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.

Deliberately Gentle Practice

There’s a lot of buzz now about deliberate practice, and rightfully so.  It’s the kind of practice that leads to expertise.

Deliberate practice is goal directed.  It provides the practitioner with feedback: you did this well, you struggled with that.  It focuses on the stuff you struggle with, and consequently it’s difficult.  You do that hard stuff again and again till you get it right. 

I am not an expert.  Don’t get the idea that I’m writing this blog because I am.  I’m writing this blog because I have struggled with practice all of my life, and because I’m convinced nearly everything worthwhile in life comes out of some kind of practice.

When I was young I hated to run.  I would set myself a goal to go out and run five miles, or maybe 40 forty yard wind sprints.  I’d be in agony, and probably not finish.  The next day I’d find a reason not to do it.

When I was in college one of my roommates, a guy who had won the state cross country championship, had a book called The Zen of Running.  I picked it up one day and opened it up to a page that read something like this: “Just go out and run.  Feel the joy of it.  And when you don’t enjoy it anymore, stop.

This one idea totally revolutionized my practice: practice as long as you enjoy it, and when you stop enjoying it, go on to something else.

I began to run – regularly.  Instead of dreading the run, I began to look forward to it.  It was a joyful experience, particularly if it was a bright sunny day.  I would go for a run, and immediately the tensions of the day would begin to melt away.

Now I have never won a race, but I did learn to make running a regular part of my day, a practice.  And my life was much better for it.