What are you practicing?
Is it something you want more of?
Is it a story that serves your soul, your community, your comfort?
Is there some direction you want to grow, but haven’t taken steps?
A friend once said to me, ’Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect.’ He was referring to yoga postures, but this applies to everything we do. We have creative power, an ability to direct our growth that continues through life. This is encouraged in children, but sadly adults often forget, and fall into routine, forgetting this power in the exhausting process of life. We learned at school to listen to outside authority, obey rules, repeat what we were told, play it safe. These were the keys to success in school and early life. As adults, crushed under the weight of responsibility, demands of life, forgotten in the habits of consuming stories of heroes, we forget that we are the hero of our own journey. Of course we need to invest in stability at our roots, build relationships, achieve some material comforts, but that comfort feels hollow unless we continue to grow toward light at your leaves.
Common beliefs keep adults from branching out, telling us that risks outweigh the benefits, or some other excuse that keeps us from pursuing the natural curiosity of youth. We are told that certain skills must be learned as children, but is it true? I’ve always been one to test beliefs by throwing myself into the great laboratory of life. Here’s a few experiments:
At the age of 25, I moved to China, and slowly learned the language while working and studying. After 4 years of fumbling, I’d say I was comfortably fluent in my field. I spoke Chinese about 80% of the time, managing a yoga studio full of local staff and students. In a wholly foreign language to that of my roots, I taught classes, made friends, spoke to neighbors, and paid my bills. To the embarrassment of my language tutor, I even did a few TV interviews in my imperfect Mandarin. The high point of my abilities came after speaking with a blind man for 30 minutes. He was surprised when I told him I was a foreigner! I spoke about all sorts of things, engaging with life in this novel way with few failures, always encouraged by those around me when I forgot a word. Still, I found it amazing when I sat to watch TV, that I could understand almost nothing. I cannot read the characters. Still, this tool that was far from perfect served me so well. I moved out of China almost 10 years ago, but the skill comes in handy in the most unexpected ways. Last year, I was in Sydney for a wedding. On my very first day in the country, there was an accident on the public bus I took across town. The asian lady standing next to me was thrown to the front of the bus when it came to a sudden stop. She wasn’t responding to our questions as we sought to evaluate her injuries. I had no idea who she was, but tried to speak to her in Chinese. She lit up and answered my questions. I ended up translating for the paramedics when they arrived, then calling her husband on the phone to tell him the news. What a great feeling it was to offer support in this trying time, sharing this most unexpected skill in a time of need.
At 30, I picked up a guitar for the first time. I was living with musicians, and watching them play jazz every night. Some part of me longed for the immersive focus I saw in them as they played. One day, I found myself plucking away on my new guitar in the silence of my apartment. I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t play, or even enjoy it. Still, my curiosity was strong enough to push me through initial waves of futility. I learned a chord here, a finger technique there, watching those I knew. Slowly, the painful fingers and frustration gave way to fluency through sheer will of repetition. I started to learn simple songs and notice how things fit together. Through google, I found chord patterns and tablature to favorite songs. Eventually, I found a teacher who showed me a few things. Then another one… and the process continues. I still don’t know music theory very well, nor do I play scales, but I can play some complicated things well enough to close my eyes and enjoy. It’s the most therapeutic practice I know, easily correcting my darkest moods. This tool, though far from perfect, serves my creative mind, gets me back in tune when life pulls me out, and allows me to share my song.
At 32, I learned Portuguese by spending time immersed in Brasil. I had studied Spanish in school, so the grammar came quickly, but the rhythm and sound of this language is unique. I was living in a community of artists and musicians who don’t speak a word of english. I’d found my way there through mutual friends in my field of holistic wellness. I was impressed with the musical genius and overall vibe of the group, and knew I wanted to learn more. That said, gotta learn the language. Like China, it was an intense process of trial and error. For weeks, I sounded like Tarzan as I mangled the serene flow of Portuguese. We’d all have a laugh, they’d correct me, I’d go home to study some more grammar, listening to language lessons and cutting through resistance in the learning process. It was rough for a month, and I was exhausted, often withdrawing my attention because I simply had no idea what they were talking about. Then, one day, something shifted. I had my first dream in Portuguese. From that point on, it was all easy. I met a girl and spoke with her for 4 hours about all sorts of complicated topics, amazed that our mental link helped me communicate even as my language skills were lacking. I spoke in front of the group. I had deepening conversation, even counseling a friend or two. Somehow, with motivation and exposure, I was now speaking through a different part of my mind, a part more musical and poetic. The character of the place and people opened me in other ways as well, giving great big hugs all day, telling jokes, participating in a culture quite different from that at my roots. By pushing open the channel, I developed new ears, new tongue, new me. This opened a door to a whole universe of music and friendship, opening me to new rhythm, new ways to express myself in the graceful poetry of Brazil.
I’m now 40, and curious about so many things I find it hard to choose where to grow next. I’m also painfully aware of the forces that close it down, the culture that makes me dull, the experience that makes me a know-it-all. At all times, I am tempted to withdraw, dry up, play safe, be reasonable, and otherwise die to inspiration. Beneath all that fear, however, lies something authentic in me. It yearns to shatter misconceptions, find common ground with the most uncommon people and places, remember that this world is safe for those who choose to explore it.
Common belief told me I had to learn all language and music skills in my childhood. Had I followed this, I would never dare to grow. Had I listened to the status quo, I would fear the learning process, and shy away from the unknown. Following the prescribed path requires so little curiosity, and part of us suffers. Life is nothing but a collection of stories. Most hold us in a pattern that is comfortable, away from risk. We get by, but something in us dies. Like a muscle that grows weak from lack of use, our wonder atrophies, replaced by cynicism. Remembering past failures, our inner critic shuts down curiosity before it has a chance to act. We even criticize others who dare to create or ask questions because it forces us to examine our own choices. Childlike wonder is magic. We have it available to us at all times. We simply have to indulge the whisper of new direction, endure the embarrassing clumsiness of early attempts. Pushing through, we find ourselves larger, more alive, capable of more than we were told. The space of wonder is where I long to dwell, embracing the mystery, present to all colors that life delivers. And it is this place, dear reader, that I hope you will join me.
It is unattainable, and more often than not, setting perfection as a goal will stop you from taking the sloppy first steps. Perfectionism is fear masquerading as wisdom. You must risk appearing a fool, making mistakes. Any creative process is bound to be messy. Stepping out into the unknown is the only path to cultivate the wonder we all seek. There’s no telling how you will grow, or what unexpected treasures lie waiting.
“What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe