This is the 209th article I’ve written on Medium. Most all of them have centered on spiritual matters. This one only does so tangentially. And it’s more important than all the rest.
Why? Here’s an analogy to explain. Let’s say you’re really interested in getting good at tennis. So you watch every single match you can on the Tennis Channel. You spend hours researching which racquet would be best for you. You buy Asics Gel Resolution 8 shoes, the best of the best for tennis. You watch a ton of instruction videos on Youtube. You buy the classic book The Inner Game of Tennis and learn all about the ways to overcome the mental obstacles the game presents.
To get good at tennis, play tennis!
You do all of those things…and you stink at tennis. Why? Because you haven’t done the one thing that is required to get good at tennis: PLAY TENNIS!
Those who want to get good at tennis need to devote the lion’s share of their tennis efforts to playing tennis. Not reading about it, talking about it, watching it or shelling out big bucks on the best equipment money can buy.
The same can be said for virtually any endeavor. Playing the piano, golf…anything. We need to actually perform the activity if we are to improve at it.
Prioritize practicing over learning
To all of my seeker brethren reading this, the same is true for the spiritual path. I see too many people who are more interested in learning about and thinking about spirituality than they are in actually practicing it.
This gets a bit dicey when I throw out the word spirituality and say people need to practice more. So let me be more specific. I’m not talking about religion, per se. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, et al, are all spiritual traditions but, as someone who adheres to none of them, I have no right or interest in dispensing anything resembling advice on them.
Becoming conscious by moving on from ego
The specific brand of spiritual teaching I’m exhorting people to practice would be in the vein of Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle and Michael Singer, among others. It’s mostly about moving away from our egoic selves and toward our present, conscious selves.
Is there a lot to be learned in this spiritual tradition? Sure. It’s good to become steeped in the concepts of surrender, non-attachment, non-resistance, presence and letting go, among others.
The perpetual student analogy
But I see it kind of like people who go to college, then get their masters, then get their Phd, then get a second masters in a different subject area…These people go to school forever and never actually get out and work in the worlds they’ve studied.
The same is true with spirituality. Great, listen to all of Michael Singer’s talks, read everything Ram Dass has ever written, and listen to and read everything Eckhart has ever uttered or written. I do some of that every day. But we need to know that that will only get us so far.
If we really want to reap the vast, profound benefits of this beautiful, powerful spiritual path, we need to focus most of our efforts on practicing. Practicing what? That’s another dicey avenue to travel down because we all have different techniques and practices we pursue.
My definition of practice
For me, practice means meditating every day for fifteen minutes, practicing mindfulness whenever possible during my day and last, but definitely not least, letting go of my egoic baggage when it gets poked.
My recommendation is that whatever you practice should contribute to two main areas: 1. Strengthen your ability to be present and not lost in your thought factory mind, and 2. Facilitate letting go of your egoic baggage, or samskaras as Mickey Singer calls them.
Here’s one tiny anecdote from last weekend that gives you an idea of what I mean by letting go. I’ve been a serious tennis player since the age of eight. Played juniors, then division one at Princeton. I carry a lot of egoic baggage from this lifetime of competitive tennis.
Recently I’ve been playing with an old friend who I first played in 1975 when we were kids. I like him, but there’s always a weird competitive vibe going on when we play; i.e., he gets under my skin.
Letting go of baggage on the tennis court
So the last several times we’ve played I’ve made a point of using our matches as an opportunity to let go of my baggage. If he hits an incredible shot to win a big point, I’ll stop, feel the annoying, angry, “baggagey” feeling come up, then literally close my eyes, feel myself leaning away from that feeling…and then let it go.
This is a petty, seemingly unimportant, but real-life, example of letting go of my inner ego junk. It’s the kind of stuff we need to work on every day.
And a word about practice. Many will say that practice makes perfect. But I like the twist that legendary football coach Vince Lombardi adds to this:
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
In other words, when you’re practicing meditation or letting go, or chanting, or doing whatever you do…go for it. Give it everything you’ve got. Because there’s nothing more important we can devote our time and energy to.
In the end, this article is really about one word: Emphasis. Because everyone reading this knows on some level that practicing spiritual techniques is important.
The point of this piece is to emphasize that practice is indispensable and needs to be treated as such. So if you spend 20 percent of your spiritual efforts on practice and 80 percent on reading and learning, etc., I encourage you to flip that. Go 80–20 on practice versus learning.
Frankly, it’s harder to practice than it is to learn. But if we really want to advance as human beings, that spiritual work has to be front and center.