I recall the time when I relived the experience of practice. It was 2005, and I had registered to live in a Zen monastery for a month. Having studied for five years I presumed an understanding of Zen. I spoke with a monk, sharing my perception of a Zen concept. He smiled and simply asked, how often do you sit?

In that moment I got clear that whatever I thought I knew, it wasn’t Zen; the knowing of which comes from direct experience through practice.

Practice and Performance

That Zen moment transported me back to my adolescence as a musician, playing guitar or bass in our school’s jazz ensemble, or percussion in our marching band. My practice involved daily rituals with scales, beats, tone, form, melodies, syncopation, reading, etc.

In class, we focused on selected pieces and measures to prepare for a few performances each semester. That level of attention, focus, and rigor sustains me today when I write, listen, or enjoy the details of life. If not for music, I might not have heard that Zen monk, and shifted to practice for the sake of practice.

In any performance-based endeavor, practice is the important element that allows for continual growth, discovery, and expansion as well as honing skills and acuity. Artists, writers, photographers, athletes, and actors practice 90% to realize 10% performance.

Businesses, however, favor performance over practice, where as little as 10% practice must sustain 90% performance. So then how in this day of vast change can we expand capacity, continually adapt to new situations, sustain performance, and enhance quality and creativity?

George Leonard, author of Mastery, asks “How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. If you’re planning to embark on a master’s journey, you might find yourself bucking current trends in American life. Our hyped-up consumerist society is engaged, in fact, in an all-out war on mastery.”

Those words describing American life in 1992 are even truer today.

Practice and Knowing

In the desire to perform more, better, and faster, we’ve replaced practice with concepts, and reduced experiences to knowledge. Through technology, tasks, and transactions, we think that we know the map of life without ever experiencing its territory. Worse yet, we mistake our construct for direct experience, keeping us from the power of education that arises out of discovery.

Sadly, our American business culture has over time, lost the appreciation of practicing, training, apprenticeship, imagination, and the cultivation of quality from sustained ritual.

We should follow the example of luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, who while struggling to find technicians to repair its expensive wristwatches, offered a practice rather than a job. In 2018, they opened a school at its New York office to train a new generation of watchmakers, in the practice of watchmaking where students spend “the first quarter of coursework around exercises centered in patience, designed to train focus”.

Japanese managers term this type of sustained practice, Kaizenor continuous improvement. Rooted in their culture, it seeks out long-term practice-based processes to facilitate small, incremental changes for improving efficiency and quality.

The Discipline in Quality

Though seemingly lost in organizational life, discipline in practice is a tenet appreciated by artists, writers, photographers, athletes, musicians, and performers. People often marvel at processes employed by writers, or routines practiced by athletes. These processes begin with discipline.

Writer’s write. They string ideas together every day. They pound out words to knead them into stories, read other writer’s tales, observe the details of life, and hone skills to capture reality, much like a photographer captures a moment. A magazine photographer may take 3000 to 4000 shots to capture the right moment. And yet they practice a lifetime to recognize that moment.

In his book We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates ruminates on practice: “I wanted a certain voice for the piece, a certain beat—again, I could hear it, but I could not capture it. Now I know that this was part of the process, that this was part of the practice, and with every effort I drew closer to manifesting the music in my head.”

The Value of Technique

In times of disruption and distraction, our firm embraces these 12 Zen guides for timeless reflections, which we use as the basis of our firm’s contemplative practice. Like Zen monks who honor practice as the context for living each day, we believe a life of practice begins with technique to hone form.

1. Do one thing at a time.
2. Do it slowly and deliberately.
3. Do it completely.
4. Do less.
5. Put space between things.
6. Develop rituals.
7. Designate time for certain things.
8. Devote time to sitting.
9. Smile and serve others.
10. Make cleaning and cooking become meditation.
11. Think about what is necessary.
12. Live simply.

Practicing Life

What if we took everyday life and engaged it as practice? What if we used seemingly ordinary and repetitive chores to improved human qualities? How does raking leaves or slicing potatoes prepare us for our way in life? Consider this:

  • Washing dishes can be meditative.
  • Caring for plants hones cultivation and elegance.
  • The practice of balancing my checkbook fosters accuracy.

Repetitive tasks focus our attention on the nature of an object which in turn serves to reveal its qualities. Engaging in ritual reveals the way we perceive, and the clarity of our focus. In all these instances, we practice life. Practice becomes a way to discover the quality of life.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to elites in any field as finding love with what they do, and at some point, it no longer feels like work.

“The elite don’t just work harder than everyone else. At some point, they fall in love with practice to the point where they want to do little else. Elites, by their very nature, fall in love with practice that naturally leads to mastery.”

The elite software developer is the programmer who spends all day pounding code at work, and after leaving work they write open-source software on her own time.

The elite football player is the person who spends all day on the practice field with their teammates, and after practice goes home to watch game films.

The elite physician listens to medical podcasts in the car during a long commute.

Mastering Our World Anew

Only through practice for the sake of practicing can we master our world anew.

  1. Practice to Practice to gain mastery. Gaining mastery is different from attaining perfection. Perfection is at odds with practice or mastery because it does not allow for mistakes. Mistakes point to the very practices that pave the road to mastery.
  2. Practice to Discover for oneself. To discover for oneself is to appropriate one’s experience as one’s own. Our own discoveries empower us, locating us in our world. The path of discovering for oneself offers continual learning to illuminate newness in any situation.
  3. Practice to Reveal one’s world. Engaging practices discloses the self and the perceptions of our experiences. Often this reveals gaps in understanding. The gaps along the way find us not only traveling a path, but we begin to be used by our path.
  4. Practice as a Journey from challenge to joy. Modern society can conspire against practice on the road to mastery by cultivating the need for instant gratification or results. We will experience time on a plateau where we don’t see improvements and can become frustrated. We may improve, and then get a little worse and return to another plateau. Still, this plateau is an improvement over our previous plateau.

Practice for the sake of practicing nets the reward of mastery, discovery, revelation, and joy.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.