Practical Discipline

The Practicing Mind

The Practicing Mind

There was a sense of freedom in knowing that I would never run out of room to grow. There was peace in knowing the race was over. Where I was right now was just where I should be, given the amount of effort I had expended. I saw the wake behind my boat for the first time, and I realized I was moving ahead, and pretty quickly, as a matter of fact. But the most important truth revealed to me in that moment was this: My real joy was found in my ability to learn to experience my growth, moment by moment. The process of discovering the ability to create music that had always been within me was the goal, and I achieved that goal in every second I was practicing. There were no mistakes being made, just a process of discovering what worked and what didn’t. I was no longer struggling up a mountain toward some imaginary musical summit that would make my life complete. I realized the infinite nature of music, and I was relieved instead of intimidated or frustrated.

— Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life

“Habits are learned. Choose them wisely.” So notes Thomas M. Sterner in his recently re-published book The Practicing Mind, now available from New World Library. Sterner is a pilot, golfer, and jazz pianist, and has written this book as a handy guide to the spirituality of establishing a discipline and learning a skill. Given his own background, many of the illustrations in the book come from his own relationship with music, starting with his aborted attempts to master a music instrument as a young child, followed by the journey of practice and discipline that he embraced as a youth.

I use the analogy of playing a musical instrument all the time to help anchor the “practice” dimension of the contemplative life. We are not all Mozarts, but we all have beautiful music to make. Practice then becomes the essential tool to giving birth to our capacity to make such music. But as someone who has his own troubled relationship with playing a musical instrument (!), my analogy has been, for me, more of an abstract illustration than something truly forged in my gut. The truth of the matter: somehow I have managed to establish a discipline of silent prayer, messy and imperfect though it may be; but I have failed more than once to take playing a guitar beyond the most rudimentary of chords. Why?

Sterner’s book offers its promise right on the front cover: “Master any skill or challenge by learning to love the process.” There’s a profound paradox here: for in learning to, say, golf or play the guitar, naturally one wants to reach a level of proficiency (be good enough to play with friends, for example). And yet, exclusive or excessive focus on the goal of learning a new skill can be a subtle way of sabotaging the process of learning. Until we fall in love with the process, we will find ways — subconsciously or consciously — to undermine it, which of course keeps the goal ever elusive.

Yeah, sure, plenty of proficient musicians are walking around who reached their competence by enduring hours of practice as a kid, for no other reason than mom and dad made them practice, day in and day out. Such externally-driven discipline can pay off, at least on some level. But I wonder how many Eric Claptons or Jerry Garcias reached their peak by learning under the command of a vigilant parent? My guess is, not too many. Rather, what sets the masters apart from the rest of us is that, even at a very young age, they found an inner-directed motivation to practice, to learn, to grow, to establish discipline. As one friend of mine, who has enjoyed a successful career as a session musician, laughingly notes, “My parents gave me a Sears guitar when I was in seventh grade. And my social life died at that moment, because all I cared about from then on was learning to play the guitar.” He played for hours every day — his mother hand to harangue him to do his homework, to go to bed, even to eat his supper. He loved the process and it took him to a place where he could play music professionally.

The Practicing Mind is filled with contemplative common sense. Discipline is shaped “by how you look at it.” Four keys to the practicing mind are simplicity, smallness, shortness and slowness. In other words, keep things down-t0-earth (humble). Focus on the present moment. Become like children. Even the passage on meditation in chapter 7 where Sterner describes it as a means for accessing “the silent Observer within you” reminded me of the teachings of Fr. Anthony at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, who describes the spiritual life as learning to bask in the gaze of the Divine Onlooker!

I don’t know if Sterner’s book can work miracles — check back with me in a year or two to see how my guitar playing is progressing! But his insights into the dynamics and nature of establishing a spiritual, inward-directed love for discipline and positive habits, has application not only for mastering an artistic craft, but also for aspiring contemplatives. Like it or not, there is a prosaic, quotidian dimension to a daily practice of contemplative sitting. Every morning and evening, no matter how you feel, how clear (or cluttered) your mind might be, how willing you are to make the effort to behold the silence within, the spacious dimension between and beneath your mental chatter. Learning to play an  instrument or master a sport has a fairly measurable goal to it: but contemplation, where even for the most advanced practitioners no guarantee of a “mystical experience” is ever offered, is the discipline where learning to love the process is the most essential for the happiness and success of the practitioner. So if your commitment to being still and knowing God runs into a plateau or a dead end, check this book out: it just might offer you insight into how to consent to a more engaged, present, loving acceptance of the moment by moment beauty of the contemplative process, breath by breath by distracted breath.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.