My Struggle with Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice forces me to hold a mirror to my practice. It requires some form of feedback, whether from a teacher or by way of measureable results.

I find I don’t like being measured. And I don’t have a teacher; at least not one I meet with regularly that observes my practice.

It’s easy to get comfortable with practice; to go through the motions without paying attention to them. At that point it’s probably safe to say we’re not getting better at whatever it is we are practicing. Our practice is not without benefit, but is without improvement.

I’m at that point with what I call my “maintenance practices,” practices where my goal is just to do them.

How do you measure meditation? How do you measure the Five Tibetans? You either do them, or you don’t, right?

I read a fascinating post by Noa Kageyama, PhD on deliberate practice; maybe the best I’ve read. Let me see if I can apply some of his lessons to my own practice.

Suppose I’m doing the Five Tibetans tomorrow morning, and that I’ve done them every morning for the past five years. I’ve got the radio going, thinking about what I need to do the rest of the day, while my body goes through the motions of the exercises. Let’s call this practicing mindlessly.

Now suppose I’m doing those same exercises without any kind of background distractions, like music, an audio book, or television. I focus my awareness on my breath, my body, on counting the repetitions. I’m aware of my posture, balance, and form as I perform each repetition of the exercise. Finally I record the experience of my performance in a practice notebook. Let’s call this practicing mindfully.

See the difference? Even a maintenance practice can lead to improvement if we learn to practice mindfully.

When Life Gets in the Way of Practice

Life is often turbulent, and the water gets rougher with each passing year. Some days it feels like there is no calm water, that there are only rapids, waterfalls, and hydraulics.

How do you practice when CHAOS screws up your day; or week; or month?

One thing that helps me is that my “maintenance practices” are rather short, so that even when life gets crazy, there’s really no excuse for me not getting them done.  These include:

  1.  ganpati kriya in the morning (11 minutes), followed immediately by the Five Tibetans (about 7 minutes);
  2. around midday I do sat kriya (4 minutes), pray (4 minutes), and some yoga or calisthenics of some sort (5 to 30 minutes);
  3. and kirtan kriya in the evening (12 minutes).

That probably doesn’t sound like much; in terms of “hard work” it isn’t. But it keeps me feeling good, fit enough, and healthy enough; enough for me.

Another thing that helps me is to prioritize my practices. I’m a stay-at-home dad, so maintenance practices come first, then household, writing, the mechanics of blogging (page design, etc.), research, and modeling (like statistical models).

Do first things first, and accept that last things can’t always be done today.

My daughter has had a headache since last Wednesday. As I write, we are at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital. This has definitely been a white water day: doctor appointment, chiropractor appointment, my own appointment, and now the ER. In between I’ve managed to fit in the maintenance practices, organize storage in the basement, and type this post in the waiting room.

Life isn’t all about getting things done. My daughter is much more important than any practice.  But the practices help me be a better father, and getting these small wins in the midst of chaos make me feel confident of a better tomorrow.

Serenity through Practice

It occurs to me that what this blog is all about is maintaining equanimity in the face of an increasingly chaotic world.  That’s what practice inevitably leads to: a sense of certainty and security that stems from knowing what this day will bring: that is, our practice.

I guess that may not seem like much comfort to someone who may be about to lose their job.  But perhaps we place too much of our happiness in a position contingent upon job outcomes, or job status.

Not that we shouldn’t expect happiness from our work, but that it is rather only a part of our happiness, and our happiness needn’t come to an end just because our job does.

I think you can draw a link between equanimity and certainty of practice.  Maybe the equanimity comes directly from meditation, but I suspect it comes as well from the expectation that, whatever else happens today, I can rest in the knowledge that I Will Do My Practice – and that’s powerful.

It grows in power as we grow in our practice.  As our daisy-chain of days practiced lengthens, so does our expectation of doing the practice and our confidence from having done the practice.

What make the Five Tibetans so powerful for me are not their rigor, not that they make me physically powerful, but rather their very simplicity and ease of accomplishment.  I know that as sure as the sun rises, I can rise to do the rites; and therein lays their power.  They are rigorous enough to keep me healthy, and short and simple enough for me to consistently do them every day.

To the extent that I can develop such a practice in each domain of my life, to that extent I will have an expectation of accomplishment: that the house is neat and clean from having a place for everything, and everything in its place; of emotional equipoise that comes from meditation; of health from yoga and bike riding; of financial health from budgeting, saving, and investing; of mental health from reading, writing, and model building; of spiritual health from reading scripture, prayer, worship, and fellowship; of social health from broadening and deepening connections.

These expectations are what serenity is made of.