Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mindful Practice

Zestful Blog Post #197

Last week I discussed how keeping a commitment to something can yield good—even great—results, as one incrementally improves. A comment by BJ made me reflect, though, that there’s more to it than showing up and wanting to get better—you have to put in effort. You have to do work, real work, and not just make a show of it.

Now, I mean, showing up is massive, especially for us writers, who get serenaded by a hundred distractions every day. But after reading BJ’s comment, I thought about my writing in relation to my swimming, golf, drums, and other pursuits. I remembered something a sports coach said to me once: “Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect; practice makes permanent.” His point was that if you practice with poor technique, or if you feel indifferent toward what you’re doing, your performance will stagnate.

It’s true. When I was a lifeguard I’d study the regular swimmers, and noted that few ever worked toward improvement. Pretty much everybody would show up, put in their lengths using whatever half-assed stroke they’d learned years ago, at exactly the same pace, then leave. Same with golf. Most recreational players don’t take lessons, don’t study the game, don’t practice, and have shitty swings.

I’ve found only one kindred spirit in the pool who, like me, strives for an ever more efficient stroke. Like me, he does drills and intervals, he mixes up his workout, and even does fun random stuff like swim a length of backstroke balancing his water bottle on his forehead. (Yeah, my God.) He’s the faster of the two of us, I’m the smoother. It’s enjoyable to work out in adjacent lanes. So, yeah, if you seek to improve by searching out good advice and then practice with mindfulness and intentionality, then you’ll get somewhere. You’ll improve, be fruitful, flourish.

In sports, being mindful pretty much boils down to awareness: Am I letting the water support my head? Is my spine staying in line with my head when I roll to breathe? Are my hands relaxed? The trick is not to TRY. Don’t try to relax your hands. Just notice whether they feel relaxed or not. This frees you up to be OK with whatever is. No judging necessary, no calling something good or bad. This lets awareness work its subtle magic for you. Ditto for meditative practices like yoga, where you’re supposed to let body tension go before attempting even simple poses. Yoga teachers talk about awareness all the time.

What about writing? Reading great books with fine attention helps a writer get better. Is there more we can do to effect ongoing improvement, apart from showing up and slamming down words? Unlike performance in sport, which can be measured by a clock or points on a board, the worthiness of any piece of writing is subjective to some extent.

But let’s just say it isn’t. Let’s say we can tell if our writing is getting better or staying the same. Let’s give ourselves that much credit.

I think awareness holds tremendous potential for us. And the body is the gateway to the mind and spirit. Unnecessary tension in any of the three—body, mind, spirit—will block us from doing our best. The absence of needless mental, emotional, and physical tension will facilitate our best.

So: As you settle down to write, ask yourself: Am I feeling any unnecessary physical tension? Feel it, and see whether it changes. Then ask: tension emotionally? Mentally? Feel it, and see what happens.
Right now, try dropping your jaw. Was it tense? How does it feel now? (In my blog post of August 1, 2013, I discussed this relaxing-your-jaw thing while writing. I thought it was cool, but didn’t take it any further.)

As you begin to write, touch base on the question of tension from time to time, and add a second one: Am I feeling pleasure as I write? Don’t ask: Is what’s coming onto the page good? Ask: Am I enjoying this? Don’t even attempt to figure out why or why not.

Let’s try it and see what happens!

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  1. Wow, you really ran with that little comment and make a lot of sense. My golf instructor stood over us, trying to help us with our swings, but at the same time told us not to get so caught up in the mechanics that we didn't relax and enjoy the game. We all want to get better, but we also write because we love it. You always have such insight into the writing life. That's why I love your blog.

  2. BJ, that's cool that you golf too! I'm so glad you're my buddy here on Zestful Writing.

  3. I think I'm getting "slowly faster." In my writing, I know it when I see it. I hope someday to get to the place where every sentence feels right. For now, I'll keep showing up and trying my best. Thanks again for another helpful blog.

  4. What I would give to be one lane over. Where I swim, no one's faster, smoother, more efficient. A role model would be amazing. Fun fact. I learned something, reading your take on good swimming. So that's what I do with water and my head. Most of the time, I must look like a crocodile, LOL.

    I'm lamentable when it comes to reading. If it's good, I'm a gonner. Lost in story. Living it. Rare is the book that slows me enough to stop and ponder. (Looking for one? Try Crimes in a Second Language by someone we know well. That writer slowed me down, made me go, she's right. Wow.)

  5. Bev, right on. Cordia, yeah, let the water support your head, and have no tension in your neck. Look straight down at the bottom except when you're rolling to breathe. Check out Terry Laughlin's Total Immersion self-coaching videos. YOu can see a demo for free on YouTube, just search Total Immersion demo. And thanks for your very kind words re: C2L.

  6. Wow! So, some of these techniques have come naturally to me. I groan (silently) while sharing the pool with a churner. The chop makes you think open sea, which is how I approach the challenge - hey girl, outside, this could be any old time. Subscribed to the YouTube feed and will watch them all. Thank you!

  7. Great, I also recommend getting Terry's blog.


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