When You Practice, Are You Really There?
Get the full benefits of daily practice by being really presentby Eric R. Maisel Ph.D.
This post is part fourteen of a series of posts on the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice. In this series, I’ll explore the elements of daily practice, varieties of daily practice, challenges to daily practice, and strategies for meeting those challenges. Please join me in learning more about this important subject! Complete information can be found in The Power of Daily Practice.
Your daily practice needs your presence. You need to be there and not elsewhere. You aren’t half-thinking about the bills, half-thinking about your child’s grade point average, or half-thinking about your husband’s complaints. You shake off all those distractions, quiet your nerves, and gear up for the encounter.
Presence, however, is actually a complicated concept. There is a certain prejudice in the way we think about presence and talk about presence. We act as if it ought to mean doing exactly one thing, as in the Buddhist maxim “when you peel a potato, peel a potato.” That’s certainly one sense of presence. But that isn’t the only one and it may not be the most important one.
You go to your computer to work on your current novel. The task you’ve set yourself this morning is go through each chapter and make sure that your main character is called the same thing in each chapter, as you’d begun by calling her Justine and somewhere along the line changed her name to Margaret. So, that’s your task, making sure that Margaret is Margaret everywhere in the book.
Well, you can do just that and nothing else. Or, because of the nature of that repetitive task, one that you only have to pay half-attention to, you could also be asking your brain to solve that plot problem in chapter nine. In this scenario, part of your attention is on making sure that Margaret is Margaret and part of your attention, maybe the larger part, is on getting Margaret out of that pickle you put her in at the end of chapter nine. You are not 100% present to either task, as your attention is quite consciously divided. But you are completely present to your novel.
This second sort of presence, where you peel a potato but also dream up brilliant new ways of using a potato, is the way of creativity, innovation, problem-solving, and just plain old thinking. You might repetitively play a chord sequence on your guitar, so as to really learn it, but you might also daydream a brilliant new song into existence. That would look like you practicing that chord sequence and then, and some point, as the new song arrives, beginning to play it. Yes, you changed your agenda. But you were completely present to your musical genius.
It can be quite hard to get over the prejudice that being present means doing exactly one thing and giving that one thing your undivided attention. Take Diana. Diana, who practiced her yoga every day, bitterly complained that, what with her yoga practice and everything else in life, she had no time for building her online business. I wondered aloud why she couldn’t build her business during her yoga practice.
That startled her. “What do you mean?”
“You need time to think about your business, yes?”
“Yes! I have to make some decisions about which of three products to launch.”
“Okay. That’s a thinking task, yes? A task requiring your mind to be present to the problem?”
“So, invite your mind to think about the problem while you do your yoga.”
She thought about that. “That wouldn’t work,” she said, shaking her head. “You have to be completely present if you’re going to bother doing yoga at all. It requires your full attention.”
“It does!” But she was still thinking about it. “What would that look like, anyway? I’m doing a pose and have an idea. What do I do with the idea?”
“Get off the mat and write it down.”
“But … that’s not the way you practice.”
“It could be,” I said. “It would just be yoga off the mat. On the mat, off the mat, on the mat, off the mat. You would be shifting, hopefully seamlessly, between yoga on the mat and yoga off the mat. It would still be your yoga practice. Only it would serve you better and you would get more time to think about your business.”
She shook her head. “It sounds crazy.”
“Or subtle,” I laughed.
“It just seems so … wrong.”
Two weeks later, Diana reported. “Well, I did that completely goofy thing you suggested. The first few times it felt absolutely terrible. Like I was betraying my yoga practice and somehow even betraying my ideals. It’s hard to explain. After so many years of meditation and yoga and other mindfulness practices, you get it into your head that your task is to be quiet, empty, focused, and present, all in a certain way. It was very close to an earthquake to imagine that there could be another way to think about presence, where you were focused and present but in a divided way. Still, after several days of thinking about it, it came to me how that could be. Really, how that ought to be. I began to do my yoga and my business ‘at the same time.’ I can’t tell you how weird that felt. But I’m beginning to love it—and I’ve got my product chosen!”
Presence is a vital aspect of practice. However, you get to think through and decide what presence means to you. In one set of circumstances, it may mean being fully present to the potato you are peeling. In another set of circumstances, it may mean peeling a potato and designing a skyscraper in your head. The second way is you being present as a creative person is present, the way that someone who is present can both brush her teeth and dream up a symphony or move physics forward. Presence is vital and also subtle. Figure out its nature for yourself.
In this series, I intend to explain the elements of daily practice, the varieties of daily practice available to you, and what to can deal with the challenges to daily practice that inevitably arise. If you’d like to learn more about the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice and better understand the great power of daily practice, I invite you to get acquainted with The Power of Daily Practice. It is available now.
Eric Maisel is the author of 50+ books, including The Power of Daily Practice. You can visit him at ericmaisel.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read the first post in this series, please visit here.