Practice is all around us, so big we hardly see it. Movement practices, art practices, nature practices, communication practices, meditation practices, therapy practices. They aren’t just experiences. These practices change us. They connect us. They even enlighten us.
I think there’s a common language in practice. Underneath the external form of a practice – whether playing music, moving in martial arts, or sitting in meditation – deep life skills are being trained.
I want to look at four skills in particular as one way to understand how practice works. If a practice is important to us, if it’s deepening our engagement with the world, if it’s teaching us about who we are and helping us feel connected to others, then you can be sure at least two or three of these skills are spinning away in the background. Learning to recognize and develop these skills allows us to turn any activity into a deep and helpful and transformative practice. This is important: understanding the skills is central both to being our own life teacher, and to sharing practice with others.
Here’s my breakdown:
Concentration is the skill of choosing what to pay attention to, and then staying with it as long as we want. With commitment, concentration leads to stability, calm and satisfying experiences of merging with the action. Examples of concentration are getting absorbed in work, in the sensation of breathing, or in some repetitive movement. We use concentration anytime we deliberately choose to do a practice. It’s what gives us the option to attend to something besides our worries!
Clarity is the skill of noticing what’s really there. It leads to sharper discernment and increased wisdom and it gets trained in many practices, from insight meditation to psychotherapy, from nature observation to journaling to conscious communication. Any practice or activity that teaches awareness of our “stuff” increases clarity. As does anything that teaches us to be curious about the patterns and the learning in the world around us.
Care is the skill of saturating both our actions and our perceptions with love and respect. It leads to doing things well and to treating people well, including ourselves. We exercise this in so many activities: Anytime we craft something with love, anytime we notice the humanity of the people around us, anytime we write a letter of appreciation to someone in our lives.
Equanimity is the skill of non-interference, of allowing self and world to be exactly what they are in a given moment. It is the basis of honesty and openness and trust. When we’re vulnerable in a conversation, when we trust the creative work that’s coming through us, when we pause and exhale and are actually present for what’s going on, whether it’s pleasant or not … all of these train equanimity. Combined with clarity, it leads to more appropriate action.
The more we exercise these skills – in any practice – the stronger they get. Eventually, they start to overflow into other parts of our life. That’s when a practice goes supernova.
Now it’s no longer just some thing we do in a narrow context. The skills have become habits of mind and heart that are available everywhere.
Thanks to my great teacher and mentor Shinzen Young, whose understanding of the core “attentional skills” of mindfulness continues to inform my own. He’s written a lot on this subject, but to get a real sense of Shinzen’s precision nerdiness, video is the way to go. Here is Shinzen on concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity.
The skill of “care” is my own addition. There are many ways to organize human experience. What skills would you add? Send them in – let’s crowd-source this learning!