The Secret Ingredient is Mine!

I've figured out what it is.  Not talent (but then I knew that all along).  Not time (at least, not time as such).  Not [fill in the blank with some other difficult-to-acquire something].  Rather (and listen closely, because this is really important), it is the willingness to be absorbed in practice to the exclusion of everything else.

How Zen, you say.  But it's true.  The secret ingredient to excellence is the willingness to surrender ourselves to practice without attachment to outcome.   Duh.  Talk about having the magic slippers on my feet the whole time.  This felt like a much more startling insight when it came to me on Sunday as I was typing out that entry from my diary about how fat I felt and came to the part where I mentioned not practicing drawing enough.  I was right, I didn't practice.  Why?  Because I always wanted everything to be effortless, of course.  And if it weren't?  I would give up.  Why?  Because, as much as I enjoyed drawing, I enjoyed having drawn more.  I wanted the result (a drawing) more than the practice (drawing).  And so I quit.

Well, not exactly quit.  Just didn't practice.  I practiced (or didn't practice) playing the piano much the same way.  A few notes, a mistake, frustration, quit.  Rather than--if I had been wise beyond my years or somehow 46 in a 10-year-old's body--a few notes, a mistake, thinking about what just happened, trying again simply for the pleasure of feeling my fingers moving over the keys confident that I would be able to feel the music if I just let myself get inside of it, a few more notes, mistakes no longer mistakes, but opportunities for learning, tests of the possible rather than tests of myself or of my ability (whatever that is) to play.

What if, now, I were able to go back and talk to my 10- or 16-year-old self?  Would I be able to explain to her that what mattered was not her ability to play or draw this or that image or piece, but rather only her willingness to allow herself to be fully present to what she was doing, absorbed in the moment whether of joy, frustration, or pain?  I'm not sure.  My 10-year-old (like my 16- and 26- and 36-year-old) self desperately wanted to be Good At Something--more particularly, to be praised for Being Good At Something.  Which meant not practice but performance.  Showing Off, if you will.  But, even more important, Being Loved.

Which had/has nothing to do with the feeling of being inside an activity, testing its edges, its materials, seeing what could be done rather than doing something so that others might notice and validate the self that so desperately wanted to be noticed and cherished for what she was.  That is: valuable; worth loving whether she was able to do this or that well or not.  Instead (I'm losing it a bit here, I'm afraid, but let's just go with it for the moment), she got teased for not being able to distinguish her worth from her ability to learn, for crying because she couldn't figure out how to kick her legs over her head in a back walk-over, for being frustrated at not being able to make her fingers move in the way that she wanted over the keyboard or draw the line that she could see so clearly (or so it seemed) in her head.

Perhaps it was right that she was teased.  Certainly, she was doing something wrong.  But it was not what she thought at the time.  It was (she/I can see now) simply that she was frightened of getting inside of the practice, of losing herself in the activity for its own sake because she was so fixed on doing this or that in order to somehow be other than herself.  Ironically, because this is what practice--true practice, not just rote exercise--demands: allowing ourselves to be absorbed by something other than our thoughts about ourselves (our Egos, if you will).  Which is pretty scary, if you think about it.  No wonder we resist.

For what, after all, if we allow ourselves to be absorbed by something that (horror of horrors!) doesn't really matter, like stamp collecting?  Or medieval history?  What if we get caught up in something that won't allow us to make a living, like reading fairy stories?  Or fencing?  What if we find out that, absorbed as we are, others don't actually like our work very much, despite our pouring our heart and soul into it--literally?  What if we die having spent our lives doing something meaningless?  What if nobody notices what we do?  What if nobody sees?


And yet, this is what practice means.  This is the Secret Ingredient.  Practice for the sake of practice, doing for the sake of doing.  Being there on the strip last night not in order to prove to myself that, yes, I can do this, but rather for the sake of being there, feeling my actions, watching my opponent, seeing if this action works the way that I think it will, adjusting when it doesn't, trying again, not in order to win a medal or earn the right to fence, but rather to see if this action does what I mean it to, right now, letting go if it doesn't work, letting go if it does.

Meanwhile, my 10-year-old self is jumping up and down inside of me, screaming, "Did you see that?  Did you see how well I set that action up, got you to take the parry and then disengaged one-two perfectly into your four?  Do you remember when I couldn't do that at all?  Can you see how much better I've gotten?  Wasn't that a pretty touch?  Did you see that?  Did you see?"

Perhaps this is the reason that my body refuses to allow me to feel what I used to feel--limber and strong--as I did my yoga for so many years.  Nowadays, my joints and tendons are so stiff when I wake up in the morning that it takes me fully two or three minutes just to stand up (much to the frustration of the Dragon Baby who is eager to go out), even longer to be able to walk down the hall.  I have nothing to be proud of anymore in my practice on the mat.  Okay, I can still touch my toes, but gone are the days when I could do the splits or a backbend.  I can't even kneel comfortably, and I certainly can't lean back with my legs bent.  I don't know what's happened.  It's as if all of the years that I spent doing my practice are gone and all I am left with is, you guessed it, the mat.

And pain.  Pain when I do Downward Dog.  Pain when I do Triangle.  Pain when I bend my knees.  Pain when I stretch up my arms.  Pain when I try to do Crow (not actually possible anymore now that my wrist still hurts).  Pain that is telling me, "Back off.  You can't do this anymore."  So, do I quit?  I did for a few months this spring, just gave up.  But then I felt even worse.  If I do my yoga in the morning, at least I can stand, even if I can't make it to the telephone anymore if I've been sitting down when it rings.  But while I can't show off, I can practice.  So practice I do.

Not because one day (that mythical time) I will be able to do the splits or a backbend again.  Maybe I will, but more probably I won't.  Not because doing yoga will make me limber or wise.  It might, but it might not.  But because, yes, it is worthwhile simply to practice, indeed, worth everything simply to practice, whatever the outcome, because that's what life is. 

Practice.  AttentionLooking along the beamLove.


  1. And the corollary is that to achieve that, you need to get yourself into situations that encourage absorption. Like my visit on Thursday afternoon to the systematic botany library at Oxford, to look at an incunable. (Oxford is the kind of place where the Bodleian sends incunables back to modern science libraries, because they already have enough!) No Internet, and I was there only to look at that book. It allowed me to become absorbed in it in a way that too much of my ordinary life does not.

  2. Indeed! I suppose the ultimate goal is to arrange one's life in such a way that every moment is given over to absorption. Perhaps we should all become monks! ; )


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