As I began preparing to write this edition of “Tools,” I noticed that I had saved a PBS Program on my DVR: Rene Fleming/Master Class. As I watched Ms. Fleming observe and then guide four young opera singers through the aria that each of them presented to her, I became aware that I was watching a remarkable learning experience. These four students of Opera had studied voice for hundreds of hours, over several years, to get to their present level of performance. Yet here they were, singing for one of the great sopranos of our time, with the hope that she would help them make further progress by making small corrections to their posture, breath control, mouth position, and even the placement of their tongues in the singing of certain musical phrases.
While this exercise could easily be seen as specific only to young students of the complex process of becoming an accomplished opera singer, watching Ms. Fleming gently and skillfully guide, encourage, and correct her students struck me in another way. I felt like I had been given a Zen slap by a very wise Master. Here was a basic truth of life opening up before me. If we want to live our lives fully, if we want to evolve and transform to become the best persons we can be, we must open ourselves to skillful guidance, take it in, and then make use of it. This learning process can be found throughout recorded history. It forms the basis of what is meant by “practice.”
Most of us have heard and used the word “practice” from very early in our lives. In third grade, I began to take music lessons and was encouraged by my teacher to practice the accordion. Soon I was also going to Little League practice, where my coach instructed us in the best ways to throw, catch, hit and run the bases When I was 11 or 12, my father began to teach me to play golf, explaining to me that if I wanted to become a good golfer, it would take lots of practice to learn how to use each club in my bag. And then, when I entered high school, I tried out for the freshman football team and really learned the meaning of the word. Practice came to mean participating in an almost daily ordeal of calisthenics, wind sprints, blocking and tackling drills, and playing simulated games against ourselves. Practice came to mean learning to do something that is very difficult, and then doing it over and over until you get it right.
It’s fairly easy to see what’s good about the practicing process in almost any arena where learning skills are involved. Practicing teaches us a number of really good things:
1) We can enter an activity that we know very little about and be taught what we need to know to begin to participate.
2) We can learn to do things more and more effectively by repetition of learned skills.
3) We can develop the discipline needed to go beyond rudimentary learning of something that intrigues us.
4) If we discover that this activity or discipline is really important to us, we can develop mastery of it at a high level.
There is a down side, however, to the process of learning to do something through practice. I believe part of this difficulty is associated with how much succeeding in competition with others is the underlying motivation for the practicing we are doing. Another powerful influence has to do with how much pressure and criticism we are subjected to in the learning process. Finally, what are the consequences for our self-esteem, if we don’t reach the level of accomplishment that is expected of us by ourselves or someone important to us? My concern is that all too often, many people, particularly children and adolescents, come away from trying to do something they hope to become good at with the feeling that they are simply not good enough.
I ended last month’s blog with a Ted Talk by Brene Brown entitled the “Power of Vulnerability,” in which she makes a powerful connection between our fear of personal vulnerability and the feeling we call shame. “Shame,” Brene proclaims, “is the fear that we are not worthy of connection.” Shame causes us to hide from our feelings, keep secrets about things we are ashamed of, and then ultimately try to present the best version of ourselves to the world. In doing so, we hope that our masks won’t crack and that our true stories will not be revealed. The terrible irony is that if we want meaningful and pleasurable connection with our families and with friends and colleagues, we need to be able to reveal to them who we truly are, warts and all.
Watching the four students perform for Renee Fleming, I noticed that they all seemed quite nervous. They were well dressed, attending to their posture and carriage, and working hard to present their vocal abilities in the best light possible. However, they seemed tense, even rigid, and their voice tone was almost universally somewhat “squeezed.” Although each student was quite accomplished and felt thrilled to be working with Renee, their overall demeanor was “up tight.” Of course it is not surprising that this was the case. They were presenting their vocal talent and artistry to a world renowned opera star. However, even if this event were simply a recital in front of their families and friends, we might expect a similar level of discomfort to be present. What is going on here? My hypothesis is that in these performance situations, we are likely to feel whatever fear we have that we are not good enough. This fear keeps many of us from taking the risks we need to take to become who we really are, and causes others to try too hard to be perfect, thereby losing touch with their “Soul.”
So this month, I will explore one remedy for this almost universal sense of shame that most of us carry within, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. This feeling is the fear that we are not good enough to connect, to ourselves, to our audience, to our loved ones, or to our lives in a way that will fulfill us. This remedy, in the fullest possible spectrum of its meaning, is practice. As I write these words, I hear a voice from my inner chorus of critics saying, “Oh great, that’s all you’ve got for us. Practice makes perfect. Try and try again. Never give up! What a crock.” Indeed, if this is all I have to say, it’s time for me to pack it in as a blogger, or at least, try a new topic. What I intend to do instead, is to take our understanding of practice to a deeper level, to explore practice as an interpersonal learning process that includes self-awareness, self-acceptance, breathing techniques, meditative receptivity, and learning to create an inner sense of peace and joy in the company of supportive, understanding, and even compassionate teachers or guides. Hopefully, that composite understanding of practice holds a bit more interest for my internal critical chorus. (They are quiet for the moment.)
Quan Yin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, Amy Becker,
I feel very fortunate to have found wonderful teachers throughout my life to help me learn to do what I was interested in. In 1975 I began to study Tai Chi Chuan with Hubert Lui, a true master of that art and a master teacher as well. Mr. Lui had many sayings that he repeated over and over as he taught. One of his favorites was, “No Practice, No Breakfast, NPNB.” If you didn’t practice the Tai Chi form that you were learning, you were to deprive yourself of breakfast. There was no way for him to enforce this edict, but that wasn’t what he was interested in. He was letting us know in no uncertain terms, if you want to internalize the graceful and powerful movements of Tai Chi, you needed to practice on a daily basis.
Hubert Lui was not a judgmental or critical teacher. When he taught us a new part of a sequence of moves, he would demonstrate them himself and then ask us to follow him. In the beginning of each new sequence, we would struggle in our attempts to reproduce his moves. All he ever said in response to our clumsiness and wrong turnings was “Try Again,” with a very kind voice tone. I can still hear him saying “Try Again” with a particular lilt in his voice that communicated, “You can do this. Just keep practicing with me.”
I heard that same kind and encouraging tone in Renee Fleming’s voice as she corrected her advanced students in her Master Class. She would complement them first for whatever they were doing beautifully. She would affirm their talents and positive characteristics, and then she would say, “Now what if we were to try this one little thing. Put your finger on your tongue and sing the passage again.” No critical judgment, no scolding, no scathing critique; instead a gentle, “Try this and let’s see what happens.” Her approach allowed her students to become aware of what they had started with and what was beginning to happen for them now.
If I were writing a cook book, I would suggest that the two most important ingredients in this dish we call “practice” are self-awareness and self-acceptance. We need to be aware of our state of mind as we begin something we are interested in learning, and to be able to accept our initial level of competence or incompetence. From that point, we need to proceed without unnecessary critical judgment, negative evaluation, or shaming. In Zen Buddhism, this disposition is called “beginners mind.” Even if we think we know something well, we are asked to put on the open and curious disposition of the beginner; then we are asked to follow our teacher’s directives without resistance. At the end of the class or course, our teacher will likely recommend that we repeat whatever we are learning again and again until our muscles and cells have memorized the information. Learning through repetition turns out to be the key to growth, development, and refinement of our craft, our art, and our internal resources. If we could recall our early learning process clearly, we would know that this is the way that we learned to crawl, stand up, and begin to walk.
If we can clear negative criticism of ourselves from our field of exploration to a sufficient degree, we will discover the third essential ingredient of practice, “open relaxation.” I was in a hypnotic trance guided by my mentor Dick Olney when I heard these words coming through to me, “and in a trance, you can remember what you have always known, that you learn most easily when you are relaxed.” I took these words in immediately. In the trance state, I felt no doubt or resistance, and it did seem like I had known that truth a long time ago but had forgotten it. What I have learned since then, is that when I allow myself to relax, when I experience a sense of ease and connect to feelings of wellbeing, I am better prepared to do whatever I need to do. And if in this state of ease I can begin to open myself to the feelings in my body, my inner voices, inner music, and my inner vision, I will be practicing with my entire organism available to me. This will allow the memory of what I am doing to imprint more fully.
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2013
When I write these blogs, I spend a lot of time getting in the right state of mind. I do things that I enjoy, that give me pleasure, make me laugh, or activate my emotional self in some significant way. This afternoon, I spent more time than I thought I should, looking at the beautiful photographs and art work that my friends post on face book. I read the poetry of the master poets that I find posted there and took heart that their words are remembered by generation after generation. Lately I have been reading the posts of my younger friends, who are 30 and 40 years younger than I am. In doing so, I find commonalities of interest between us that bridge several generations, whether we live in the United States, Mexico, Pakistan, Hungary, Russia, Africa or South America. This realization has given me a great deal of joy and inspiration. My experience here is an example of the next ingredients in the recipe for a deepening practice, joy, pleasure, and inspiration.
I have in writing this particular piece, the good fortune of collaborating with my dear friend Amy Becker, an extraordinary practitioner and teacher of Yoga. Some years ago Amy and I did an exchange that inspired me to start taking Yoga with her after a long hiatus. I had decided in my twenties that I had too rigid a body type to do Yoga, which is the way that I covered my shame that I simply couldn’t do Yoga well at all. When I first tried to learn Hatha Yoga in my twenties, I felt inadequate, and that I had been betrayed by my rigid body. When I found myself struggling with the poses that Amy was teaching in the workshop I signed up for, I realized that I had been absolutely right. I could barely do the poses. But somehow, with Amy teaching the class, it didn’t seem to matter. I was learning about my body. I was stretching where I hadn’t stretched for years, and although it was challenging, and at times somewhat painful, the good humor and lively spirit with which Amy approached the class made it all enjoyable. There was no negativity in her adjustments, only sensitivity, compassion, and real support. Meanwhile, while she adjusted my posture and position, she gave me information about how I could become more flexible, feel stronger in the pose, and gain knowledge that would let me go further into the asana.
I asked Amy to write her thoughts about her practice of yoga so that I could add her understanding to this article.
“One purpose behind the practice of yoga is to ease the mind. When I go to the mat to practice, it is like being at home with my heart. I understand things from this place, because it is calm, still and quiet. What begins to arise is pure love, peace and light. The practice experience reminds me I can “connect” with this sensation anytime anywhere. This is me. It can be very relevant to letting go of control and understanding power. I don’t need to control my breathing but it is powerful if I do. I don’t need to control my mind but it is powerful if I do, and like this.
The practice brings with it the acceptance of “coming as you are”. I am not judged by “yoga”. I am accepted just as I am, broken or shining. The practice welcomes me fully and expects nothing. I place expectations of me in my practice of yoga, and it is as powerful to practice using them as it is to have no expectations.
The practice is steadying for me. I can always count on it. When I am willing and open, yoga is waiting to share endless gifts with me.
The practice of yoga helps me to connect with God. I pray when I practice, always have. It may not be with words, my prayer may simply come from an open heart of love and a smile.”
I hope my description of these approaches makes it obvious, that whatever your dreams are, whatever you are trying to learn, there are important ingredients that make our growth and development more possible: self-awareness; self-acceptance; relaxation; and taking real pleasure in the process. Renee Fleming and Amy Becker, just as Dick Olney and Huber Lui did before them, embody these qualities in their teaching and model them for us so that we can learn from their example. Once we learn to practice in this way, we begin to develop compassion for ourselves, and then appreciation and joy as we experience how we are growing and changing in the process.
Here’s where I am going with all this information. First, I want to point to practice itself as a valuable tool for transformation and healing. For almost two years in this blog, I have been presenting tools that I know can be very useful to almost anyone’s healing process and personal growth. In order for these tools to be truly effective for us, we need to put them into practice in an ongoing way. Experiential self-acceptance and its companion, the Inner Source are very powerful healing processes that can change the course of our lives. Using them regularly can foster feelings of compassion for ourselves and others. I teach these tools to every client that I work with because these experiential practices deepen healing, foster insight and compassion, and increase our self- esteem. The evolving methods presented here are also effective means of treating anxiety, shame, fear, guilt, and grief. They are stepping stones of deliverance from the crippling emotional states that plague thousands upon thousands of us.
If we are willing to put these tools and understandings to personal use, we will, I believe, be very pleased with the results. To receive the gains that are possible in psychotherapy, or as a student of Yoga or Tai Chi, or to benefit from the classes and courses we take, we need to employ this deeper understanding of what it means to practice:
1) To accept ourselves fully in awareness.
2) To learn to relax and breathe deeply.
3) To surrender and open ourselves to the felt experience of what we are doing.
4) To open our hearts and our senses so that we can feel the streams of pleasure and well- being that our bodies and our nervous systems are capable of experiencing.
I wholeheartedly believe that this multidimensional approach to the art of practice will give us access to healing, to personal and spiritual transformation, and to the satisfaction of becoming who we are truly meant to be. As you continue your own practices and methods, please let us know your results. We will all benefit from your sharing your experience with us, because I will be sure to pass your experience along to my readers.
Great thanks to those of you who read this blog, and to my team of collaborators for this issue, Amy Becker for her understanding of “practice” and her photos; Toby Landesman, for her photographic skill and editing; and Valerie Pierce for her ongoing support.
And here for your listening pleasure, the fully formed virtuosity of Renee Fleming!
And in case you missed this in my last blog, the virtuosity and understanding of Percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who teaches us how to truly listen.
Toby Landesman’s photos can be seen at www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com
Article written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.