This week I heard a fascinating Fresh Air interview with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. (It is a habit for me to listen to NPR . . . . ) He argues that if we want to change our ingrained patterns of thought and behavior, we need to get out of the same physical environment that we always inhabit. He was talking about how the best time to change a behavioral habit is while we're on vacation. But it strikes me that the spiritual corollary to that is a retreat.
Here's a recap of the vacation portion of the NPR interview (the whole thing is engrossing, including the scary marketing information that Target collects about our consumer habits):
Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors — like pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they're in the same environment. But if they take a vacation, it's likely that the behavior will change.
"You'll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it," he says, "because once the cues change, patterns are broken up."
That's one of the reasons why taking a vacation is so relaxing: It helps break certain habits.
"It's also a great reason why changing a habit on a vacation is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it," he says. "If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you're on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren't there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life."
In other words, if you want to make a major change, the best time to trick your brain into making it permanent is to do it when you're in a new place. I believe that if you want to make a significant spiritual change or implement a new habit, the best time to do so is while on a retreat.
Tonight I will be leading a women's retreat called "Taste and See." Drawing from Marjorie Thompson's book Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, we'll be sampling three different spiritual practices over two days: lectio divina, fixed-hour prayer, and Sabbath-keeping. As you may know from my writings, I've not always done a terrific job with these practices myself. Lectio divina and fixed-hour prayer in particular were new to me when I experimented with Flunking Sainthood. Now I am wondering if I might have experienced deeper or more lasting success with them if I had tried them for the first time myself in a different place. A retreat center -- a place that is quiet, dedicated to spiritual growth, and away from the bustle of contemporary life -- is the perfect place to institute a change in devotional practices.
It's harder to remember to pray at home. I don't have a reliable prayer routine or daily ritual, other than saying grace at mealtimes with my family. But maybe I've been going at this from the wrong direction and should build the habit elsewhere before importing it as a new habit into my regular life. At the very least, it's a great excuse to go on retreat. Hmmmm . . . . .