Practice Makes Progress

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Probably a year ago, I was in a class with Vera Lester, and she said something offhand that I’ve never forgotten. It wasn’t the thesis of her dharma talk, it wasn’t even a major point, but I’ve thought about it every single day since.

What she said was, “You get good at doing the things you do all the time.”

What I thought was, “Oh, shit.”

Because I knew what the things I did all the time were, and I knew I didn’t actually want to be good at them.

Here’s a list of things I used to do or still do all the time that I don’t actually want to be good at:

  • Obsessively check Facebook and/or email.
  • Worry about whether people like/get/are looking at me.
  • Wonder whether I’m actually good at the things I love to do.
  • Wonder whether I “deserve’ the things I have.
  • Freebase episodes of Supernatural/Scandal/House of Cards/Downton Abbey/Game of Thrones/The Walking Dead/Girls/Transparent/WHATEVER.
  • Speak before I think and end up regretting things I’ve said.
  • Procrastinate doing things that are important to me.
  • Avoid meditating because it’s hard.
  • Avoid my yoga practice when I don’t feel like doing it.
  • Avoid doing poses that I don’t like because, well, I don’t like them.
  • Snap at my wife because I had a bad day/I’m menstruating/the moon is full.
  • Justify my own poor behavior/laziness/lack of engagement.
  • Judge other people.
  • Waste time.
  • Drink too much.
  • Smoke too much.
  • Text while driving.

You get it. The list goes on and on. We all do things all the time that we don’t want to get good at, but what we don’t realize is that by doing them all the time we get good at them whether we like it or not.

If you spend a lot of time criticizing other people, you get good at it. If you spend a lot of time avoiding shit you should be dealing with, you get good at it. If you spend a lot of time hating yourself or other people or overeating or undereating or cheating on your spouse or lying or WHATEVER, you get good at it.

In effect, what we do is practice our bad behaviors. And as I’ve said in the past, practice makes progress, which in this case takes us further away from instead of closer to perfection (whatever that is). The progress we make is counter-productive.

Because when you get good at doing things you don’t actually want to be doing, it gets really hard to do the things you want to do (but don’t do all the time). How are you supposed to learn to cope with your problems effectively if you practice avoiding them? How are you ever going to “start eating right” if you practice bingeing on vegan chocolate banana bread? (True story.)

Photo of the author after watching six seasons of Dexter in 3 days.

How are you ever going to live the life that you want if you are always practicing living the life that you don’t want?

Vera’s little comment quite literally changed my life. Since then, I have become obsessed with developing daily practices. After some serious soul excavation and lengthy time spent observing what an expert I’d become at doing things that I don’t want to do, I became convinced that I could not engage in repetitive behaviors unless they are aligned with what I actually want my life to look like.

So, I made some changes. And now my life looks completely different.

I quit my day job. I am a full time yoga teacher and massage therapist. I quit texting and driving. I cut back on drinking, smoking, and staying up past my bedtime. I do a digital detox 36 hours every week. I reprioritized the way I spend my time every minute of every single day. I meditate, chant, and practice yoga daily.

My life isn’t perfect, but it is pretty fucking good.

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The author’s life looking not perfect but pretty fucking good.

How did I do it? I thought about the things I wanted to be good at.
Here’s a list of things I want/wanted to be good at:

  • Being cheerful in my everyday experiences.
  • Being courageous.
  • Appreciating and recognizing what I have.
  • Writing.
  • Communicating with people in a meaningful way.
  • Meditating.
  • Yoga.
  • Teaching yoga.
  • Treating my body like it’s something that I love.
  • Being nice to people.
  • Connecting with people in a meaningful way.
  • Making beautiful things.
  • Being present.
  • Going with the flow.

In order to put my priorities in order, I had to make some major changes first. First, I started teaching more yoga and took an Advanced Teacher Training at Swan River so that I was fully immersing myself in the things I wanted to be immersed in. I surrounded myself with a community of people who have similar goals and made myself accountable to them.
(Infinite gratitude to you, Michelle, you are my guiding prabhu.)

Then I quit my job as an elementary school teacher. It wasn’t a bad job and I wasn’t bad at it. So why quit? Because I didn’t love it. Because I loved the kids I spent my days with but hated the grown ups. Because I can’t deal with bureaucracy and my inability to negotiate “the system” made it impossible for me to be cheerful in my everyday life.

Wasn’t quitting my job hard? Didn’t I suffer financial setbacks? What about stability?

Yes, it was hard and I was terrified. I had no idea whether I could “make it” as a full-time yoga teacher and massage therapist or not. I was shaken to my yogi toes® nervous about not being able to my bills.

But notice that nothing on my “things I want to be good at” list has anything to do with money. Yes, I need to pay my bills. Yes, I want to be stable. But, no, money is just not a priority.

I also had to let go of some other things that were standing in my way and I needed to initiate new projects to help me get on my way. I threw my scale away and stopped thinking about my body in terms of numbers. I started a community-centric blog (that seriously needs updating, I know).  I volunteered as a mentor for the Swan River 2014 Yoga Teacher Training. I reached out to every studio in New Orleans and took on as many classes and clients as I could handle.

I threw myself into doing the things that I love and people noticed. Not only that, but they responded. Because I practice doing these things all the time, I’m pretty good at them, and people are willing to pay me to do them. (Thank the Gods and every single one of my students and clients.)

It worked. I’m not rich, but I can pay my bills. I’ve had to cut down on the amount of public classes I teach because I have curated a beautiful community of private clients. My massage sessions book two weeks in advance and sometimes I have a waiting list.

So, there were major changes to be made, but what made them possible, and what makes the beauty of my everyday life possible are the things I do every day.

williebend
Kittens make great props.

Every single day I meditate, chant, practice asana, take a walk, and write.

Unless I’m seriously sick, I do these things EVERY SINGLE DAY. I don’t do them when I feel like doing them, because half the time I do NOT feel like getting up at 5:45 in the morning to meditate and write when I don’t actually “have to be anywhere” until noon. I don’t do them just when they’re easy. I do them all the time, come hell or cute kittens.

The result is that I have a set of practices that are as normalized to me as tooth brushing. I wake up, I do the things, and then I get on with my day. The repetition is beautiful. Not just because practice makes progress, but because it means that if my writing or my yoga sucks one day, it doesn’t matter, it’s just one of many days.

I can be easy on myself because I have discipline.

But it doesn’t stop there, because once you get into a routine, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. You have to maintain constant awareness about whether your daily practices are helping you get better at the things you want to do.

Because my schedule is so condensed, I have to actually schedule unstructured writing time. That might sound oxymoronic, but it’s on my schedule. It’s set in stone. So, during that time I am not allowed to do any of my planned writing projects (those have other planned times). I have to just blah blah blah until I have a breakthrough. Most of the time I don’t, but sometimes I do.

I force myself to vary my yoga practice. If I start getting too intellectual, I sign up for the Bhaktimmersion at Wild Lotus. If I start avoiding the details in my practice, I do Heide’s Iyengar Intensive at Yoga Bywater. Lately, I’ve been kind of slow about my practice, so as of April 5th, I’ll be doing Balance’s Mysore Challenge.

I am constantly reflecting on my personal growth and I try to find ways to keep myself accountable, but no matter what I need to change, one thing stays the same:
I practice doing the things I want to be good at all the time. 

It’s taken me a long time to get here, which is why I am just now finally writing this. It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes I slip up. I should have been doing asana 29 minutes ago, but I got so wrapped up in this that I haven’t gotten there yet.

Clearly, “going with the flow” is still an issue. But for the most part, practice just works.

Ask the happiest people you know.

5 thoughts on “Practice Makes Progress

  1. You are seriously my hero. Also, you’re totally turning all my own words right back on me. I started reading this in the car (at a stop light… maybe) – and put it down until I got home. We are all blessed to have teachers to tell us what we most need to hear. Mitchel Bleier (yogapata.com) is the one who first said to me “You get good at what you show up for,” and it has stuck in my craw ever since. Much, much love , darling.

  2. Also a lovely way to express that our lives are not about negation (DON’T . . . fill in the blank with our favorite things to hate about ourselves… ) but about addition (practice yoga, practice gratitude, practice mindfulness and cheer, practice . . . fill in the blank with our hearts’ desires…).
    Thank you!

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