Life Unwound: Practice makes progress

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I am really good at starting things, mainly things I hope to do better. Knit. Write books. Read French. But soon something happens, something like, “Naa, I-don’wanna.”

Then I hand over the yarn to my sister, make book-idea folders, or shelve a half-read L’Etranger. I launch into online courses, too, those that pledge to answer the very questions I ponder as the ads appear: “Achieve inner peace” or “Lose those last five pounds.”

If I join this summit or that lecture series, I often quit because I-don’wanna chant Om or drink seaweed smoothies. Mostly our instincts know what works for us anyway. So, with the self-kindness of a mindfulness student, we can note the resistance, the “I-don’wanna,” then listen for what we already know: “contact the still place within; eat more fruits and veggies.”

But insight is not enough. Results take deep intent, steady practice and over-and-over acts. We need to, perhaps, sit in silence or eat salads, today, tomorrow, the next day. Repetition creates transformation; knowledge alone does not alter behavior. We must, of course, start. Then, as neuroscientists prescribe, train with commitment. Simple. But not easy because detours happen.

Let’s say, for quiet mind and healthy body, I choose a walking workout. “Every day. Twenty minutes.”

Some experts advise us to set low, easy goals. OK, 10 minutes. Or to the mailbox and back. Day one, Saturday, around the block, done, check. Then the seductive fluorescent flyer flips out of the Sunday newspaper, screaming, “So-and-so celebrity lost all his weight with this such-and-such gadget.”

If I reflexively follow the diversion, order the gizmo without asking myself what I really want, I stop daily strolling because I get hooked into a promise. If we get hooked, thoughts can spiral. My first one pops up after my friend texts, “I’m ‘lifting’ – for a summer body.”

My brain gets scrambled with so many other fitness possibilities. Cardio. Strength. Stretching. Yoga. Pilates. Core. Crossfit. Partly due to both whirlwind monkey mind and human resistance, we derail easily. Unless I am awake to this tendency, four days elapse with no walk while I probe all these tempting options. If the pull away from intention is strong, the mind wanders. That’s normal.

The moment we notice how far we travel from our real desire, we can ask, “What really matters to me? How do I get back to it?”

Because human beings excel at starting, we begin again, as Persian poet Rumi suggests, “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, … lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

We focus yet again on our deepest desire, because it’s also normal that with no action, no practice, no repetition, no consistency, there is no progress. As the science of self-mastery teaches, if nothing changes, nothing changes. When I teach meditation to those who want to progress, someone always asks, “How long should I meditate?”

I am tempted to joke, “for your whole life.”

That’s true, though not the nature of this inquiry. I say, “Constancy is most important. Sitting daily for 10 minutes shifts neural pathways more than binge-meditating one hour on Friday. Fifteen minutes of daily walking forms habit better than weekend warrior marathons.”

Once we pay attention and land, really land, on what we want, the dizzying thought loops stop and we can carry out Nike’s advice, Just Do It.

Q: How do we build new patterns? A: Socrates: Know thyself.

Then set intention. Start. Notice the drift-away triggers. Return to focus. Start again. If and when you springboard off, wake up to the distraction. Come back yet again. Practice. Repeat.

My sister can keep the yarn. I’m going to find my sneakers.

Falmouth author Susan Lebel Young is a retired psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher. She can be reached at sly313@aol.com or at www.susanlebelyoung.com.