It was Christmas 2015, and everyone was having a good time but me.
I was sick in bed, struck by some mysterious virus.
I had so looked forward to this break after a hard and energy-sapping year—but in the chaos and melee of people that is the holidays, I had somehow lost my bearings, my grounding, and finally, my well-being.
I had stopped doing the things that made me feel good. The things I’d spent the last few years cultivating in my life.
Namely, I’d stopped my daily practice.
Following Annie Dillard’s wisdom, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” I had spent the whole of the year establishing and formalising a set of non-negotiables that would underpin my daily life.
These practices, when I observed them consistently, filled me with contentment and magic—and a feeling of being enough. They were the culmination of all the work I’d done on myself—all the self-awareness and self-knowledge I gathered—in the past five years.
To follow them meant getting into action, changing my behaviours, and ultimately, my outcomes. Each morning, I primed myself for what I would do for the rest of the day—and the rest of my life.
I was building small bridges that led to my soul.
However, it’s always easier to follow our habits when we are in our own environment. When we step out of it, and our routine times and places change, it becomes much harder. On my holiday, I missed one habit, and then another, and everything snowballed out of control. And without realising it, I’d closed the door to my soul.
Within a few days, I became restless, anxious, and then violently sick. My mood transformed from relaxed and fun to a swarm of negative thoughts. I became miserable as doubts and recriminations overtook me. I was now in a deep funk.
Was I reversing all the changes and progress I’d made within a two-week holiday? Was my practice so fickle as to fail at the first sign of a challenge?
I was now counting the hours and days until I could get back to my physical home and my spiritual abode—my daily practice.
I returned home on the third day of the new year and was relentless in recovering the routines I had so meticulously created. Within a week, I was back on track, and my next goal was to continue with my practices during my next two planned trips—one in February for business, and another in March to visit my son.
Because of my Christmas experience, I was extra vigilant this time around. I set an intention for the rest of the year to complete my routines with a minimum of an 80 percent level of achievement. I also added the caveat that, when I was away, I could lessen the time I spent on my routines. For example, I might journal for two pages instead of three, or substitute walking in the city for my exercise routine.
I wanted to make it as easy and practical as possible to remain connected to my soul. I finally recognized that to persist with my daily practice was to say: I love myself. I value myself. I fill myself with enough love and self-esteem that I am able to give back to others.
It’s like what they always say on the plane. When there is an emergency, we must put on our own oxygen mask first, and then help others, including our own children.
These six, non-negotiable rituals are my spiritual oxygen. They always take priority.
Rising Early.This is the keystone habit, upon which all the others rely. There is something magical about waking up before anyone else. It has to be before the sun, so that I can glimpse that orange-yellow ball of fire igniting the sky and my being. There is a quiet peace all around, punctuated by the whispers of the birds that grow into a symphony of sounds. It’s as if I’m one with God, residing in the Garden of Eden, albeit only for 30 minutes.
Meditation. I’m no Buddhist monk, and I still struggle with meditation. I often sit for long spells where my mind is active. However, I do notice a cumulative effect on my inner peace when I’m consistent with it. There is something I can’t quantify that makes it work. My meditation practice is a simple one; I follow my breath in and out for 20 minutes. Every time my mind wanders, I gently prod it back without judgement.
Journaling. Every morning, I write three hand-written morning pages as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. In them, I dump everything and anything that comes to mind in a stream of consciousness manner. This has a cathartic effect on me, and I find that I manage to tackle issues that have become urgent in my subconscious mind and are bubbling to the surface. I hardly ever go back and read my journals; they are gone and assimilated.
Exercise. I love exercising in the morning, as it gives me so much energy that overflows into the rest of my day. I’m filled up with endorphins and feel like Alexander the Great going after his next conquest. However, I keep it simple, so that it’s doable, and so I don’t arrive tired to work. It could be a light jog, a quick high-intensity interval training routine, or a basic strength workout—but nothing longer than 30-40 minutes. My aim is not to be Mr. Universe or a super athlete, but rather to remain healthy and high on endorphins.
Reading. I try to read for an hour a day. That could be in the early evening or just before I sleep, but I have to read. Reading is soul nourishing and has opened me up to new worlds, ideas, and lives I could never have imagined otherwise. Some authors have become virtual mentors and soulmates. I could say I learned how life works solely from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I know much about the slums of Mumbai even though I’ve never been there, thanks to Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram. Reading is also one half the practice to better writing.
Writing. I write for an hour a day, usually after coming home from work in the early evening. I’ve found a joy in this “systems approach” that I hadn’t used before. This daily hour of writing adds up after a week, and if I add some extra ones on the weekend, I can total 10 hours a week. That’s much more than when I used to binge write once a week. I’m also now in a constant writing mood. Ideas flow; true to Hemingway’s words, “the well is always overflowing,” and I leave it without emptying it. Writing is the language my soul uses to express itself and share itself with the world—I’ve denied it for far too long to stop now.
The point is not what habits to do, but to do what is relevant and sustainable in our lives, do it and consistently. I started with one habit, and over a span of two years, it slowly grew to six as I got to know what made me come alive. I made the practices easy at the start, so that it was hard to fail. What became an hour, or 1,500 words of writing, started out as only 300.
Apart from the blip over Christmas, my daily practice has now been consistent for the past 18 months. I feel this daily practice that I’ve found and enjoy so much is the result of all the work I did to find my authentic self. This daily practice not only grounds me and protects me from negativity all around (especially mine), but also serves to make me receptive to abundance and joy in my life.
These are the rituals that work for me. Some may resonate with you, while others won’t. I believe everyone should have core, sacred rituals in their life. For some, reading might be replaced by watching movies or documentaries. Writing could become creating shopfronts or websites. Meditation might instead be some form of prayer.
I encourage you to take some time to carefully develop the rituals that will become the bedrock of your life.