What is structure?  Things like going to bed and getting up at the same time every day; buying food that’s healthy, or not buying beer or candy; writing the first three hours of the day.

Just not buying beer to drink at home has been huge for me in making it possible to have productive evenings instead of crapping out in front of the tube.

Structure puts us in the right place at the right time.  Structure puts only healthy food before the elephant eyes of our appitite.  Structure makes it easy for us to build the kind of habits we want, and difficult to do the “bad” habits we don’t want.

Structure builds a shute around temptation to guide the elephant directly to the goal of practice.  It keeps us out of harms way, and puts us in the way of our practice, so that it’s easy to do the right thing at the right time. With time, we come to do those things almost automatically.  And this frees the energy of our minds to focus on our practice, rather than wrestle with a decision we shouldn’t have to make in the first place.

For example, I go to bed at 10 and get up at 5, whether I’m “ready” or not.  I write from 5 to 8 in the morning.  At 8 I practice yoga.  After yoga I eat breakfast, etc. 

Structure involves building riturals that correspond with the rhythms of the day so that we do our practice in time with the regular cycles of life.  This ritual cuts a channel through our brain as surely as running water cuts a channel through rock.

Falling Down Joy

What do you do when your passion doesn’t measure up?  When your best work is considered average?  When your goals go unmet, your progress stops, and the audience boos?

What do you do when you’ve tried one interest after another, and you’ve fallen short in all of them?

What do we, the audience, tell this person?

Is it OK for the average to enjoy their work?

What meaning will our work have when it has all been superseded by machine intelligence?  That day may be closer than you think…read Automate This, by Christopher Steiner.

We lament the loss of love of learning, while we pressure our kids for straight A’s, while we pressure them to go to Ivy League schools, to get high paying jobs, while we measure and compare them in every possible way.

Why are we surprised?  None of that is about learning; it’s about being better than your peers, better than Europe, better than Asia.  We want more, so that we have more than the next guy.  If we’re doing better than our neighbor, then we must be doing OK.

School has become one great endless competition.  There is no more status conscious place on earth than the university.

Joy has come to me by focusing on the work.  I try to clear everything else from my mind; no thought of my audience, no thought of my “grade,” no thought of my peers.  I want to focus on my work, and experience the joy of working.

Here’s what I’d tell that person:  “Do the work you love, admire those whose work you admire, and learn from them.  Live within your means, and be a blessing.”

My Problem with Excellence

The problem for me with this whole “Wheel of Excellence” thing is that I’m more interested in non-attachment than I am in competition.

The idea of “mastery” appeals to me; the idea of “wisdom” appeals to me.  Is there a difference between these and excellence?

The end in view for the “Wheel of Excellence” appears to be peak performance; it appears to be winning some sort of competition.  But we can be “the best” and still be pretty lousy people, leading pretty miserable lives.

Mastery and wisdom feel less about peak performance and more about a way of life.

I want to live a good life.  I want to be happy.  I want to be a blessing to those around me.  I don’t want to be so consumed with being “the best” that I lose sight of everything else; that I lose my balance, my way.

Being “the best” feels one dimensional to me.  The focus is entirely upon one’s craft.  And it inherently involves comparing my own performance with that of everyone else I’m competing with.

Some other things grow out of that, of course.  The world’s best canoeist is undoubtedly disciplined, focused, and in top physical shape.  He is supremely confident.  He is committed.  He has a medal to hang on his wall, and validation of all his hard work.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.  I just wouldn’t be happy pursuing that kind of excellence, that peak performance.

I want my life to be meaningful.  I want to be competent, physically fit, and emotionally happy, with deep social connections.  I want understanding, and wisdom.

Peak performance doesn’t preclude any of those things I desire.

But when winning becomes the only thing, that light at the end of the tunnel just might be an oncoming train.

I’m OK with not being “the best.”  Maybe that makes me a “loser.”  But since I made peace with being ordinary, my life is a whole lot better.


My Lack of Commitment

I came across something called “The Wheel of Excellence” this morning, while I was reading Dan Brown’s “Mastery of the Mind East and West.”

I want to share a couple of quotes with you:

“Everything I do, whether it is weights, or running, or the normal training things, or the leisure activities I do, is all geared toward how it’s going to affect my performance. Everything is opportunity/cost. If I go out to a movie instead of going hiking as my leisure activity, what is the cost of that? If I go to the movies instead of a hike, does that help or hurt my performance. I’ve got to judge that. I’ve always thought this way. I have always dreamed about being the best in the world. Maybe that’s different from other people. ( Larry Cain – Olympic Champion – Canoeing)

You still have to be committed and still focused and still trying to win every race. I think the day that you let your commitment go is the day you don’t have a chance to win. ( Kerrin Lee Gartner -Olympic Champion -Alpine Skiing)

I don’t think like that.  I have thought that if I want to be an expert at something, that if I want to accomplish something significant, then I need to do the things Larry Cain talks about.  Everything I do should contribute to the accomplishment of my life’s vision.

But I don’t think about winning.  I can’t say whether that’s good or bad.  Maybe I don’t think about winning because I’ve been on the wrong side of so many beat downs it’s just too painful to think about.

Isn’t winning a zero-sum game?  If there’s a winner, isn’t there also a loser, that most pejorative of American slang?  Being the best, is an infinite process of making comparisons between yourself and others.  It never ends.  Even those champions will eventually have their records broken.

At what point does someone like Larry Cain do something like Lance Armstrong?  Armstrong was the epitome of a champion for so many…how many are like him I wonder?  What separates the bhikhu from the champion?  Can nonattachment make champions of people?

Tie your Practice to Natural Cycles

An oscillator cycles between states, or varies periodically, like a pendulum that swings back and forth, or like the rotation of the earth, or the vibration of a piano string.

Human beings oscillate in many ways.  Whether by breathing, or sleeping, or the beating of our hearts, our lives are full of cycles.

Coupled oscillators influence each other and tend to synchronize.  If you can tie your practice to one of these, the natural oscillation will tend to reinforce your practice.  But I suspect that if practice is free floating, it is less likely to be accomplished, or may even be dampened by the other rhythms of your life.

The most likely times for practice are at or near those times that are “fixed:” when we get up, just before we eat, just after work, and just before bed.  Even though we may do those things at irregular times, we generally do them every day.  They can serve as anchors in our mind, “Ok, now it’s time to get up and meditate, or go to lunch and run, or go home and play the piano, etc.”  These times of day are themselves oscillators that we can set our biological practice clocks to.

On the other hand, those are often times when we’re hungry and our will power is correspondingly low.  When I’ve failed here, it’s usually because I succumb to hunger.  So maybe we eat something like an orange or apple to tide us over.

Carving out multiple times in the day for practice isn’t easy.  There aren’t a lot of polymaths walking around.  Having a biological, circadian rhythm to tie them to can make it more likely they get done.

Practice and the Meaning of Life

How do we make sense of the world?  Where does meaning come from?

What are trials and tribulations?  What are those memories of life you most cherish?  Oddly for me, they are often those things suffered through.  Especially those where I entered into a deep darkness, and finally after many trials and tribulations, find myself in a breaking dawn of bright sunshine, green grass, and the fresh smell of spring.

We practice those things we care about doing well, or those things we think are important.  And practice is often frustrating, can even be discouraging.

Practice is suffering under control.  It is pain with a purpose.  It is the legitimate suffering neurotics avoid.

When we hang onto our practice through thick and thin, we become aware of our own perseverance, of our power to endure, and of the value of our goal.

The longer we endure, the longer it takes to reach, the more meaningful it becomes; and the more meaningful our life becomes.

On the other hand if we say something is important to us, yet we don’t practice it, in what way is it important?  Anything important takes time, and the way we spend that time is the way we practice.  No time means no practice.  No practice means no importance.

What am I saying here?  This is where journaling can help.  Take a moment to step back.  What are you practicing?  How are you spending your time?  What is important to you?  Are they in alignment?  If not how can you bring them into alignment?

I think a midlife crisis often comes of practicing things that don’t matter, to acquire things that don’t last, to put points on a scoreboard that doesn’t count.

But the practice itself will have taught you the discipline, the persistence, the faith, and hope necessary to change the pursuit of success into the pursuit of significance.

Why wait?

The End of Practice

Why do we practice?

I first began to learn to practice when I began to play football.  I was skinny, weak, and slow.  I didn’t play much, and didn’t play well when I did.

The shame of it drove me to exercise, and the anger of the shame made me work hard.  I got bigger, stronger, and faster.  I played more, and played better when I did.

My best friend got kicked off the team for smoking at the end of my junior year in high school, and I quit out of despair.  I decided I wanted to be a Jedi Knight, and practiced yoga and karate.  I suppose I wanted power.

I went to college.  All the things I was interested in were very mathematical (besides writing of course.  I couldn’t possibly earn a living as a writer.).  The only problem was I wasn’t very good at math.  I hated math through grade school and junior high.  It seemed the most tedious subject on earth.

I decided I’d better get good at math, so I could learn the things I was interested in.  I discovered mathematical beauty, and changed my major.  I worked hard, did well, and made some friends with others so enamored.

One of my math buddies turned me on to the Russian authors, and I fell in love with books.  Ten years later I discovered audio books, and I spent the rest of my mundane moments in the ether of words.

My practice hasn’t made me an expert; it hasn’t even made me a master.  But it has made me happy.

Blessed Are the Ordinary

Blessed are the ordinary, for they are accepted and complete in Jesus.

Does that raise your hackles?  Sounds like heresy doesn’t it?  “Good enough isn’t good enough!  Don’t settle for anything less than excellence!”  After all, this blog is supposed to be about practice right?  About getting better?

The work of the enneagram is embracing the shadow, the part of ourselves we wish to deny; the part we hide from the light, from the gaze of the other, from the eye of God.  The grace of God has redeemed the shadow, as well as the False Self, the mask we forge to face the world.  By grace we are saved through faith into a single whole, our genuine self, an ordinary person.

Accepting who I am, the “bad” with the “good,” has been the most blessed and powerful experience God has ever given to me – the blessing of being ordinary.

The greatest gift God has given me is the gift of self-acceptance.  If everything I do has to be extraordinary, then nothing I do is good enough.  If nothing I do is good enough, then I must be a bad person; a fig tree that bears no fruit, fit only to be cast into the fire.

It’s hard to practice when I’m plagued by those kinds of thoughts.

We don’t despise a bouquet of roses because they look like every other.  We accept them gratefully as beautiful.

The odd thing is that being ordinary allows me to write, allows me to meditate, and allows me to practice.  If I am accepted and complete in Jesus, then I can gratefully bear the fruit God has given me knowing it is enough.

Shaming children who fall short of the 10,000 hour rule may be the road to greatness, but it is not the road to blessedness.  Enjoy the work of your hands, and with it bless the world, even when it’s only ordinary.

What Practice Isn’t

My practice is writing a 250 word essay every day; not a research paper, not a novel, and not a book review.  While that might not seem like much of a distinction, it’s important for me to keep in mind, because if I don’t remember what my practice is I will quickly get lost in what it isn’t.

I want my reading to inform my writing, but not dictate it.  I want my interests to guide my research, but take care that my research doesn’t kill my interest.

One of the pitfalls of deliberate practice is that we can be so concerned about practicing the right way that we lose sight of the practice itself.  That is, I’d rather listen to Dory (Finding Nemo) and keep on swimming than stop swimming because I might not be swimming the “right” way.

The last few days I’ve been trying boil down an enormous tomb of research into a 250 word essay.  It totally put the brakes on my writing.  I want to continue chewing on that tomb, and hopefully it will inform my future posts, but I can’t stop writing just because I haven’t digested it yet.

I have to continually remind myself what the heart of my practice is and make sure I do that core every single day.  One of my favorite books is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  He elegantly and hilariously describes this inner struggle with resistance, the greatest obstacle to practice.  And nothing is more important or difficult than sitting down to practice that thing we’ve been called to do every single working day…one of the strangest ironies of life.