Key to joy: Every day, same time & place

by Seguin on 11/11/2011

In her collected letters, published in the large and luminous volume The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor wrote,

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and in the same place.

Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, a painful and debilitating autoimmune disease, when she was twenty-five years old. She died at thirty-nine in 1964. During her lifetime she published two novels and two collections of stories. Three more books of her writings were published posthumously. At this moment her works rest on bedside tables across America and are being taught in universities. With her talent and two hours a day she wrote with a haunting grace that continues to capture readers nearly forty years after her death.

I am not a writer but I recognize Flannery’s instructions for writing as directions for joyful living. I have no innate genius for sanity and joy, and had little apparent talent for happiness at all until some years ago when I discovered the power of doing the most important things every day.

If I were to break Flannery’s wisdom into the bullet-points favored by the blogosphere, it would look like this:

1) Find what feeds you and do it every day at the same time and the same place.

For me there are three activities that support focused awareness throughout my day and that nourish everything in my life. Seated meditation, yoga and outdoor exercise. I rarely do all three each day, but I always do one, and often two. Seated meditation is the priority, but I rarely go more than two days without outdoor exercise and/or yoga.

Same time & same place: Doing things every day at the same time makes it easier to build and maintain the habits that support sanity and joy. It frees us from constantly planning and re-planning and strategizing when we’ll do what’s most important. When you do it at the same time, every day, you don’t have leak effort into solving the same problem–When am I going to _____?–repeatedly.

Activities that require focus are strengthened when grounded in a specific space. With no distraction in searching for tools or sorting out posture, the mind can more quickly settle in concentration. When I’m traveling I tend to designate places in my temporary spaces for meditation and yoga. Other practices, exercise, for example, demand a different kind of focus and often benefit from variety.

2) Be sensitive to the reality of your life’s circumstances and don’t schedule impossible ideals.

Flannery devoted two hours a day to writing because that was as much as her bodily energy would allow. Perhaps you are caring for children or elders, or maybe you work shifts. You might have two hours but they aren’t consecutive. Perhaps you have twenty minutes. Just take the time you can and use it every day you’re able.

3) When you have found what works for your body and circumstances, don’t let anything interfere.

Flannery O’Connor was deeply humane and knew great difficulty in her life. She was intimate with the nature of interferences and she’s offering encouragement here. I hear her saying, It’s possible. You can write every day if you’re willing to value your being. Protect this time and use it for the work of living, for your life’s work.

If you let yourself write, you will discover you’re not Flannery O’Connor, you’ll find out what kind of writer you are. If you let yourself sit still each day, your life will change. If you let yourself exercise every day, your body will likely become stronger and this will change your daily experience. But you will only meet your joys when you grant them time and space to emerge.

Most of us are mere talents at this life-ing, not geniuses, and our talent has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.

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