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Book Review: The Practicing Mind - Thomas M. Sterner

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This book covers some things I've discovered more recently and shows the pervasive nature of hasty judgement, instant gratification, and boredom during practice.  Basic mindfulness is suggested thoughout to deal with bad perceptions, unrealistic ideals, and habits.

Summary:
  • The practicing mind is quiet.  It lives in the present and has a laser-like, pinpoint focus and accuracy.  It obeys our precise directions, and all our energy moves through it.  Because of this we are calm and completely free of anxiety.  We are where we should be at that moment, doing what we should be doing and completely aware of what we are experiencing.  There is no wasted motion, physically or mentally.
  • If you are not in control of your thoughts, then you are not in control of yourself.  Without self-control, you have no real power, regardless of whatever else you accomplish.  If you are not aware of the thoughts that you think in each moment, then you are the rider with no reins, with no power over where you are going.  You cannot control what you are not aware of.  Awareness must come first.
  • For the most part we are not aware of the process, but that is how good practice manifests when done properly.  It carries no stressladen anticipation, no internal question, "When will the goal be reached?"  When we practice anything properly, the fact that we are engaging in a difficult learning process disappears, and, more important, the process dissolves into a period of inner calming that gives us a rest from the tension and anxiety that our "get it done yesterday" world pushes on us every day of our lives.  For this reason, it is important to recognize and be in control of the process and to learn to enjoy that part of life's activity.
  • A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.
  • Golf example by the author: I made a list of everything I would cover in that particular golf lesson, and divided up each task so that I could work on only one aspect of the golf swing at a time.  In the course of practicing each item, I would make anywhere from one to two hundred swings in front of a mirror with a short club I had cut off so it wouldn't hit the ceiling.  I followed this up during the week with three trips to the range to actually hit balls, but again, only working on one part of the swing at a time.  When at the range, I put most of my energy into ignoring what the ball flight looked like.  I was in the process of learning parts of the golf swing.  I didn't expect to be hitting good shots.  A beautiful golf shot is the result, or product, of all the parts being correct.
  • We have an unhealthy habit of making the product - the intended result - the goal, instead of the process of reaching that goal.  This is evident in many activities in our everyday lives.  We become fixated on our intended goal and completely miss out on the joy present in the process of achieving it.  We erroneously think that there is a magical point that we will reach and then we will be happy.  We look at the process of getting there as almost a necessary nuisance we have to go through in order to get to our goal.
  • The word - practice - implies the prescence of awareness and will.  The word learning does not.  When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal.  The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it.  If you grow up in a household where there is constant bickering and inappropriate behavior, you can learn that behavior without your knowledge.  If that happens, then in order for you to change similar bickering behavior within yourself, you must first become aware of the personality tendencies you possess, and practice a different behavior repeatedly and deliberately with the intention of changing.
  • ...good practice mechanics require deliberately and intentionally staying in the process of doing something and being aware of whether or not we are actually accomplishing that.  This also requires that we let go of our attachment to the "product".
  • When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease.  When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process.  The reason for this is not hard to understand.  When you focus your mind on the present moment, on the process of what you are doing right now, you are always where you want to be and where you should be.  All your energy goes into what you are doing.  However, when you focus your mind on where you want to end up, you are never where you are, and you exhaust your energy with unrelated thoughts instead of putting it into what you are doing.
  • In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal.  If we don't give up our attachment to the goal, we cannot be in the present because we are thinking about something that hasn't occurred yet: the goal.
  • When instead, your goal is to focus on the process and stay in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging.  You are just learning and doing.  You are executing the activity, observing the outcome, and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to product the desired result.  There are no bad emotions, because you are not judging anything.
  • Using music as an example, let's say you are trying to learn a particular piece of music.  If your goal is to play the entire piece of music perfectly, with each note you play you will be making constant judgments about the music and yourself: "I played that part correctly, but I can't seem to get this part right". "Here comes the part I always mess up."  "It will never sound the way I want.  This is hard work."  All these judgments require your energy, and none of that energy is going into learning the music and getting to a point where it is effortless for you to play it.  These thoughts are only keeping you from learning the piece of music. We waste so much of our energy by not being aware of how we are directing it.
  • This doesn't mean that you must lose touch with what you are aiming for.  You continue to use the final goal as a rudder to steer your practice session, but not as an indicator of how you are doing.  The goal creates a dilemma in any activity you choose, because it is usually the reason you undertake an endeavour in the first place, and it is always out there as a point of comparison against which to measure your progress. You can really see this dilemma in sports such as skating, gymnastics, bowling, and golf, which have "perfect" scores, but in more subtle ways it is also present in any area of life where we aspire to accomplish something.  If you are trying to improve how you deal with a difficult co-worker, and one day you slip a little in your effort and then judge yourself for that, you are doing the same thing and misusing the goal.
  • The most productive way to perform the task is something like this: You pick up a tennis ball, look at the trash can, and toss the first ball.  If the ball hits the floor in front of the can, you observe this and make the decision to adjust the arc of the ball and how hard you will toss the next ball based on this observed information.  You continue this process with each toss, allowing present-moment feedback to help you refine the art of tossing a tennis ball into a trash can.  Where we fall down in this activity is when we drop out of this present-minded approach and become attached to the outcome of our attempts.  Then we start the emotional judgment cycle: "How could I have missed the first one? I am not very good at this.  Now the best I can do is two out of three," and on and on.  If we stay in the process, this does not occur.  We look at the outcome of each attempt with emotional indifference.  We accept it as it is, with no judgment involved.
  • ...judgment redirects and wastes our energy.
  • What we are doing here is objectively observing and analyzing the outcome of each attempt.  This observation serves only to direct our next effort.  It is amazing how everything changes when we use this way of thinking to approach any new activity.  For one thing, we become patient with ourselves.  We are not in a hurry to get to some predetermined point.  Our goal is to stay in this process and to direct our energy into whatever activity we are choosing at the present.  Every second that we achieve this, we fulfill our goal.  This process brings us inner peace and a wonderful sense of mastery and self-confidence.  We are mastering ourselves by staying in the process and mastering whatever activity we are working on.
  • In sports we focus on who won.  In an art form such as music, a new student asks, "How long will it take me to play like that person over there?" as if every moment up to that point will be drudgery that must be endured.  In education what we truly learn is at best a footnote, because in the end it is a school's output of high grades that determines its future funding.  For most of our culture, focusing on the process is almost frowned upon; it's seen as missing the point.
  • What we remember is timeless, because we experience it all over again.
  1. Keep yourself process-oriented.
  2. Stay in the present.
  3. Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer your efforts.
  4. Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention.
  • ...it's easy to notice when you fall out of this perspective.  At such times you immediately begin to judge what and how well you are doing, and you experience impatience and boredom.  When you catch yourself in these moments, just gently remind yourself that you have fallen out of the present, and feel good about the fact that you are now aware enough to recognize it.
  • Advertising works so well because it prays upon our sense of "all is not right until I get to such and such a point."
  • For example if you base your current abilities with that of a professional you are creating unrealistic ideals.  A professional would have more hours of experience than you so to expect to be at that level will make you give up.
  • When we are totally focused on the present moment and in the process of what we are doing, we are completely absorbed in the activity.  As soon as we become aware of how well we are concentrating on something, we are no longer concentrating on it.  We are now concentrating on the fact that we were concentrating on the activity.  When we are practicing correctly, we are not aware we are practicing correctly.  We are only aware and absorbed in the process of what we are doing in that moment.
  • We make work feel worse than play by prejudgment.
  • Also don't "try" to enjoy tasks because that is just more struggle.
  • Our minds are going to practice certain behaviors whether or not we are aware of them, and whatever we practice is going to become habit.
  • What is required is that you are aware of what you want to achieve, that you know the motions you must intentionally repeat to accomplish the goal, and that you execute your actions without emotions or judgments; just stay on course.  You should do this in the comfort of knowing that intentionally repeating something over a short course of time will create a new habit or replace an old one.
  • Sports psychologists have gotten very consistent results when studying habit formation.  One study states that repeating a particular motion sixty times a day over twenty-one days will form a new habit that will become ingrained in your mind.  The sixty repetitions needn't be done all at once but can be broken up into, say, six sets of ten or two sets of thirty during the day.  In sports, this type of method can be used to change a certain aspect of a golf swing, or to naturalize any other aspect of a sports motion.
  • Initially, the new way feels very strange and awkward because you are moving against the old habit.  But in a short period of time, through deliberate repetition, the new way feels normal, and moving back to the old way would feel strange.
  • By applying repetition with no sense of anticipation of how long it will take to learn something you can just be aware of the learning and see the progress when it actually happens.
  • You can use triggers to create new habits by labeling the turning on of your TV or computer as a reminder to see what else you can do better with your time.  When it's a habit these triggers can happen just thinking about turning on the TV for example.
  • Accept that there is no such thing as reaching a point of perfection in anything.  True perfection is both always evolving and always present within you.  What you perceive as perfect is always relative to where you are in any area of your life.  There is no goal to reach other than pursuing the activity.
  • Simplify, small, short and slow.
  1. Simplify.  Break projects down to small components so that motivation continues.
  2. Small. Focusing on small sections frees you from obsessing about the final goal and it's easier to concentrate on smaller tasks.  The final goal should only be used as a rudder for the smaller goals.
  3. Short. Make your practice sessions manageable.  Eg. Cleaning a garage 45min/day is easier than trying to do it all in one day.
  4. Slow. Operate at a pace so that you can pay attention to what you are doing.  If you go too fast you'll make more mistakes slowing you down.  By not wasting energy (faster speed usually involves judgment, impatience, and frustration), you will complete the task faster.
  • Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment.
  • Judgments are necessary for us to function in life, but they have a downside: They are not executed with a detached nature.  There is usually some emotion involved, and the amount of emotion is proportional to the perceived importance of the judgment.
  • Stay with the dispassionate observer to not get sucked into other people's behaviours. [I personally would suggest going a little further with Buddhism and react less to perceptions by understanding their lack of inherent existence]
  • DOC: Do, Observe, Correct. - Using this should reduce the amount of emotional judgment.
  • If you are aware of when you are trying, then that means you are in the present moment and you have already won, regardless of where you appear to be in relation to your personal goals.  Your goals will always move away from you.  That is the way we keep evolving.
  • Notice that the toy that meant everything to you when you were a child has no significance at all to you now, although getting it consumed your thoughts at the time.

RE: Book Review: The Practicing Mind - Thomas M. Sterner
Answer
7/9/14 11:57 AM as a reply to Richard Zen.
Hi Richard,

I just want to thank you for your thorough, clear book reviews (and sharing your multi-year practice thread). If we go the DhO-scouts-badge route ;) then you design the book one. 

Katy

RE: Book Review: The Practicing Mind - Thomas M. Sterner
Answer
7/10/14 12:09 AM as a reply to katy steger,thru11.6.15 with thanks.
Thanks!

What I find interesting is that I never feel done with learning.  Lots of the book reviews overlap in how presence benefits but there are endless forms "the powers" and "intention" practices that people can use to nudge themselves in different directions from habits, and they do make a difference.

Metta

Richard