How Practice Makes Us Perfect
What I like about the idea of practicing is that it is such a simple concept, but it has the potential to reshape a person’s life. It might not be as explosive and sudden as an epiphany. It might take a long time for a practice to change the shape of things in any obvious way, but it is those slow and steady things that seem to wear the deepest grooves.
When I talk about practice I mean it in its simplest sense. It is about setting aside a special time, usually daily, to engage in some sort of activity. The goal is to become better at the thing you are practicing, and to understand it deeper. Practice can be as straightforward and practical as playing an instrument each day, or doing a sketch, or working through a set of math problems. It can also be something more soul-oriented, such as reading a Sacred Text, or praying, or meditating.
Practicing is useful because it can open us up. This is because practicing is about making a commitment. To really practice something you have to commit to the process, making an agreement with yourself that you will do this activity every day, rain or shine, through thick and thin. This disconnects the activity from our mood. We don’t practice only when we feel like it. We practice every day. We might practice more when we are in a better mood, but no matter what is going on in our minds and hearts we still practice each day.
Practice can involve repetition but it is not only about making habits. To make a habit is to do something over and over to the point that you can do it without thinking. Building habits can be very important when it comes to practice, especially when we are learning the basics. Doing something without having to think about it frees up mental space to tackle the deeper complexities and lessons of what we are trying to practice. But it can also make us lazy. Habits are mindless. They require little or no awareness. Without that awareness though we can’t really learn as we practice. It becomes harder to detect when we are doing something incorrectly, or to find larger and more creative ways to apply what we are practicing.
All of this may seem a little vague. Learning to play a trumpet hardly seems like something that can change a person’s life, even if they practice for years on end. Of course it is not about the trumpet. It is about the process of practicing itself. As we learn to open ourselves up to something, despite our moods, despite the storms brewing in our lives, we can eventually learn to open ourselves up to many things. With a little mental flexibility we can take the same focused awareness we have when we practice shooting basketballs or shooting targets with a crossbow and we can turn it towards paying careful attention to a conversation. With practice we find we no longer have to be in the right mood to listen. Open-heartedness becomes possible in every moment.
In the end practice does make us perfect, but not in the sense that we arrive at some destination that marks the end of our journeying. Instead I tend to think of it more as a spiritual perfection. Through practice it is possible to move towards a deeper wholeness. Of course finding that sense of wholeness is probably a little more involved than practicing play jazz piano. There are larger concepts like open-heartedness, acceptance, and mindfulness mixed up in all this. But practicing is a part of that larger process. It is practical enough and straightforward enough that it might just be the perfect place to start.
I believe the big ideas of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality have the potential to change lives, but only if people can actually understand those ideas. With my writings I hope to master these ideas for myself as well as make them more available for people right in their own lives.