In part 1 of this article we talked about people who read and research and contemplate making some kind of change in their lives but this is an endless loop of thinking—dreaming—wishing—hoping that never is acted upon. We also talked about those who try to make a change but give up after short time in discouragement.
Then there are those people who are committed to practice and don’t give up after a short time. However, some of these individuals establish a baseline of practice and simply continue doing the same repetitive practice even if they are getting mediocre results. They may say, “Something must be wrong with me. Other people are able to do this. There must be some secrets of learning that I don’t know about. I’ve tried hard but it’s just not getting me anywhere.” Or they may just keep doing the same thing and getting poor results. One couple came to counseling because the husband had a habit of blaming his wife for every little (and big) thing and the wife harbored resentment toward him for the blaming and many other things. The wife was willing to work on herself and practice techniques to eliminate and avoid building up resentment. The husband acknowledged his tendency to find fault and whenever he had the opportunity in front of him to choose a more emotionally intelligent way to convey a complaint or dissatisfaction, he would just restrain his tongue and walk away. But then later that day or the next day he would bring up the incident and launch into his blaming barrage. He justified his new habit of deferring the blaming until a later time by saying that at least he was trying. And he would “try” again and again the same routine, never advancing beyond that point. It’s like he knew there was a hole in the road and every time he approached the hole, he would see it, walk around it, and then later come back and fall into the hole. Every time!
Think about how routine any activity can become once it’s “second nature.” When we drive a car, we don’t have to consciously think about turning the key in the ignition, backing out of the driveway, accelerating and braking at the appropriate times, and so on. Unfortunately the same phenomena can take place when we practice something. It can become rote and mechanical, and serves little purpose or benefit. For example, when a beginner gymnast learns a balance beam routine, if he has learned it without paying attention to the importance of keeping his body straight and vertical, perpendicular to the level of the beam, even if he goes through the routine one thousand times, he will not improve what needs improvement.
Professor Ericsson, of Florida State University, corroborates the idea that practice is the most significant factor in attaining to superior performance. However, he asserts that “deliberate practice” (which we’ll define in a moment) is what brings the results. He writes about practice as the foundation for acquiring the necessary skills in pursuit of mastery and even shows that this expertise is more the result of practice than special talent. “When experts exhibit their superior performance in public their behavior looks so effortless and natural that we are tempted to attribute it to special talents. Although a certain amount of knowledge and training seems necessary, the role of acquired skill for the highest levels of achievement has traditionally been minimized. However, when scientists began measuring the experts’ supposedly superior powers of speed, memory and intelligence with psychometric tests, no general superiority was found –the demonstrated superiority was domain specific. For example, the superiority of the chess experts’ memory was constrained to regular chess positions and did not generalize to other types of materials.”
These acquired skills, however, result from deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is characterized as being fully focused and concentrated, meaningful (as opposed to rote and mechanical), and working on areas of weakness. In our example of the beginner gymnast, this would involve focusing on what needs improvement rather than performing the routine again and again which only serves to strengthen the neural pathways of mediocre technique wherever that exists. Deliberate practice also involves using varying and creative techniques to learn in a way that is “deep and intense.” This kind of practice includes welcoming and even looking for feedback. In the case of someone practicing a sport, that feedback would come from the coach. In the case of someone working on character skills, that feedback would come from those people with whom daily interaction provides opportunity to practice the skill and see what effects the behavior or attitude modification brings.
To reiterate, deliberate practice includes the following qualities:
- fully focused and concentrated, meaningful
- working on areas of weakness
- using varying and creative techniques to learn in a way that is “deep and intense”
- welcoming and even looking for feedback
There is, however, one very important note here. In fact, it is a paradox of sorts. We are using words like “focused,” “concentrated,” “deep,” and “intense.” These words would seem to convey a kind of tenseness, a hard pushing. But deliberate practice, as we mean it, is a keenly aware yet perfectly relaxed—almost elegent!— state. The intensity is in the intention and resolute motivation. But the approach is one of ease. Keen awareness without demand or anxiety. Practicing a sport, chess, or patience— when performed with simplicity of spirit—has an underlying cognizance of silence, easefulness, and joy. With regard to practicing a new character trait, it is in a very real way striving for the freedom from a persona that was conditioned by people and events, fears and anxieties, desire for acceptance and aversion to harsh judgment or rejection. When there is freedom from those ego concerns, there is simplicity. We come to realize that it’s not enough to understand the routine and outer patterns of our lives. That is nothing but a shadow of the real self, the self that thinks and feels and speaks and acts in harmony with a genuine core of principle and passionate drive toward self-mastery.
Think about a Japanese tea ceremony. It uses a common everyday experience – drinking tea – and approaches it as a ritual that can bring awareness of the smallest details, like how to hold the tea cup, observing with keen attentiveness the sights, smells, and sounds in the tea-making process, how to clean the utensils, and doing these simple things with a mindset aimed at excellence but filled with ease and grace. We have to be entirely present and profoundly aware of our thoughts, attitudes, and actions while participating in the tea ceremony; but this awareness is without demand or anxiety! The extraneous thoughts come and go but we don’t attach to them. Our attitude may lean toward an “oh what’s the point of this” excuse for stopping the practice. But we don’t beat ourselves up for this lapse of concentration. We simply move forward, staying in the flow of action, deeply immersed in a sacred vessel of some inexplicable inner essense.
This is true devotion to mastery—of a skill or of the self. “(In) all the martial arts … the basic aim is always the same; by tirelessly practicing a given skill, the student finally sheds the ego with its fears, worldly desires, and reliance on objective scrutiny—sheds it so completely that the student becomes the instrument of a deeper power, from which mastery falls instinctively, without further effort, like a ripe fruit.” Karlfried Graf Durkheim
Going back for a moment to the idea of staying in ease, when we choose something other than food to soothe our troubled emotions, or resolve to practice tolerance and forgiveness rather than giving in to blaming, if we are tense and tight and twisted again and again, like a tight rubber band, we will defeat our purpose and defeat our attempts to gain greater mastery of self.
A very interesting study was done that has far-reaching implications. Mothers of children diagnosed with ADHD were given mindfulness training. This training included:
- contemplative and concentration exercises (as the tea ceremony)
- practice in having good intentions such as loving-kindness, compassion, and generosity
- cognitive strategies such as reflecting on and remembering, when facing a challenging or provoking circumstance, the transitory nature of events and circumstances
- empathic strategies such as overcoming the fear of suffering so as to truly enter the world of another in order to relieve their suffering in whatever way possible and facilitate for them an improved state, be it relief, happiness, or feeling understood and appreciated
The training provided to mothers did bring about improved behavior in the children. When the children then were also provided the training, behavioral improvements were even more pronounced. Some of the children were able to be taken off their medication.
On a level, the mind can be compared to a bratty child! Unless we discipline our own minds, and do it in the proper way, mind remains unruly, we will fail to act, we will end up with feeling discouraged, we will practice in ways that get us nowhere…
The study about mindfulness appears to support the idea that being entirely present, profoundly aware of one’s own thoughts, attitudes, intentions, speech, and actions, and keeping things in perspective with an approach of calm, gentle, and empathic assertiveness (tough love with others and ourselves!) works best when dealing with difficult children. This same mindfulness is the foundation necessary for deliberate practice!
To conclude, let’s list the guidelines that facilitate getting out of the endless loops of reading and researching about some change you want to make; avoiding the vicious cycle of enthusiasm and then discouragement; making sure you don’t fall into the trap of practicing at a subpar level over and over again.
- Pay attention to your attitude and approach; calm assertiveness; mindfulness; don’t worry about feeling or looking foolish as you try out new behaviors. Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock said, “Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy I can beat every time.”
- acquire knowledge related to your objective
- spend time reflecting on the consequences of making the change or staying “unchanged”
- practice, practice, practice—this is sabr, patience and perseverance; know that change does not happen overnight; remember that creating a new neural pathway takes 30-60 days
- be very specific in what you practice; get creative in how you practice; maintain a clarity of target to avoid vague and unsubstantial practice
- make your practice a “deliberate practice,” i.e., deep and intense; studies show you can accomplish more in a deep 10 minute practice than a shallow two hours practice session.
- make your practice focused on particulars, reaching for one particular goal—a new aspect in your repertoire of self-directed thoughts, chosen attitudes, or behavioral responses. Don’t worry if you are not perfect during that segment of your practice. The point is not to get it perfect “that time”, but to systematically build toward a success vision of steady and gradual improvement.
- Find a power point
- welcome and look for feedback
- Ask Allah SWT for help, guidance, and the grace necessary to reach into the depths of one’s own self