A good routine in the morning is essential not just for a good day but also for a good life. My mornings have a lot of moving parts, especially when school is in session, as I’m husband to a teacher and father to a student. Our day starts early, and the morning can get hectic fast. Nevertheless, I always protect a little time for practices which might be called “spiritual” for lack of a better term. Don’t let that word scare you off, though. I just mean practices that allow me to attend to the meaning, purpose, and values that inform my life. My mainstay is silent meditation, but after that I usually say a few words aloud. It doesn’t take long. Even if I run short on time, even if I can’t meditate, I can always find a few seconds to say these words. I’ve come to think of them as my seven daily aspirations.
1. to live each day to its fullest
This first aspiration is the easiest for me to say. I’ve nourished it the longest. In fact, it can roll off my lips too quickly. I have to pause and slow down to absorb the meaning. I’ve long embraced a mindset that my time is short, that I must make much of the present moment, that right now is all I really have. Each day of life is a precious gift; at least, I aim to receive it as such.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a reckless hedonistic debauch. I choose my words carefully, and after a couple years of reciting these aspirations I made a change here. I changed “the” to “its.” Oh yes I did! It may seem trivial, but it means a great deal to me. Compare these two statements:
to live each day to the fullest
to live each day to its fullest
Can you feel the difference? To live “to the fullest” might be an empty exercise in egocentric excess. Believe me when I say I’m already egocentric enough. The fullness to which I aspire belongs to the day itself. That is, each day has its own unique opportunities and possibilities. I want to be aware of them, to be sensitive to them, to live into them.
2. without expectation
But that first aspiration comes with a rider, a codicil, which is important enough to me that I regard it as a separate aspiration of its own. I aim to live without expectation.
At first glance, this might seem like a recognition of humility. The day owes me nothing, so I shouldn’t expect much! That may be true, or maybe not, depending on how you look at it.
I actually intend something quite different. I’ve found I look forward to the immediate future with varying levels of anticipation or dread. My mind seems to relentlessly form images of the day ahead: what it will be like, what I’ll do, how it will feel. That’s all natural and normal enough, but these images don’t necessarily match up to reality. My expectations take on a life of their own, which can blunt my awareness of what actually happens. When an anticipated pleasure dissolves into mundane experience, the result is often disappointment. Contrariwise, when a dreaded encounter proves less irksome than feared, I wonder why I wasted energy worrying about it.
It’s better, I’ve found, to dispense with expectations altogether. That’s easier said than done, of course. My mind conceives notions willy-nilly. I can’t eradicate them completely, but I can recognize them for what they are and hold them lightly. That tends to neutralize them to some extent. I rob my expectations of their power and give that power back to direct experience. I aim to meet each day on its own terms, to take life as it comes, rather than getting hung up on how I think it should be.
Please don’t confuse expectations with ambitions. I’m still wildly ambitious. I make plans and engage projects. I’m writing this, aren’t I?
3. to be bold
There was a guy named Joe in my high school class who seemed to be my diametric opposite in every way. He was rude, crude, athletic, outgoing, and popular. Against all odds, we became friends, at least for a short while, and one day he shared with me his “secret formula for success.” His first rule was:
Always be sure of yourself. Be confident. And whether you’re right, wrong, or indifferent, stand by what you say and do.
At the time, I thought Joe was full of it. I didn’t see much value in his advice. But his words stayed with me, and decades later I see the wisdom.
Let me qualify that: I see wisdom in part of Joe’s advice. If I realize I’m wrong about something, I can’t stand by it; I have to swallow my pride, admit my mistake, and try to make it right.
The rest of Joe’s statement, and the general spirit of it, continues to inspire me. Generally speaking, I know what I believe. I know what I value. But knowing is not enough. I need to live into those values. I need to have the courage of my convictions. I need to make good on my commitments and put them into action. What use are high-minded principles if they remain purely theoretical?
I confess I have a propensity for mulling things over. I like to think about things, perhaps a little too much. This is my daily reminder to get my head out of the clouds and do stuff in the so-called real world. Your experience may differ. If you’re prone to rash action, maybe you need a different reminder.
4. and unpredictable
The very fact that I have this ritual, that I say these same words every morning, reveals that I am a creature of habit. Aren’t we all? Learning to direct that habit energy can be a powerful way of transforming oneself. But I won’t want to make it sound like I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. And so I want to make a habit of disrupting my habits. I want to inject a little wild randomness into my life. I want to be (at least slightly) unpredictable, to myself and others. As Joe would have put it, “Always keep ’em guessing.”
When I say these words, I will sometimes touch an item I’ve been known to carry in my pocket: a four-sided wooden die. I roll this thing most every morning to come up with a random number between one and four. From there I have a whole system to determine a random topic for reflection and exploration through writing. This sounds complicated and mysterious, but it’s actually quite simple. Think of it like pulling names from a hat. Anyhow, the details aren’t important. What matters is the overall idea and motivation. I’m constantly throwing curveballs to myself. Catching them is a matter of pleasure, but also an exercise in regaining my balance and expanding my boundaries.
5. with good humor
Spiritual practices need not be serious and solemn affairs, but that’s the reputation they have in our society, right or wrong. I think it’s wrong. Certainly I’ve had feelings of grave solemnity that seem to flow naturally with an experience of the sacred. But that’s only one of the faces such experiences can wear. Laughter can also be the language of the divine — particularly when I’m laughing at myself, at the sheer improbability of everything, at the wild joy of being alive. I give myself permission to be wacky and goofy. I feel my life as light and airy, rather than some big heavy burden weighing me down. Worries? Sure, I’ve got plenty, but my problems will never be solved through pure gloom alone. I don’t shy away from the big problems in the world at large, either. I aim to face them with the courage I mentioned above, with the sort of “tragic gaiety” described by William Butler Yeats. I’m just a little guy in the larger scheme of things, after all. I shouldn’t take myself too seriously.
6. to love humanity
I like people in small doses. It’s our aggregate behavior that drives me nuts. I’m surrounded by individuals who are basically decent and moral, but nevertheless it seems our collective values are out of whack. We don’t do right by each other, or by Mother Earth. There’s no justice. Whatever our individual virtues may be, we’ve inherited and perpetuated social structures of inequality, exploitation, extraction, and domination. That’s led me to describe myself as a misanthrope, but that’s not quite right. I’m not ready to give up on humanity yet. I know my society, my nation, my culture, but I barely know humanity. I think we have a lot of potential. I think we need a lot of love.
7. to serve Gaia
Bob Dylan says you “Gotta Serve Somebody” but why not serve everybody? Why not serve the common good? I speak of Gaia as a goddess, invoking the image of the Great Mother, employing metaphor to open up aesthetic and affective values. Behind the metaphor is the Living Earth: nothing less than the coevolutionary, interconnected, planetary ecosystem. To contemplate her ancient multifarious immensity fills me with awe, wonder, humility, and a sense of devotion. I can think of no higher purpose in life than to serve her.
But there are so many distractions! And so I recite my daily reminder to stay focused on what’s really important.
To affirm or aspire?
You’ll notice I frame these as aspirations rather than affirmations. That was just my gut instinct. I know that the practice of repeating positive, present-tense affirmations is popular in some circles, and I’ve played around with it myself. It feels powerful, to say something like, “I live each day to its fullest.” It suggests there’s no need for striving. I’m already there! This is consonant with my meditation practice.
But is it true? There’s always room for improvement. I acknowledge that I am by no means a finished product. I am constantly in process. Personally, I prefer to make a statement of what I will try to be.
As I said above, your experience may differ. I’m not trying to dictate what anyone else should say. But I do encourage you to say something, to give it a try. Come up with your own aspirations, or affirmations if you prefer. Make it a regular practice, every morning for a month. See where it takes you.