While talking to the cat the other day – yes, talking to the cat, but readers of this blog know that the cat has a lot to say, especially on astrology – I expressed delight in her new “habit” that involves greeting me for a petting at the top of the stairs.
As I said the word “habit,” a nun’s habit flashed through my mind. I wondered why a religious garment is called a “habit.”
Around the same time, I watched an interview of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who had just died and was memorialized in dozens of posts on my social media feed. How had he managed to make it through intense stress such as the Vietnam War? By focusing on his breathing, he answered, because it was his practice.
Habits and practices: what’s the difference?
In astrology, there are four elements and three modes making up the twelve signs. The earth signs – Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn – are those most concerned with earthly matters like paying the bills, showing up for work on time and planning one’s own funeral in advance. In between these activities there is focus and enjoyment on the “stuff” of life including home and property.
Taurus is the fixed earth sign – most habit forming of the three mostly in a desire for continuation of social norms and traditions. Taurus follows the established habits of others. Once a habit is formed it is forever regardless of the continually changing and evolving external world. Taurus is the mountain that does change, but slowly and through the external effects of wind and water. Or an earthquake — that can change Taurus.
Virgo is the mutable earth sign, the most flexible that earth can be. Virgo habit is very particular and peculiar as this thinking earth sign is often very nervous with constant ailments and allergies. Virgo habit is in relation to those very special needs. Your Virgo friends can be identified at the restaurant altering the entire menu to their specifications.
Capricorn is the cardinal earth sign, the most bossy and controlling of earth. Capricorn is the sign of achievement so it doesn’t follow rules, it makes them. Capricorn habit is an effort to mold and define the external environment. Habits can change, mostly in relation to its own needs rather than the needs of others.
The astrological “habits” of earth signs relate to the Western religious nature of “habit” as a clothing to identify one’s religious affiliation and to maintain humble and austere manner of presentation and living. Stones feature prominently in Western religion (Stone Tablets, the Black Stone) and reflect how habits should be unchanging and forever. Stones represent, but are not actually, permanence.
Habits are meant to be permanent.
Practice, in contrast, does not have the sense of permanence. Listening to Thich Nhat Hanh he described that breathing and staying calm is “his practice.” He went on to talk about a concept in Buddhism call “the beginner’s mind.”
“Practice” and “beginner’s mind” is opposite the concept of expertise. It’s not exactly a habit because it’s not permanent while habits prevail – and are often clung to – in times of change. A practice is not owned; a practice is not final; a practice is not a degree hung on a wall.
If a habit is like a mountain, a practice in the Thich Nhat sense is more like water – it moves and flows. When water encounters an obstacle it can take many paths – around, through, beneath.
In astrology the water signs are Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces.These signs are focused on emotional and spiritual connection to others. Because of this need for connection, they are focused on others and their behaviors trying to create a sense of home and belonging (Cancer), physical and intimate connection (Scorpio) or spiritual connection (Pisces).
Unlike earth objects, you never “own” emotions, although we try on this earth. Marriage, for example, is an earth concept but humans are constantly changing and evolving emotionally which creates untold havoc in the world. Marriage “habit” often fails but marriage “practice” where you emotionally change but stay committed to the marriage can succeed. Or maybe this marriage thing isn’t forever and we should come up with something else.
Cancer is the cardinal water sign and most likely to try to keep people together in family or other units, even when the emotional connection has been severed. Cancer “clings” to emotional experience and is the most tenacious of all the signs. Cancer is the sign opposite Capricorn.
Scorpio is the fixed water sign which can create obsession of emotion. Scorpio has difficulty letting go of any emotional occurrence. As the world is filled with emotional interactions, Scorpio can be kept emotionally busy if not carefully and often responds to situations of low emotional motivation with high emotional response. Scorpio is the sign opposite Taurus.
Pisces is the mutable water sign, the most adaptable sign of the zodiac as a mixture of mutable and water. Pisces is so adaptable, in fact, that is can lose the sense self. Religious and spiritual tradition often focuses on the loss of self. When the “self” is not present, who is doing the talking? Pisces is the sign opposite Virgo.
Virgo Habits, Pisces Practices
In the religious and spiritual senses of the words habit and practice, Virgo seems to rule habit and Pisces practice.
Habit is akin to ritual which is identifiable and structured and includes even fixed times of day for activities. Practice, in contrast, is always “beginning” never ending and never mastered. Practice is there when it’s needed.
In my own experience last spring while in a very busy road-side stop, I was suddenly able to center. I realized then why meditation is called “the practice.” It’s never completed. I was simply able to “practice” it in an environment where it’s more challenging to center. There are no degrees (yet!) in meditation because you are never done. You’re never an expert, just a good practitioner.
The Cat’s Habit
As for the cat, I definitely like her new habit. And habit it is. It took her many years to form it as she’s quite involved with so many other habits that forming a new one is rare. But it’s definitely enjoyable and I hope it’s permanent.