cultivate: [kuhl-tuh-veyt]; verb: 1. prepare and use (land) for crops or gardening; 2. try to acquire or develop (a quality, sentiment, or skill)
“We are what we repeatedly do.” —Aristotle
If you have ever planted seeds in a garden, your instincts likely told you to cultivate first. Greens or poppies, and even bigger seeds, for corn or sunflowers, roll off wind-scoured earth. Pounding rainfall and tiny feet compact it. It’s the human touch that softens the soil so tender plants can take root.
Cultivating with a hoe, rake, or even our fingers, aerates the soil. Precious pockets of air allow plant roots to stretch deep into the soil. They also make room for water and nutrients to seep in. The reasons we cultivate the earth run deep: Cultivating space for presence and habits that foster creativity in our daily lives is life-giving, too.
“My goal is to be as present as I can, wherever I am,” a 16-year-old boy said at a recent retreat. “I am new to journaling, but I know that writing regularly really helps me sort out my thoughts and get perspective. It’s a good habit I’d like to develop into a practice.” Naming what we want to practice is an essential first step.
Cultivating a practice takes time, repetition and a compassion for your process. In fact, it may help to think of learning and practice differently. Learning can be passive; you absorb knowledge and skill in the process of learning. A practice suggests something more active; it’s an intention to do something with regularity.
Your practice could be journaling, sketching, meditating, yoga, making music, walking, knitting, carving, dancing, taking time to eat slowly, writing notes to loved ones, going to bed early and with ease. Anything qualifies, if you do it regularly and deliberately.
And as you’re cultivating your practice, don’t judge yourself when you falter (and you will). Correct and encourage, instead. Rather than focusing on outcomes and goals, we can strive to focus on the process. Think of it this way: Every moment is a new opportunity to practice.
make it automatic
Once we acquire new knowledge or hone a skill (with practice), it often becomes automatic. Like riding a bike or brushing our teeth, our mind is able to coast—freeing up our working memory to dwell on and daydream through patterns and links between nuanced ideas. This is the domain of creative thinking. And it’s in this fertile ground where meaning takes root, according to the legendary psychologist and philosopher William James, who wrote “Habit” in 1887.
“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”
When we free our minds with the help of a regular, deliberate practice, we cultivate the space to find our higher selves. This space is the wellspring of creativity. And it can unearth presence and joy in all of us—no matter our age.