The Four Pillars of Practice

How you engage in your practice matters tremendously.

This article was co-authored by Ray Foote

The four pillars of any practice involve giving, receiving, integrating, and gratitude. In this post, we talk about ways to incorporate these aspects into your practice and hope that you make it your own to get the most out of whatever practice you show up for regularly.

Remember a practice ultimately supports us, helps us grow, cultivates curiosity and imagination, affirms our humanity. It is not an execution exercise, thing to check off a list, nor does the space of practice come with attachment to outcomes. Practice is a sacred space for you to tune into your inner world and to see what insights are available to you for your artistry and, possibly, the outer world.

Giving begins by claiming a practice as your own. To “claim” is to step into your own agency and to directly engage. “Claiming” is to give one’s self to the practice such that you are open, engaged, and directly participating. Claiming is to acknowledge that you are genuinely “in it.”

The claiming of your practice is simply to be deliberate of intention and engaged in the artistry of the practice. It’s the difference between “I do yoga” and “Yoga is my practice.”

It may take some time and some experimentation to discover and claim your practice. That is okay. Whatever you choose ultimately needs to resonate with you. A practice can come in many forms. It can be time in nature, it can be meditation, it can be in moving your body through yoga, exercise, or walking.

Once this practice is yours and you are committed to it there are some other key indicators that can promote and support the giving portion of the cycle. Setting an intention and crossing a threshold are two integral parts of the giving process. You may have a specific intention that you bring to your practice — a question you’re carrying or an area of attention you’d like to explore. Or perhaps you arrive at your practice “empty” of any of this with an intention to simply be present and open to whatever arises.

You may consider pausing before starting a practice and create or recognize a threshold to cross. This is to signify ‘now I am in my practice.’ A threshold supports you to clearly establish the space you’re about to enter. It also marks the environment and mindset you’re leaving, perhaps literally, at the door.

Here are some practical ideas you might consider when crossing a threshold and supporting you in more fully entering the space of your practice.

  • Speaking your intention of engaging your practice at this moment
  • Bringing in your posse: naming the supporters — friends, relatives, ancestors, admirers, meaningful presences in your life that support you, who “have your back’” and can be with you in as you practice
  • Sharing gratitude that supports you in having the time and space to practice
  • Naming and honoring teachers or relatives, ancestors, mentors who support you in your practice
  • Smiling to, bowing, or giving a nod to presence, being, or place that supports you in your practice
  • A moment of silence
  • A deliberate sound or expression
  • The lighting of a candle or incense
  • The greeting of your tools, instruments, or other articles that support you in your practice
  • Anything else that you can make your own and do in your own way that supports your transition to practicing!

In the “giving” there is the outward expression. It is bringing what you have within and expressing it out through voice, movement, sound, and action in a form aligned with your practice.

“I give to this so that it might flourish. In its flourishing, I flourish without bargain.” — Jim Marsden

In every practice, there is a hidden discipline of “listening” or “tracking” all that is happening around you. Let yourself listen with all that you have — your ears and hearing, yes, and also listen with your intuition and imagination.

Notice whatever comes up. Let it present itself to you. It may be a sensation, a feeling in your body, a movement out to the side of you, or a bird arrives. Something else happens out there, or in there. Let it all be part of the practice and let yourself be open to receive it. Follow whatever comes. Follow curiosity. What’s there? Who’s there? What is evoked? What comes to mind? What are you tracking? And what might be tracking you, trying to get your attention now? To recognize “I don’t know” allows the tenderness and openness to surface.

Curiosity helps us to be attentive to what comes next. What is the response from Other? (You can think of ‘Other’ as that which is “beyond what I know already, and what I know to be me.”) Whether it comes from a tree or bird, the earth, Mystery, an audience, a page, the light, or a smell, can I notice it? This is an important part of the whole experience. Being open to what all is there widens our perception to what else is available to us, what else we can perceive, what else might be trying to reach us or get our attention before we “make sense of it all.” Our normal ways of thinking, like a well-trodden trail, are limiting in their scope and can miss out on ephemera and a wiser nuance from a widened perspective.

You might come to think of your practice as meeting a good friend at the door, or on the other side of any other threshold, and then having the opportunity to be in conversation with them for a while before parting. You may have some things you’d like to express or bring into the conversation. Perhaps you have something to say or wish to share something you’re working on. Maybe you have some questions, or maybe you’re checking in to see what they have to express.

Welcome what’s there for you. Consider these lines by Rumi, from the poem The Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Bring your intention and alertness into the conversation of your practice. Then be open to receive what is to come as a response from your intention. Can you let yourself be so open and curious in the receiving as to let anything that happens next come as a response? This going back and forth between giving and receiving is to be in partnership between yourself and what’s beyond what you already know. Coming into this conversation and partnership on some kind of regular basis is to return to and continue the conversation.

This is the practice — entirely unique to you and always accessible if we let ourselves return to our practice and Access all our ways of knowing. Carl Jung referred to our ways of knowing as thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuition.

“JOY — is a meeting place, of deep intentionality and of self forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside, but is now neither, but become a living frontier, a voice speaking between us and the world: dance, laughter, affection, skin touching skin, singing in the car, music in the kitchen, the quiet irreplaceable and companionable presence of a daughter: the sheer intoxicating beauty of the world inhabited as an edge between what we previously thought was us and what we thought was other than us.” — David Whyte

An exchange takes place between giving and receiving. Practice can have its way with us, if we let it. The engagement shapes us. It does so beyond any intention or strategy we may have. By letting ourselves be shaped, we let go of intended outcomes. It’s as if the only agreements that are here are between me and Other.

Through our practices, we are shaped. “Letting it have its way with us” is to let ourselves be shaped by our practice. It’s not only that we’ve received, or heard, but that we let that which was beyond us, or our knowing, to now become a part of us and part of our awareness, our way of seeing, and our way of understanding.

Once shaped, we return to our practices to continue the conversation anew, having discovered more about ourselves, our world, our relationships, and perspectives. We grow and continue our expressions, our artistry, our development, and the partnership that supports us through practice.

Consider these words from musician Herbie Hancock: “I don’t view myself as a musician anymore. I view myself as a human being that functions as a musician when I’m functioning as a musician, but that’s not 24 hours a day. That’s really opened me up to even more perspectives because now I look at music, not from the standpoint of being a musician, but from the standpoint of being a human being.”

“May dawn find you awake and alert,
approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises;
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled;
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected;
May your soul calm, console and renew you.”

— John O’Donohue

When we are finished, an expression of gratitude honors our conversion and completes the engagement. Through gratitude, we take a moment to bring our attention to the positive and life-affirming aspects that we’ve just experienced. The moment it takes to do such a thing is a moment that supports us in affirming what has just happened. It’s as if we are saying “this has happened, and it is so!”

There are many ways to show gratitude. Letting our expression be authentic and expressed in alignment with who we are is important. Giving yourself permission to be spontaneous, and finding your own ways to show gratitude can help you to naturally bring this into your practice.

Some common ways of expressing gratitude include:

  • A simple “thank you”
  • A bow
  • A sound or word that captures your feeling in the moment, like an exuberant “yes!”
  • A gift of expression such as leaving something valuable behind for Other, or a spontaneous “poem” or “dance”
  • A toast: “To …..!”
  • The gift of a tear that falls naturally
  • Heartfelt or spontaneous well-wishes or blessing
  • Any expression of love

Our practice is complete with gratitude.

Cultivating and nurturing your practice gives you an opportunity to be in a special conversation to help you grow. The cycle that includes claiming your practice, actively engaging in it, integrating the learning, bringing insights into the world, and appreciating what it does for you, provides continued growth and supports the cultivation of your own artistry. May whatever you claim as practice, provide you with benefits and support you on your journey.

Missed Part One of this series? Find it here.