Practice, Practice, Practice

In a very old joke, a fellow from out of town is walking down the street in New York City. He stops a man carrying a violin case and asks him directions, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The man answers, “Practice, practice, practice.” To perform at Carnegie Hall meant you had arrived at a high level of artistic skill. To get there of course required much practice.

This is an obvious truth. If we want to become proficient at anything that requires skill, we need to practice that behavior over and over. When we do, our brains wire up the neural pathways that enable us to do the action, and with repetition the connections along those pathways become stronger and deeper. The result is that we are able to perform the practiced behavior with greater ease. Our attention can be given to the finer points of the activity and we become more adept at it.

Sometimes the behavior we have been practicing and becoming good at is not in our best interests. We develop bad habits, and because they give us pleasure or help us avoid unpleasantness, we do them repeatedly. We practice and perfect them. We may not even be aware that we have developed a talent for becoming less conscious, for instance.

We say doctors, lawyers and counselors have practices, but so do loners, drinkers and couch potatoes. With enough repetition, any avoidant or otherwise self-defeating behavior becomes second nature. We do the thing well and may not even realize we are doing it or that there might be other options. That’s one of the reasons it is important to expose ourselves to a variety of people and situations throughout our lives, so that we get varied input; so that our well practiced habits get some friction.

People also speak of having meditation practices. Even though meditation seems like not doing anything at all, it still takes practice. At first, the posture may feel awkward and there is a lot of questioning and self-doubt about whether we are doing it right. With practice, the posture, the breathing, the release of judging, the return from stray thoughts back to the point of concentration all become natural. Just as a skilled athlete will get into the flow of their event and shift into a different relationship with their body, the meditator may shift into a different relationship with their mind. With more practice, more refined states of attention become possible. When one first puts on skis or ice skates, it feels awkward, but with practice one can learn to glide effortlessly and maybe even fly through the air. It is the same with meditation. It may feel awkward at first, but with sufficient practice we may attain states of consciousness that are quite difficult to imagine in the beginning.

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© 2010 Tom Barrett