The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner is an excellent book, and a quick read. I listened to it on audible last fall and loved it.
The main thesis of the book is that, “Real peace and contentment in our lives come from realizing that life is a process to engage in, a journey down a path that we can choose to experience as magical…Life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort to refine the motions, both physical and mental, that compose our days.”
If our lives are one long practice session, as he says, then it is crucial that we all learn how to practice.(For example, in music lessons, or some other pursuit of excellence.) He defines practice as “the repetition of an activity with the purposeful awareness and intention of accomplishing an intended goal.
Suzuki teachers and parents are always talking about practicing. Teachers know it is essential to progress and confidence. Parents want to make it happen, but are often stuck in cycles of child resistance, over scheduled days, and comparisons.
I think if we take a step back we can find clarity by focusing on the value and beauty in the process of teaching our students and children to practice.
“Life is practice, in one form or another. Until then, I mistakenly associated the word practice only with art forms such as music, dance, and painting. I did not see dealing with a cranky child, an overburdened work schedule or a tight monthly budget as actions that required applying the same principles as learning music did…”
If this is true, that dealing with the difficulties of our daily adult lives requires practice, (a skill we can learn as children in Suzuki music lessons), then our goals can be much simpler, and achievable every day.
If we don’t get the whole song learned or we miss a day of practice, that’s alright. Perfection or rapid progress through the books is not our goal. The goal is to engage in practicing. To guide our children, and teach them how to work through difficulties by breaking them down in to simple, small, short, and slow increments. (There’s a WHOLE chapter about these four S’s: simplify, small, short, slow. Sound like Suzuki method, anyone?)
Much of the book discusses the trouble of being content with where we are in the process, and not getting too hung up on the goal. Impatient for the change, and wanting to rush the process of getting there. One analogy he shared, I think, is vital for parents and teachers to contemplate. “At what point is a flower perfect? Is it perfect when it is nothing more than a seed in your hand waiting to be planted? All that it will ever be is there in that moment. Is it perfect when it first starts to germinate unseen under several inches of soil? This is when it displays the first signs of the miracle we call creation. How about when it pokes its head through the surface and sees the sun for the first time? All its energies have gone into reaching for this source of life; until this point, it has had nothing more than an inner voice telling it which way to grow. What about when it begins to flower?” This goes on, but I think it is clear that when we pursue perfection, we always lose. Ideals are frozen and stagnant, but true perfection is “limitless, unbounded, and always expanding.” We can never reach it, because the goal will keep changing!
I found it helpful to put my own children in the place of that flower. “At what point is my child perfect? When my two year old is potty-trained? When they learn to read? When they sleep through the night?” Obviously, they were perfect to me at their birth. What changed? Only me, I changed the benchmark of perfection. I struggle to remember that exactly where they are is exactly what should be. They are perfect on every step of the way, because they need to pass through each difficulty ahead of them.
As Dr. Suzuki said, “Never hurry, never rest.”
I could probably talk about this book all day, but I will content myself to share some of the quotes I highlighted in my readings, the ones must applicable to Suzuki parents and teachers.
“[Children] live in the present moment, but not really by their own choice; it’s just how they are. There is a paradox here. What’s frustrating as an adult, with regard to teaching them to teaching them to stay in the present when they are engaged in something that requires perseverance, is that kids can’t see the point. Why work at something that requires a long-term commitment, a perception of time outside the present moment? All they know is their perspective as children. They have no concept of what lies ahead. They don’t see how discipline and effort can pay such great dividends over time, but we do. This paradox is both their and our strengths and weaknesses in the same moment.”
“Look at an activity such as piano lessons. Many children can’t see the point in practicing because they have no concept of being able to play well and the enjoyment that would bring to them. That is why they get impatient. Why do it? Adults, however, do possess an understanding of the point of practicing, and our impatience stems from the precisely opposite reason. We do have a concept of what it would be like to play well, and that is the very reason that we get impatient. We can’t play well enough, soon enough.”
“The answer is that this mindset influences everything. It is the blank page on which we draw our lives. It determines not only what we draw but also why we are able to draw.”
“The practicing mind is quiet. It lives in the present and has laser-like, pinpoint focus and accurate… 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.”
“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.”
“In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to the 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 you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away. This happens because, when your goal is to pay attention to only what you are doing right now, as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment.”
(I think this is essential for teachers and parents. We must focus on the present when we are working with our children. If we can focus on where we are right now, without judgment or “shoulds,” we can actually help the child in front of us.)
Here’s a good one:
“The instructor knows just what he or she wants the student to produce. The teacher observes the student’s actions, and when the student does something that is moving in the wrong direction, the instructor gently brings it to the student’s attention and pulls the student back onto the proper path. A good instructor does not get emotional in response to the student moving off the path. That kind of negative emotion comes from expectations, and that is not the perspective wee want to have if we are to be our own instructor. Expectations are tied to a result or product, to the thought that “things should be this way right now, and until then I won’t be happy.” When you experience these kinds of emotions, they are indicators that you’ve fallen out of the process, or out of the present moment.”
I will say that I have been a bad instructor. Many times. Letting go of expectations is hard work to do, but essential.
“We need to let go of the futile idea that happiness is out there somewhere, and embrace the infinite growth available to us as a treasure, not as something that we are impatient to overcome.”
Essential for new parents:
“What lies in wait to ambush our enthusiasm is our lack of preparation: We are undertaking an art that is infinite in its potential for growth, and because of that we need to prepare to let go of the goal of being “good” at it quickly. There is no goal to reach other than pursuing the activity.”
This is hard. I’m not going to be “good” at being a Suzuki parent quickly, nor will my child be “good” at playing the violin or piano or whatever quickly. There shall be no goal to reach other than the pursuing the activity.
“Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything. When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease. However, when you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it toward you.”
“Cheating discipline doesn’t work…To express a melody on any instrument as it comes from your heart is an experience you have to earn. The universe is not about to give that away for anything but your personal effort. As you work at the process of learning music, you spend time alone with yourself and the energy of music or whatever art form you pursue. It’s a very honorable relationship, really. You need music to express yourself, and music needs you to be expressed. You give your time and energy to music, and it returns the effort a thousandfold. A lot of the joy of expressing yourself musically is in your awareness of how much of your personal energy and stamina it took you to reach your current performance level.”
“Whether you are persevering at a diet, exercising regularly, running a marathon, or achieving another personal goal, if your task is completed with little or no effort, it means nothing.”
There are probably fifty more passages I highlighted. We could go on and on. It was way too woo-woo for my husband, but just the right amount for me. (I’m a little bit woo-woo myself. I’ll admit it.)