Written By Tina Smelser, MFT
I have been thinking about the meaning of practice lately, and would like to share some of my thoughts with you. I’ve been realizing that pretty much everything I am doing is practicing something. For example, if I am not practicing standing up straight, I am practicing not standing up straight. I first had this realization a couple of years ago, when I had let myself go too long without a vacation. I started looking ahead excessively, overly focused on my upcoming vacation, unwittingly practicing being somewhere other than where I was in the present. What I discovered was that once I actually was on the vacation, it was very difficult to give up what I had been practicing. When I was hiking in the woods, I was looking forward to eating lunch. When I was eating lunch, I was thinking ahead to the book I wanted to read. When I was reading the book, I was anticipating taking a nap. It took me a couple of days to actually be there, enjoying what I had been looking forward to as it was happening! I try to remind myself now that if I want an enjoyable vacation, it would be better to practice being fully where I am in non-vacation mode, making it easier to be really be there when I reach the vacation!
This is a type of practice that is unconscious, where we get better at a behavior by repeating it, but without even realizing that we are doing so. We do this all the time with body postures, messages we tell ourselves, ways we communicate with others.
There is also conscious practice, where we purposefully set aside time, space, and energy to engage in a specific behavior. It might be a creative pursuit, such as music, writing, or drawing. It might be the physical practice of a sport, the spiritual practice of meditation or prayer, or the physical/spiritual practice of a body/mind discipline such as yoga or T’ai Chi. There is great power in practicing whatever it might be and observing the changes over time in yourself and in the form you have chosen to practice. To nurture your practice, you may want to find a class, a group, a teacher. You may want to set aside a specific time of day when you know your energy is most in sync with the practice, as well as a place that is as conducive as possible. Having these frameworks in place can help support your intention to practice.
In looking for inspiration for this article, I turned to a couple of my favorite books, The Listening Book-Discovering Your Own Music, by W.A. Mathieu, and Free Play-The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. In The Listening book, in a small chapter called, “Telephoning Counts”, Mathieu writes of the importance of the preliminaries of practice, likening it to clearing the forest as part of building the house. He says that when you are dialing the number of the babysitter so that you will have time to practice, you can say to yourself, “I’m doing music now”. (p. 79).
In Free Play, Nachmanovitch writes about the difference between the typical western way of looking at practice, and the typical eastern way of looking at practice. “The Western idea of practice is to acquire a skill. It is very much related to our work ethic, which enjoins us to endure struggle or boredom now in return for future rewards. The Eastern idea of practice, on the other hand, is to create the person, or rather to actualize the complete person who is already there. This is not practice for something, but complete practice, which suffices unto itself”. (p. 67-68). He also stresses the importance of ritually preparing for practice, and finds that in preparing to create, he is already creating. (p. 74).
Practice takes discipline. The discipline of doing something even when you might not really feel like it. In the contemporary New Age mentality, there is an underlying directive to “Follow your Bliss”, or “Go with the Flow”. I wonder, does this contradict the idea of practice, which might not always feel like bliss, or flow? Perhaps a way to hold both is in seeing the bliss or the flow as the overarching inspiration, while understanding that the small steps on the path may not feel always blissful or flowing, but may be a necessary part of the journey.
With my therapy clients, I encourage viewing change as a process. For example, to learn how to manage one’s anger, it takes practice to recognize the early signs of anger, practice to disengage from it, and practice to find a constructive way to express it. After practicing other ways, often for years, the new behaviors may feel foreign. It takes repetition for the new ways to start to feel familiar. I have read that it takes 21 days to change a habit. While I tend to balk at statements that give one number that supposedly can apply to everyone for anything, I can appreciate idea of practice that is implicit in this statement.
I hope that these ideas have spurred your thoughts, and will encourage reflection about what you may be consciously or unconsciously practicing in your life.