Sunday, February 9, 2014

First-off, welcome to our new blog!  As of now this space will be used to answer questions, announce special events and to (one hopes) spark dialogue about what we do.

Today's topic:  Practice

"If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it."
-attributed to Vladimir Horowitz, pianist

“Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.”
 -Toba Beta, Author

Endeavoring to learn an art, craft or way is inconvenient- it requires the sacrifice of time, money, comfort and energy.  It can also be among the most rewarding pursuits imaginable.  Key to 'mastering' complex skill-sets is establishing and maintaining regular practice (let's say 10,000 hours as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.)  Now, contrast 10,000 hours (and just for reference, there are only 8760 in a calendar year) with the idea of instant gratification.  We're accustomed to seeing 3-minute training montages in films that all but promise that we're all only one pop song away from True MasteryTM.

An example of this way of thinking was shown in an interaction between an American actor and a well-known chat-show host, televised years ago.  The actor had just completed a period drama for which he had to learn some handling of a katana (Japanese two-handed saber) and this interview was to promote the new film.  The set where this took place featured a number of yoroi (Japanese armor), and both host and actor wore kakuobi (hanging belts, the wide sashes used to suspend swords when not in armor) with katana thrust through.  The actor was 'instructing' the host in batto (sword drawing), saying, "okay, now do this very slowly and carefully," then proceeded to draw his own at a reasonable speed.  The host, impressed by how fast it seemed said, "I thought you said slowly!"  The actor, responded in a satisfied way, "yes, but I've done this hundreds of times..."  Right.  Hundreds of repetitions as a daily training regimen?  Great.  From rookie to proficiency?  Nope.

The unfortunate fact is that adepts at any skill seem to ply their trade 'effortlessly.'  What we don't see is how much time is spent working on basics, doing research and failing in order to attain their level of proficiency.  Why is that unfortunate?  Because even if it aligns with native propensity ("talent"), when these folks appear in our televisions (or on stage or wherever) we are seeing the effects of their choices to commit to the hard, unglamorous, 'invisible' work of regular practice.  We don't necessarily appreciate what those choices mean for them as people; we don't see the struggle to get past plateaus in their ability or pushing past resistance to train ('I'll just take today off and work extra hard tomorrow'.)  We see them flawlessly execute with speed and precision, but aren't privy to the months or years of painstakingly deliberate and slow repetition- in short, we enjoy the benefits of their training without sharing in the negatives or having a true sense of the process.

An interesting exercise- choose anyone whom you admire- performer, artist, teacher, etc. and do a bit of research into how long it took for them to be as good as they are.  These folks don't appear fully-formed, they go through extensive studying, training, practice, being fostered, mentored, and lots and lots of failing.  Through failing honestly (with good examples of how to succeed) one starts to understand, at an almost cellular level, what shape one's own gifts will take- there is simply no shortcut for these steps. By having an appreciation for the methods by which others excel we begin to see avenues for us to flourish, while understanding that it is never a quick and painless process.

So why'd I bring up the actor?  Because he was able to convince at least the interviewer (and probably some of the audience as well) that the little bit of practice he'd done was enough, but he's cheating them and himself out of deeper expressions of practice.  It's simple and cute to believe that his ability to do one thing quickly(ish) translates to being a real skill, but it isn't; it's a 'trick'.  A real skill is robust, having been tested under a variety of circumstances, dismantled and reassembled, honed through adversity into something useable and polished into something beautiful; and even then, 'skill' isn't a destination.  It's a moving target- the more you see and do, the more you find 'holes' in your own knowledge and experience, which inspires further research and training, which exposes more holes... it becomes a cycle.

Practice, especially of new material, can be engaging.  The question is, what do you do when it's not exciting and 'sexy' anymore?  Do you continue to struggle with it or do you move on to something easier/shinier?  What you choose to do speaks to who you are (and who you aspire to be.)  Those tough moments reveal surprising aspects of ourselves, sometimes pointing to deficiencies but often demonstrating far greater strength and fortitude than we expect of ourselves.

If you all you want to do is impress the uninitiated, that can be done quickly; focus on the easy or fun parts of training, and you'll miss the greater benefits.  To investigate practice thoroughly takes time; before inculcating anything, we have to encounter and remove extraneous and unhelpful habits, but for those efforts the 'payoff' is more than just the area of focus- we start to learn who we really are.

Working diligently to improve at foundational material isn't fun or exciting (it can be boring, filled with tedium and mental resistance) but it develops the alchemy of 'deep practice.'  And it is in- and through- that alchemy that we experience a full range of emotional experiences, from deep despair to transcendent joy, exasperation to patience, terror to calm simplicity, anger to empathy (and with that, recognize the impermanence of those emotions.)  In short, the process of deep practice connects us to our humanity and when everything is said and done, it is a gift that only you can give to yourself (and to the rest of the world.)
Yours in the spirit of cheerful practice,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

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