This summer, I had a birthday and a realization. Another trip around the Sun, another lesson learned.

This past birthday marked 15 years since I “got into” inner peace, self-loving, and creativity, and I discovered that I’m just now getting what that really means.

I’ve always been a hard-working, determined kind of person. (Some might say high-strung.) I used to pride myself in staying up on the latest and taking on the most special projects. I read about personal development for fun.

But I had a secret.

I took on the extra work not because it interested me but because it looked good.

I stayed up all night not because I was passionate but because I’d procrastinated.

I read those books not because they inspired me but because I desperately wanted the secret to fixing myself.

The truth was, I avoided my work if I didn’t know where to begin and felt jealous of the people who were further along than me. I hated the feeling of confusion almost as much as I hated failing. And as soon as I put the motivational book down, I was still just me. Still worried about the future. Still ruminating about the past.

I tried just about anything to make the feeling go away.

I started a journal, bought a yoga mat, and got into meditation (and mindfulness and gratitude and optimism and self-compassion). I read about vibrational alignment and positive thinking. I visualized my best possible self, took a picture a day to finally see the beauty around me, and looked for signs that the universe was listening.

None of these ever completely silenced my inner critic or left me completely at peace.

I would give it a good try, but the old thoughts always returned. Sometimes I’d catch myself and try again, and sometimes I’d forget and follow them to the deepest and darkest reaches of my mind. I’d feel terrible about it and remind myself that I really needed to figure this whole inner peace thing out.

It felt like the worst kind of failure.

Until I realized something: All we can ever do is practice.

It was a revelation, though it’s not at all surprising. It was like the least surprising discovery a person could make. Still, my mind was blown.

Every time you notice how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, how you’re reacting and choose to try something more peaceful and compassionate, you’re practicing inner peace.

Even when it feels like a battle between a harsh world and you. Even when your inner critic has been beating you up all day. Every time you try to do something different, you’re practicing.

It’s simple, really. But simple isn’t easy.

Confusion, uncertainty, and pain are inevitable in life. They’re also an inherent part of practice. Practice means holding on to the hope of progress without attachment to exactly how or when it’s going to work. It’s trying your best even when you’re not performing at your best. And then doing it again and again and again.

But that’s exactly how it works.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. There’s no such thing.

Practice makes progress and fluency.

Practice makes habit.

Practice makes experience.

Practice makes growth.

If you want to learn something new, practice. If you want to create something meaningful, practice. And if you want to live with more peace, practice. @ralph_leslie (Click to Tweet!)

Practice the small, daily decisions to notice how you feel and where your mind is going, notice what’s working and what’s not, notice the little nudges inside and out, notice how you’re responding to it all, and then bring yourself back to the present with compassion. Over and over and over again.

It’s not bright and shiny or glamorous, but it sure does work.

Leslie Ralph is a psychologist, writer, and artist who hopes to leave the world a little brighter than she found it.  Her people are creative, sensitive spirits who crave love and peace, inside and out. Leslie is the author of There, I Might Find Peace: Poetry and Prose, Mantras and Meditations for Peace, Love, and Strength. Download her free gift, a ritual for receiving, a daily ritual for bringing more love and light, clarity and confidence, meaning and connection to your life. You can follow Leslie on Facebook or Instagram.

Image courtesy of William Farlow.