Friday, June 18, 2010

The Eternal Present

George Leonard wrote a good many books, but for me the list will always be topped by Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment and The Way of Aikido. In The Way, George recounts the physical and mental path he walked from Aikido neophyte, through years and years of practice, to black belt, teacher, and (co)owner of his own dojo. I practiced Aikido for about a year and a half (until the teacher moved the dojo to another town) and loved every minute of it, every second. While skimming through the The Way after dinner last night i ran across this section and was reminded of why.

Beneath the remarkable efficacy of practice is the intrinsic joy it can bring. We tend to think of the word routine along with the word boring. Looking at it another way, however, we can see that it's the obsessive search for novelty that is the very essence of boredom. In the routine of a strong and beautiful practice, there is continual renewal and deep satisfaction.

A successful artist I know has told me of the great pleasure she finds simply in entering her studio at the same time in the morning five days a week, smelling the paint, taking her seat at the easel, arranging her brushes. "The routine is important to me. When I get started, there's a wonderful sense of well being. I like to feel myself plodding along. I specifically choose that word, plod. When it's going good, I feel 'this is the essential me.' It's the routine itself that feeds me. If I didn't do it, I'd be betraying the essential me."

It's been the same for me every one of the thousand times I've climbed the stairway to the dojo and opened the door. Standing there a moment, I bow respectfully and enter, caressed by the special ambience, the electric presence that permeates the space. No matter that I was feeling somewhat jangled from the day's hectic minutiae, I am immediately calmed and energized, my body tingling, my spirit replenished. I take off my shoes, check the desk and the bulletin board, go into the dressing room, change into my aikido garb. I love it all: the sameness, the reliability, the routine along with the new developments that each class brings. I love to greet the students as they come in. I love watching them as they take to the mat. I love the cool, firm pressure of the mat on the soles of my feet, the ritual bows, the warm-up exercises, and then my heart pounding, my breath rushing as the training increases in speed and power.

Sometimes, when I first glance up at the clock, I'm surprised that an hour has passed, happy to realize that during that magic interval I've lived neither in the future nor in the past, but rather at the mysterious point of repose that exists in an entirely different realm: the eternal present.

But it's not necessary to be an artist or a practitioner of an Asian martial art to realize the pleasures of long-term practice. Even something as commonplace as gardening can be a practice if done not primarily to impress the neighbors or win prizes for one's roses, but for the sheer love if it, as an essential expression of one's soul. There's a paradox here. The person who gardens primarily for the love of it, as a practice, is the one who is likely to impress the neighbors and win prizes for his or her roses.

The same thing is true in many aspects of life: exercising, doing your finances, working around the house. On a visit, Marshall McLuhan insisted on washing the dishes after dinner. "It's my meditation," he told us.

Perhaps more important, what we call our work can be recontextualized as a practice. The key question again is whether you are doing it primarily for its own sake or primarily for its extrinsic rewards. This isn't always possible, but in more cases than you might imagine, it's a choice you can make.

George is spot on with his comments about boredom. I still, surprisingly, remember very well the many hours i spent thinking about boredom way, way back when i was in the military serving on submarines. We spent months at a time out to sea, never coming to the surface, and never varying our daily routine. Day after day, week after week, month after month.

It wasn't long before i began to wonder why some people seemed bored and others didn't seem affected at all. And it dawned on me that boredom is nothing but your mind's response to your really wanting to be somewhere other than where you are. Eliminate all the thoughts and concerns about being somewhere else and the feelings of boredom completely disappear.

Those that weren't afflicted by boredom had learned to focus on the daily routine; they learned to live in that eternal present. Sleep when it's time, do your job when it's time, read, play cards, study, listen to music, or whatever you choose when it's time, etc. Find a routine, perfect it, and then stick to it like glue, like white on rice, like kernels on a cob, like stink on ..., well, you get the idea. Find it, learn it, and don't let it go.

But attempting to master a skill, any skill, is not just overcoming boredom and finding the beauty in continual, routine, practice . In Mastery, George lays out his five keys to mastering anything, whether it's aikido, running a marathon, or staying on a bike when a dog is chasing you:

  • Get Instruction
  • Practice
  • Surrender To Your Passion
  • Intentionality/Visualization
  • Pushing The Edge

In his list he re-emphasizes the idea that mastery requires practice, practice, and still more practice. Practice is not only essential, it is the heart of the matter. In order to be a master you need to get to the point where you practice your craft for no reason other than your love of the practice.

Yet, and this may seem contradictory, you also need to occasionally push the edge of your craft, stretch your envelope, find your breaking point, see just what your current capabilities are and where you limitations begin. It is this contradiction of stretching, then pulling back to perfect the new, then stretching again, and pulling back again, year after year that keeps you on that path to mastery.

It's interesting to think about how this process applies to meditation, but in any case, find your passion and have fun working towards it's mastery.

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