Practice is all around, 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, or noticing the breath, or moving the body in martial arts – 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, then you can be sure many of these basic skills are present and probably increasing. Learning to recognize and develop these skills allows us to turn any activity into a solid practice. This is important: understanding the skills is central to building your own practice, to being your own life teacher, and to sharing practice with others.
In the interest of making this more tangible, let’s imagine each skill as an adjustable control on the mixing board of consciousness (yes, inside I am still a 17-year old boy). I chose these four because each is available at any moment, at least in theory. In practice, they require practice. All four are fundamental operations in consciousness.
- Concentration – The selection and commitment tool.
Concentration is the skill of choosing what to pay attention to, and then staying with it as long as we want. It’s our first freedom, one that protects us from too much self-involvement by giving us the option to attend to something else. 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.
- Clarity – The sharpness lens.
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. Anything 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 – The appreciation filter.
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, we train this excellent skill.
- Equanimity – The smoothness dial.
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 basic skills – in any practice – the stronger they get. Eventually, they start to become available in other parts of our life. That’s when a practice explodes. Boom! Now it’s no longer just ‘this thing we do’ in some narrow context. The skills have become habits that are available everywhere. You could say that life becomes a true practice when we start to deliberately spread the skills and insights cultivated in one domain out to all others. Call this “integration.”
Props 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!