Perfecting The Art Of Mindful Practice

Representational image.
Representational image.

"If we're not actively making things better, chances are we're making them worse."

William Westney, The Perfect Wrong Note

We must understand this dynamic of human nature and performance. In fact, the purpose of practice is never to make things technically perfect or to turn them into a mechanical routine. It is to help us explore our potential further, to excel and to exceed our existing level of performance.

The word "practice" has two main dictionary meanings: 1. The actual application or use of an idea, belief or method, as opposed to theories relating to it. 2. The customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something. The first meaning has its parallels in "application", "exercise", "operation", "implementation", "execution", "action", "doing" etc. The second meaning has its parallels in "custom", "procedure", "tradition", "habit', "system", "routine", "way", "rule' etc.

Conscious presence and focused effort are necessary to make our "practice of practice" perfect. But this doesn't mean that the outcome has to be flawless...

As we practice something regularly as an individual or as an organisation, it becomes customary for us. And once we become accustomed to doing something, it becomes a routine. Rules, routines and processes are an essential part of a system but if we want to attain further excellence and refinement, we need to pay conscious and focused attention to them — we need to innovate over them to attain further refinement and excellence.

A good example is great Olympians such as Adam Kreek and Ben Rutledge who have laid emphasis on rigorous practice, focused effort and conscious presence. According to them conscious presence in each moment is the golden key to effective practice. That's the reason that they agree with Vince Lombardi — an American football player and coach, considered by many to be one of the best and most successful coaches in professional football history — who said, "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

This highlights the fact that it's very necessary to be careful about what we practice. As Richard Carlson, author, motivational speaker and psychotherapist, noted: "I guess it's safe to say that practice makes perfect. It makes sense, then, to be careful what you practice." If one is not careful about what one practices or what one takes away from experiences, the results can be disastrous. Sidney J. Harris, American journalist and author, makes it unambiguously clear:

"Experience can be a very bad teacher, indeed, or not teacher at all. It is like the silly phrase, 'Practice makes perfect.' In most cases, practice merely confirms us in our errors, and the longer we do something the wrong way — that is, without enlightenment and instruction — the more fixed we become in our folly."

So, conscious presence and focused effort are necessary to make our "practice of practice" perfect. But this doesn't mean that the outcome has to be flawless or that we follow a particular mode of practice with religious perfection — in fact, this may lead to rigidity rather than being open and experimental. As pianist William Westney (noted for his "rich", "distinctive", "glorious" and "formidable" playing) notes, "Robotic correctness is the last thing judges want to see or hear." This applies to all live performance by humans.

In fact, "conscious presence in each moment" and "focused effort with our entire being" make it possible for an individual, or even for a team, to bring in the spirit and quality of experimentation in a real setting.

Mary Tyler Moore sums it up beautifully: "Take chances, make mistakes. That's how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave."

Conscious presence ensures the integrity and focus of the entire being at every practice session. At the same time, it makes room for experimentation, to try novel methods and practices even if it implies committing errors. This keeps us from turning our practice into a mere routine, it builds our courage to experiment. Mary Tyler Moore sums it up beautifully: "Take chances, make mistakes. That's how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave."

Martin Luther King Jr. sheds further light with the observation, "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."

There are four aspects that go into the making of a great champion, a great leader who has imbibed the real art of self-mastery and self-leadership or a great organisation known for its penchant for innovation and excellence:

1. Perfecting/refining one's practices and processes endlessly

2. Developing the power of presence continually

3. Cultivating courage and bravery untiringly

4. Growing in creative rather than reactive outlook and approach

Peter Senge says in his phenomenal book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization —

"Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills, though it is grounded in competence and skills. It goes beyond spiritual unfolding or opening, although it requires spiritual growth. It means approaching one's life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to reactive viewpoint."

When it comes to working as a team, we have to remember that "team learning is a team skill" and "learning teams learn how to learn together" as Senge puts it. He observes, "learning teams need 'practice fields', ways to practice together so that they can develop their collective learning skills."

But what is important is to develop a learning attitude. To acknowledge that one has to learn as an individual and to learn as a team and to learn together as an organisation. I love the words of Jim Afremow, who sums up the importance of attitude thus in Psychology Today: "Attitude is defined as a way of looking at or viewing life. This is why attitude has been defined as the 'control centre' of your life. Your attitude is a decision, and it is a learnt behaviour."

Thus we need to remember that the very act of practicing something — not only in the form of our individual or organisational processes or procedures, but also, more subtly, in the form of our viewpoints and attitudes — translates into learnt behaviours. We need to take care that these practices do not become frozen; we need to ensure that we do not lose the flow and dynamism of conscious and focused practice. It is such self-awareness and self-leadership that opens the portals to true creativity and innovation.

So let us not just agree on the theory of right practice. Let us put it to practice, remembering what Chuck Reid says in this regard: "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

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