In modern Western society, we’re taught from a young age to set goals for ourselves and to work toward them until they’re achieved. You see this in our schools, in which there is more value placed on the marks students earned than on what they have actually learned and retained. We focus on this in sports in which the results of games or matches are what receive praise or denigration. The problem with this goal-oriented focus is that it doesn’t necessarily give you better results, and it makes the entire experience less engaging and fun. This can be especially true in one’s training in the martial arts.
How Goals Can Gut You
In Thomas Sterner’s book, The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, he explains how being uber goal-oriented in one’s focus when it comes to learning a new skill causes anxiety surrounding the activity. One’s lack of ability in the present moment becomes highlighted when a person practices, reminding them how they aren’t at the level of ability they wish to achieve. This makes practice an unpleasant experience, which leads people to avoid doing it, because of the way it makes them feel. This is a tragic irony as practice is the only thing that can get the person to where they want to be. And even if a person has the constitution to push on through this feeling, they miss out on the joy of being on the path and working toward their intended goal, only to discover that when they do arrive, they’re not any happier. The goal simply shifts to some other point of development and the whole process begins anew.
Learning to Enjoy the Process
The process of learning involves practice, what Sterner defines as, “the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal.” We see the process of practice almost as a “necessary nuisance we have to go through to get to our goal.” When we view practice in this way, we can become bored, frustrated, and impatient with the process of getting good at anything.
To enjoy the process, we need to become more present-minded, to appreciate every step you take in your learning as you take it. For me, as a martial artist, this means taking delight in all the things that make up my training from the moment I arrive at the dojo. As I walk in the door, I bow and recognize that I’m embarking on a new adventure in my training. I put on my uniform and converse with my fellow students who are joining me in that day’s adventure. I bow as I get on the mats, taking the time to enjoy just being there in the training space, before the training even begins. The ritual meditating and bowing at the start of class allows me to let any lingering cares or worries fall away so I can focus my energy more completely on my training. Warm-up not only prepares my body for the activity of training. It also allows me to mentally connect with my body and become aware of how it feels on the day. Perhaps I have sore muscles in a particular area or an injury that might require adjustments in my training. Warm-up gives me time to take note of these things and give them extra attention.
I use the same mentality when it comes to training actual martial arts techniques. I put my mind on the technique I’m currently training and try to experience it fully. This is part of the reason why I prefer not to talk too much in between applications. I’ll only usually talk a little to provide or receive feedback. When you focus too much on discussing results, it distracts you from what it takes to improve: active practice. Training in this manner makes the martial arts a wonderful way to distract one’s self from the pressures and demands of every day life and the constant mental chatter that causes stress and anxiety. It makes practice more enjoyable. All the pressure drops away because your primary goal is simply “to pay attention to only what you are doing now” so that you are “achieving your goal in each and every moment,” as Sterner puts it. This in turn can make it easier to actually achieve the goals you do have in relation to your training.
Using Goals as a Rudder
Being process-oriented doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have goals. Goals provide direction in your training and meaning to your practice. Being process-oriented means detaching yourself from the outcome of your practice and simply observing and adjusting your technique as you practice. There are no mistakes and no judging. The goal is simply a rudder that steers your practice, as Sterner puts it. Each time you perform a technique, you gently steer yourself toward improved application, with guidance from your instructor and/or training partner. Then, as you get to know harder techniques over time, you’ll have an “AHA!” moment where it starts to fall into place. Read more in my last week’s blog post, The “AHA!” Moment: Moving Past Mental Blocks.
Sterner summarizes the raison d’être of his book so beautifully in this passage: “This process bring us inner peace and a wonderful sense of mastery and self-confidence. We are mastering ourselves by staying in the process and mastering whatever activity we are working on. This is the essence of proper practice.”
Mastery: The Unattainable Goal
One of the things I like about the martial arts is that you can keep learning from them for an entire lifetime and never complete your training. There is no such thing as complete mastery, a state of perfection in which no improvement is possible. There is always something to be learned from your teachers, your training partners, your own teaching experiences and your internal self that allow you to understand the martial arts more fully. But this comes from ongoing practice. If you don’t find the enjoyment of the process of practice, you’ll probably hate the idea that complete mastery is unattainable. Perhaps this means re-framing your mentality toward training. Or if you find this impossible, it may mean finding another activity in which it is possible. Sadly, many people jump from one activity to another never finding satisfaction in any endeavour over the long-term. But when you do find yourself able to do it in one thing, you’ll quickly learn that you can do it for anything else if you truly want to. And what an amazing revelation this is when you do.
I highly recommend Thomas Sterner’s Book, The Practicing Mind. A great read for any martial artist. You can pick it up through any of the following:
Now over to you. What do you do to help yourself be more process-oriented in your personal development? Please share your experiences in the comments. 🙂