessons and prepare for the quizzes and tests along the way.

This is a simple prayer with simple concepts, but truly learning patience with life is not simple, and many of us spend an awful amount of time refusing the lessons of patience by investing great energy into fighting to change the things that truly cannot be changed, rather than investing that same effort into learning to recognize reality for what it is.   If we do allow ourselves to be trained in wisdom, patience, and courage, we do learn to put all that fighting energy into moving the mountains that can be moved rather than into trying to use a hairdryer to dry up the oceans.

In order to know "where you are and who you are", you do need to deliberately engage in this lifetime exercise in reality.  You will never know the full picture, but each day and each emotional reaction give you a clearer picture of the things that only you can really know:  
  1. what brings you joy
  2. what motivates you
  3. what makes you want to chase a friendship
  4. what makes you want to avoid a person indefinitely
  5. what makes you wake up with energy for the day
  6. what makes you want to curl up in bed and hide
  7. what feels like freedom and hope to you
  8. what feels like prison and death to you
Your emotions can and will change as your circumstances, skills, and maturity change, but all you get to work with for now is today's real emotions.

Your emotions do not need to dictate your actions or words, but they do need to be honored in the same way you would honor the emotions of a toddler or infant: identify them, empathize with them, and then figure out the best way to respond to them and comfort them and perhaps redirect them.

The single biggest part of "the things I cannot change" is YOU, and it honestly cannot and should not be changed,  Trying to change genetics, emotions, personality, age, and many other elements of yourself is like spending time trying to change the properties of diamonds -- not only an exercise in futility, but missing the point of the excellence of the properties that are there!

On the other hand, it is also true that the biggest part of "the things I can" have courage to change is YOU, in the choices you can legitimately make each moment, in the habits you can break and in the new habits you can build, in the skills you can deliberately acquire, and in all the other ways you can manage yourself and your daily life.

Obviously, it is here that daily wisdom comes into play, and it is here that all my other 5 steps in living the Examined Life interweave with this step.  Wisdom requires community, solitude, reflection, fine-tuning daily habits, cultivated imagination, and daily walking forward in kindness and openness toward something better.

The Book of James, chapter 1
The writer of the New Testament letter that we know as James starts his letter this way:

"I, James, am a slave of God and the Master Jesus, writing to the twelve tribes scattered to Kingdom Come: Hello!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing.

Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.

Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, “God is trying to trip me up.” God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer. So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course.

Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world." (from The Message, James chapter 1)

I will not go through all of the writer's points in his opening to his letter.   My point in using it as a text in this step of the Examined Life in Practice is to show his focus on perseverance in the face of reality, and his focus on your relationship with reality itself.

In starting, each day, from where you are and from who you are, you need to come face to face with the larger reality in order to come face to face with yourself and your real place in that reality.

Daily practice:

When you first wake up each morning, what is your first thought?  What is your first feeling?
When you get into bed each evening and turn off the lights and set your devices aside, intending to sleep, what is your last thought?  What are your emotions?

Take time each day to consider yourself with kindness, and to learn the things about you that you do not yet know, and that no one else can know until you know them.

Our parents may have modeled this for us, but often that is not the case.  The generations of the 20th and 21st centuries have been heavy on action and light on simple observation.   Yet that is what must be the starting point for all meaningful interaction with the rest of the world: who am I, how do I feel about my life right now, and how do I hold on to the things I value in my current life while making legitimate changes in things I actually can change in my relationships, habits, and circumstances.


The steps toward the Examined Life in Practice begin with our community, because we do not learn to know ourselves or to examine reality without an "operating system" for those "applications" to run on, but a great deal of the Examined Life in Practice depends upon self-knowledge that cannot come from your community or from anywhere outside your own body and mind.  Only YOU know your own inner reality, and if you do not take time to understand that reality as it is today, you are not equipped to live fully.  Look at yourself.  Listen to yourself.  Learn the properties of YOU.   This is foundational to God's call to love others as we love ourselves.

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