Thursday, October 14, 2010


A lot of things I do seem to share common elements. In playing improvised music, practicing Kokikai aikido and yoga, there is lots of stuff, call it "technique," that must be learned by practicing over and over (maybe not quite 10,000 hours, but it sometimes feels that way).

Yet you can practice all those hours and still not tap the richness of the art unless you include something more. This "something more," I think, is developed with a practice that incorporates paying attention. Paying attention means just being aware without judgment. In playing the piano, that means listening with an open heart and mind, and not clinging to anything you just played. Just continuing to listen. And in self-defense, yoga, dancing, art, basketball, marksmanship - although I'm not experienced with all of these, I think there are many similarities.

As I get better at paying attention, I can perceive physical tension that's unnecessary and let it go. I can be more aware of everything that's going on around me (whether that's listening to the rest of the band in jazz, or being aware of my attacker in aikido). As I let go of judgmental thoughts, I can devote more of my mind to what I am doing.

The great thing about paying attention is I can practice it anywhere. I used to think of my 40 minute commute as an annoyance. Now I think of it as a way to practice the piano. Or aikido. or yoga. or _____(fill in your favorite practice).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to tie your shoes

My cousin Michael taught me how to tie my shoes. The thing is, he taught me about 3 years ago.

He noticed that the bow on my shoelaces was vertical, not horizontal. He pointed out that this meant I was tying a granny knot, not a square knot. "Who cares?" I asked. "Do your shoelaces come untied all the time?" "Well, yes, but I thought everyone's did." Not so, apparently.

He showed me the simple trick to fix it, which is that when you cross the laces over each other the first time, just switch the way you usually cross them. Then you do the loops (some people call these the "bunny ears") the same way as normal. Voila! Perfect shoelaces that don't come untied! (Well, not nearly so easily, anyway.)

What's my point? Always keep an open mind. After all, I thought I already knew how to tie my shoes.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The power of subtle thoughts

Gil Fronsdal, in one of his online dharma talks, (I'm not sure, maybe this one) spoke about the power of subtle thoughts. He described how, in the early days of his practice of meditation, he became interested in the idea of "falling in love." Because his meditation practice involved noticing the thoughts that came into his mind, he was able to distinguish a point when his thoughts about someone changed, when he thought, "Ah, this woman has such and such qualities. I could be in love with her." It was after that decision that he began the process of "falling in love."

Many forms of meditation practice (including traditions such as Zen, Vipassana and others) involve mindfulness or "noticing" of the types of thoughts that come to mind as we sit. Many people find as they practice in this way that they are gradually more able to distinguish these subtle thoughts. This can lead to a sense of having more power or control over one's life, because normally we don't "hear" these subtle thoughts, we just obey the emotions they generate. So separating them gives us the ability to decide whether or not to act. Just think: If you had not fallen in love with that guy who was sooo bad for you...If you had not yelled at that police officer...if you hadn't spent all your money on that dress...

In addition to keeping you from doing bad things, there are many constructive results of distinguishing subtle thoughts. I may not realize how often I repeat to myself: "I am so clumsy," or "I hate practicing the saxophone," or "I will never get ahead in this job." When I can recognize this thought, and realize that it's just a thought, not a reality, I can see that perhaps I am not clumsy. I can allow myself to enjoy practicing. I can see the opportunities for advancement that I ignored.

The extraordinary "success coach" Tony Robbins is fully aware of the power of our subtle thoughts and narratives. He works on teaching people how to rewrite those inner narratives so that his clients can get what they really want. And he's got a lot of happy clients.

If you need more incentive to try meditation, how about: getting everything you want? Would that be enough of a motivation?