Judgment Day

We debrief extensively. We go through every single flight, every turn. What did you do here? What cues were you using, how did you do that, how did you make the airplane do that? And we try to learn from each experience. The reason we all do that in peace time is so that we know we’re as competent as anybody can be so that if we have to go fight with those things, we’re better than anybody else. (Elite Fighter Pilot)

How do we get feedback on our performance, and how do we make that feedback actionable?  Patting ourselves or someone else on the back and saying, “Good job!”, when we both know it wasn’t doesn’t do anyone any good.

We need to be weighed in the balance.  We need an honest evaluation of our performance, the bad with the good, in order to get better.

For me, it helps to have a partner or coach, or even better, a community of practice.  I need people who watch me perform, who are knowledgeable in my area of performance, and whom I trust and can be vulnerable with.

It’s often hard to see ourselves in an objective light.  It is helpful, if painful, to see our performance through the eyes of others.

At the same time watching them perform, or listening to their ideas of how an expert ought to perform, can teach us what to practice, how to practice, and how to perform better.

The pain of evaluation leads to the joy of success.

Controlled by Distraction

The player that is not playing well is backing off shots, telling peopIe in the gallery to move and they’re hearing every noise on the golf course. Whereas the player who is playing well you could drop their bag at the top of their backswing and it wouldn’t bother them. (Top Professional Golfer)

I’m not a big tennis fan, but the pictures I’ve seen of Roger Federer often make me stand still and take notice.  The expression on his face while in full swing looks more calm and relaxed than that on a Buddha.

We admire those who have this kind of focus, but where does it come from?  How do we get it?

There’s a scene in Glory where Matthew Broderick’s character is unimpressed with one of his soldiers fine marksmanship, and orders him to fire and reload while Broderick bangs away with his pistol and urges the man to work faster, faster, and faster.

I have heard of flight simulators that continually find new ways to put pressure on pilots, to confront them with difficult situations they’ve never seen before.

Maybe the experts take control of these situations by creating practice scenarios that require them to perform under difficult and distracting situations, rather than what is ideal.

I remember a story about a young man who wanted to learn how to be a samurai.  So he sought out an old man reputed to be a master and the master agreed.  But rather than teach him about fighting, the master bade the student do all sorts of chores for him, and then would sneak up unawares and give the student a whack with a cane.

Finally one day the student saw the master bent over a pot cooking a meal, and decided he would give the old man a taste of his own medicine.  So he snuck up on him and brought the cane down on the old man’s head from behind, but the old man caught the blow with the lid from the pot – satori.

Practice Makes Ready

The third spoke in the “Wheel of Excellence” is mental readiness:

I would give a very, very high priority to mental readiness, because it applies to your overall knowledge, experience, and overall preparation for this given event. It’s everything. It’s the confidence of knowing that you have done everything that can be done before you go in there, that you have prepared yourself as well as you possibly can, and that you know you can do it (Elite Cardiac Surgeon)

This is the core of readiness Terry Orlick describes in his article: seek or create learning and performance opportunities, develop essential skills necessary to your pursuit; plan, practice, and prepare; perform to capacity via pre-performance routine, have a path to fulfill your destiny, and relax.

Readiness begins with knowing what is required of us in every contingency related to our area of practice.  We then create a plan of study, practice, and performance.  We create a pre-performance routine that we perform with each practice.  We can visual a path through the steps of our plan to the fulfillment of our destiny.  We learn how to relax into our practice, and into our performance.

Champions learn to make every minute count.  They don’t take time off for TV, or for drunken routs, or romantic affairs.  When they do, you know a fall is imminent.

They are committed to their vision, fueled by their belief in their ability, which comes of their slow but steady accomplishments in their practice and their performance.

We who are ordinary can learn from their success, and find our own path to accomplishment.

Practice with Positive Imagery

Another spoke in the “Wheel of Excellence” is positive images.  Here is a quote from the Zone Of Excellence website:

When you are parachuting, you have an emergency procedure to go through… depending on what kind of failure you have with your parachute. You’ve only got a few seconds to go through that matrix… I spent a great deal of time visualizing the scenarios and it happened to me. And it’s incredible because you’ve got that matrix down flat, you just go through it. And by four hundred feet I had the problem solved and I didn’t die. And so you get down on the ground and you go – – I won. You touched death and you won. (Astronaut)

I have a really vivid imagination for things I dread, but not for things I want to happen, especially for the minutiae of life.  I can’t imagine reviewing that astronaut’s matrix over and over in my mind the way he did.

I’ve been practicing yoga since I was a senior in high school, i.e., for over thirty years.  And yet I don’t really feel like I’m any “better” now than when I began.  At the same time, I’ve never really “visualized” myself going through a perfect yoga routine.  What would that experience feel like?  What would it look like through my eyes as I move from posture to posture?

I especially struggle with the balancing postures, even the most basic.  But yesterday I tried to visualize in my mind’s eye what it would feel like to do the posture perfectly, and I did notice a difference.

I think in the past I have thought, “If I want the benefits of yoga, then it’s better to do the yoga rather than visualize it in my mind.”

Could I have been wrong?

Practice with Focus

I’ve been working my way through the “Wheel of Excellence,” and today I want to talk about focus.

Here is some of what Terry Orlick says about focus:

Focusing is the single most important mental skill associated with performance excellence. Focusing refers to the ability to concentrate totally on what you are doing, seeing, reading, hearing, learning, feeling, observing   or experiencing while you are engaged in the activity or performance.

Where your focus goes, everything else follows. Focus leads activation, anxiety, relaxation, learning, mental readiness, personal growth and performance excellence. Let it lead wisely.

I feel like I’ve been distracted most of my life.  When I was studying for the actuarial exams, I would frequently get up from the study room to get a cup of coffee, or use the restroom.  But I would notice a certain few who never got up the entire time they were in there.  Those few generally did well on the exams.

Oftentimes it seems like we want to be distracted from our practice.  Even while we practice we watch TV, or listen to music, or an audio book, etc.

Notice that focus is most important for performance excellence:  the execution of the practiced goal for before a live audience: running a race, taking a test, playing a recital, etc.

Again, while taking the actuarial exams, I can remember reading that you should take practice exams under conditions as nearly the same as those you will be tested under as possible.

You want a rhythm and ritual to your practice, by which you can gather your focus and minimize distractions at game time.

The regular practice of three kriyas from Kundalini Yoga has helped me focus: Ganpati Kriya, Radiant Body Kriya, and Kirtan Kriya.  These all involve chanting, and certain mudras of the fingers.  The first takes 11 minutes (first thing in the morning), the second about 40 minutes (midday), and the third about 30 minutes (evening).  They have given my emotions some ballast, and have improved both my patience and my ability to concentrate.

Belief out of Practice

According to Terry Orlick, the first two elements of excellence are commitment and belief.  They form the axel around which the wheel of excellence rolls.

Again, he shares a couple of quotes with us:

I was really confident. I knew I was good enough, that if I put everything together, I could win. But I wasn’t really thinking that. I was thinking how I would put it all together (Olympic Champion)

 The focus is so clear that you shut your thoughts off and you trust yourself and believe in yourself.  You’ve already prepared for years and years. All you do is go, it’s very natural. (Kerrin Lee Gartner Olympic Champion – Alpine Skiing)

And again, this doesn’t describe me.  But I have noticed some things.

I don’t wonder whether I’ll be able to keep exercising.  Sure, I miss a day or two here and there, but I generally exercise every day.  I look forward to it, expect it to happen, and make time for it to happen.

And I don’t even think about reading books anymore.  It’s like the air I breathe.  I’m always listening to, or reading, books.  Whenever there’s a spare moment, or I’m doing a “mindless” activity like folding laundry, then I’m reading a book.

When I began this blog, I wasn’t sure I would have anything to say about practice beyond the first few posts.  Now I’m beginning to believe that if I just sit down and do the work, the post will come.

The practice builds belief.  The more I practice, the more I believe.

And if I have someone to practice with, then we feed off one another’s belief, positive or negative.  So I want to practice with someone whose belief edifies my own, and make sure I reciprocate.  That doesn’t necessarily mean our beliefs are the same; just that one doesn’t poison the other.

We want our belief to grow in a positive direction, and to encourage that positive growth in others.

Gracious God

I believe in God we live, and move, and have our being.  I believe in God’s grace, in the abundant life of his presence, and the redemptive power of his love.  I believe I continually stand in the sunshine of his presence.  That his light shines on my soul from moment to moment.

What does this mean?

Oh Lord thou hast searched me and known me.  Thou knowest my downsitting and uprising, thou knowest my thought afar off.  Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.  For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.  Thou has beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.  Whither shall I go from thy spirit?  Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.  If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.  Yea the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.  For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.  I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.  My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.  Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there were none of them.  How precious also are thy thoughts unto me O God!  How great is the sum of them.  If I should count them, they are more than the number of the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee. (Ps 139, KJV)

I believe that grace is made possible through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

That without the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the justice and holiness of God would make it impossible for us to come into his presence.  In fact the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood is no forgiveness (He 9.22 NIV).

Before his crucifixion, only God’s High Priest could come into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement, and only after he had been cleansed with blood.

Korah, who led a rebellion against Moses in the desert and was then swallowed up by it, said this to Moses and Aaron: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Nu 16.3)

Are we not like Korah when we presume we can come into God’s presence without the blood of the lamb, without putting on the righteous of Christ, thinking ourselves worthy because God ought to meet our own expectations of him?  But if God encompasses space and time, then he is unimaginably old, unimaginably big, and unimaginably deep.  How can we pretend to comprehend the mind of God?

But Christ, through his own blood entered once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us (He 9.12).  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Is 53.5).

God had to satisfy his own justice in order to redeem us to himself.  He could only do that by laying down his own life for our sins.  Without this self sacrifice, I do not see how grace can obtain.

And that is why I believe in the virgin birth, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the trinity.

Paradox and mystery are at the heart of the godhead, of math, of science, and life itself.  Math and science are to me, not a contradiction of my faith, but an amplification of it.

I stand in awe, and give God praise.

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?

Transformative Power of Conversations

I believe in the transformative power of conversation.  My life is a testament to that power.  I am the sum of my conversations.

But transformative conversations don’t just happen.  Like any other skill it can be learned, but again, it takes practice.

The practice begins with seeking those who share your passions.  Shared passion makes good conversation.  Little or no passion makes small talk.

Ask questions that matter, and listen to the answers with your whole attention.

Trust the person you’re talking to, until they give you a good reason not to.

Reveal yourself to them.

Bring people with a shared passion together.

Learn how to share the conversational space.

Talk about your passion in the context of your faith.  How do they inform each other?  How do they inform the others in your group?

Allow those who think differently from you, whether about your passions or your faith, to deepen your perspective.  Try to think and feel from within their skin.  See the world through their eyes.

Wrestling with God is not enough.  We need to hear what he says in the mouths of others.  We need to wrestle with ideas in the context of the group, not to win an argument, but to gain understanding.

Wrestling turns to polishing.  We gain perspective, understanding, and self-awareness.  We are blessed by the conversation, and bless others in our turn.  We grow rich with ideas, depth of perception, and positive emotional connectedness.

Gradually you find yourself transformed, not by a brutal hammer and chisel, but through the slow and gentle washing of water by the word of God – through the mouth of a friend.

What Matters Most

What matters most?

When I was in college, my answer to that question was God, my mind, my friends and family, and my health, in that order.  While in some ways I still like that answer, I’ve got to tell you that those priorities did not by themselves enable me to live well.  In fact I was a pretty miserable person.

I suppose every person has to answer that question subjectively.  Still science is beginning to be able to tell us objectively what it means to live well.

One of the founders of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has come up with an acronym for five essentials to well being, PERMA: positive emotion, engagement (i.e., of our attention), positive relationships, meaning, and achievement.

Where is your practice taking you?  What do you practice, and why?

From the time we begin our formal education till the time we’ve finished with it, the focus of our practice tends to be on the last piece of well being, that is, on accomplishment.  We study hard to get good grades, to go to a good school, to get a good job.  We run and lift weights to be stronger and faster, to be the best at our position on the team, etc.

Competition can make us better.  It can make us beautiful, and it can make us ugly.  It can lead to a win at all costs mentality epitomized by Lance Armstrong.

Remember your humanity.  Your practice should in some way touch on all the five essentials.  Take care of your emotions, pursue those ideas and skills you are passionate about, cultivate positive relationships, and build meaning from your faith into your work and community.

By so doing your practice will make you a blessing to those around you, and you in turn will be blessed as well.  You will have transcended success, and discovered happiness and significance.