Image: Andrew Buck
According to research, realizing ourselves, physiologically speaking, is the result of 10,000 hours of deliberate attention. It turns out that the difference between being proficient and fulfilling your potential is ten years worth of whole days of practice.
We often speak of yoga, whose eight limbs include asana (yoga postures) and meditation, as a “willful practice.” In modern times we have a bit of a reaction to the word “willful” especially if we’ve been brought up in a religious tradition where the idea of surrendering one’s own will to a higher power means that self expression is insubordinate. “Willful practice” in the yogic sense points to the yoking of our innate ability to experience ourselves and our ability to choose to direct that experience. The Katha Upanishad teaches “two paths lie before us eternally.” Willful practice is the decision to return on a moment-by-moment basis to a fresh consideration of what we are doing.
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin collaborating with Anders Ericsson at the Institute of Cognitive Science in Colorado suggest that if you just keep going, you will inevitably wake up. Introducing their paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, they write
The theoretical framework presented in this article explains expert performance as the end result of individuals’ prolonged efforts to improve performance while negotiating motivational and external constraints.
In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice.
Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years. Analysis of expert performance provides unique evidence on the potential and limits of extreme environmental adaptation and learning.
We mostly fail at this attempt for quite some time. Because it’s rigorous, we often substitute rituals for actual presence: as Chogyam Trungpa points out, having a path is just about the worst thing that can happen to you if you want to be awake! It’s a lot like practicing the piano, you put the hours in and once you know your way around you start “phoning it in.” You don’t become a concert pianist, but you can enjoy the company of like minded people.
One early researcher mulling the good start/ lack of luster conundrum, “observed that adults perform at a level far from their maximal level even for tasks they frequently carry out. For instance, adults tend to write more slowly and illegibly than they are capable of doing. Likewise, adults (including clerks with many years of frequent daily experience) add numbers far more slowly than they can when they are doing their best. Thorndike accounts for these curious observations with the following comment: “It is that we have too many other improvements to make, or do not know how to direct our practice, or do not really care enough about improving, or some mixture of these three conditions.”
Yoga, of course, is fundamentally about learning “how to direct our practice.” It’s not about “improvement” in the sense of egoic self. Many times we come to yoga with the idea that it will calm us down, when in point of fact, paying attention can cause us to experience strong sensations – the very ones we’ve been numbing ourselves out to for years (practice makes perfect!) Swami Kripalu taught that what we are improving is a specific skill, “self observation without self judgment.” We decide to practice one day at a time, and in a way, we do “get better at it” but in the process, in the practice, we become different people than we were when we just wanted to be good.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (Little Brown, 2008) is a fun read on the role of timing and chance as well as effort in the whole project of succeeding with whatever we decide to give our lives to.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.