I am often asked why practice is so important in the coaching and teaching work I do. To my credit, I resist the phrase that comes immediately to mind. You know it I’m sure. In fact it probably came immediately to your mind as well . . . practice makes perfect. Well of course we are not going for perfection but it is true that practice will make one more skillful at whatever it is they are practicing. We know from brain research about neuroplasticity, the amazing capacity to create new neural pathways as a result of doing something different over and over again – also known as practicing! It turns out you really can teach that old dog new tricks. This is very hopeful information for one whose work is all about change. So my answer to “why practice?” is that it helps us live more lovingly and skillfully. Whether the practice is meditation or learning to speak more compassionately to oneself, practice helps open our hearts and minds.
I wrote this piece for my newsletter in March. I’m posting it on my Patheos blog this week in celebration of my brother’s life. In mid January my beloved only sibling, Tom, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this kind of leukemia, it’s the one you don’t want to get. It is rare in adults and particularly virulent. Eight months ago I couldn’t spell it; now I type it out without thinking and can tell you more about it than you’d ever want to know.
For the first few weeks our family plunged into that dark hole of shock that I suspect everyone whose life has been turned upside down by a crisis knows well. After several days my husband said, “It’s been too many days so I guess this isn’t a nightmare.” Gradually we found our way out of the shock and began to grapple with the reality of the waking nightmare we were living. With the support of so many people we have adjusted to what my sister-in-law calls our “new normal.” Tom successfully completed five in-patient rounds of chemotherapy while we waited for the Stanford Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic to find a donor once we learned I wasn’t a match. Within weeks of that devastating news, we got word that Stanford had not one, but two perfect matches. By the end of June, Tom was at Stanford, one of the premier medical centers in the world, just an hour from our homes.
At three months, when I wrote the first time, I said there have been many insights. Now, at eight months, there are many more. However, top on my list remains the value of practice. This is what I’ve noticed.
The practice of learning to ask for help enabled me to assess what our family needed and ask for assistance. Rather than shouldering all the tasks as I would have in the past, I asked for food, pet care and prayers. As you might imagine, the response was overwhelming. People really want to help.
The practice of checking to see if what I’m about to say is “true, kind and necessary” helped me keep my tired, stressed self from saying things I would later regret. My brother was not the only patient in the hospital and people often say unhelpful things in their effort to be helpful. Much of the time I could breathe deeply and not snap at the nurse who wasn’t right there when needed or a well-meaning person who said that dumb comment.
Practicing meditation for many years has embedded within me the experiential knowledge that I am intimately connected to a Ground of Being that holds and supports me no matter what is happening within and around me.
My Lovingkindness practice allowed me to quiet my self-critical voice when I didn’t ask for help, snap at someone, forgot to be grateful or remember I am held not matter what! So you can see I am not saying that these practices have resulted in perfection. However I know they have changed me and they supported me immeasurably during what has been one of the most difficult times in my life.
Tom comes home tomorrow after a successful bone marrow transplant. He is fully himself again to our wonder and amazement. My practice of gratitude, which helped keep my heart open these eight months, is the easiest to practice now. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my brother and the way he navigated this experience with more equanimity than I’ve ever seen, my sister-in-law for her unfailing strength as she walked through it with him, to my husband’s steadfast love , to the magicians at Stanford who do this procedure daily with such care, and to the friends and family all over the world that supported and held us with so much love.
Most of all I am grateful for the courageous young woman who donated her stem cells to save my brother’s life. If you are under sixty and in good health, I strongly encourage you to become a stem cell donor. Check it out National Marrow Donor Program. You too could offer the gift of life.