Would you expect to get better at golf by practicing the violin?
While the answer to this question may seem obvious, many of us put effort into one thing hoping it will result in something else. Consider one of my clients who sold his business for a personal profit of hundreds of millions. He came to see me after his tremendous accomplishment did not lead to the joy, peace of mind, or fulfilling relationships that he desired. He had put all of his time and energy into creating material wealth - something for which he had developed a great deal of skill. It had not occurred to him that accessing positive internal experiences is also a skill developed through practice. He assumed that happiness and wellbeing materializes after years focused elsewhere.
Optimal wellbeing - a combination of physical health, peak performance, peace of mind, and meaningful relationships - hinges on the consistent application of one principle:
You get what you practice.
This profoundly simple and powerful idea has been taught in every enduring wisdom tradition for thousands of years, and it is supported by a mountain of brain research. It is the Golden Rule, Karma, and modern neuroscience all rolled into one. There are some important implications of this idea.
There is what shows up and there is what you practice.
Things show up - people, weather, market fluctuations, physical sensations, thoughts, and more. Good moods and feelings can just pop up. There are also truly challenging circumstances in life - loss, illness, pain, setback, poverty, oppression, injustice, and discomfort of all kinds. No matter what shows up, humans have the capacity to create self-imposed struggle by feeding and reinforcing certain neural pathways with their behavior. We also have the ability to starve these pathways and strengthen networks that create freedom from self-imposed struggle. Making a distinction between what shows up and what you practice in response allows you to take full responsibility for your life. When you blame those around you or your circumstances for what you practice, then you give away your authentic power. No matter what shows up, it is possible to practice what you want more of in your life.
You get what you practice right now.
Common messages in modern society tell us that happiness, joy, and fulfillment result from ideal situations where people treat us the way we want them to. These messages ignore the reality that it is your nervous system that creates your internal experience. The only guaranteed way to have experiences such as kindness, gratitude, or love is to practice being kind, grateful or loving right now. At any moment you are practicing what you want more of in your life or you are practicing something else - the choice is always yours.
You get what you practice in the future.
Your brain assumes that whatever you do most frequently must be important for your survival. Therefore, your brain is constantly wiring and rewiring itself to become more skilled at what you practice most. How you respond to your circumstances - which thoughts, feelings, and actions you put energy into - shapes your brain. Be careful what you practice, because you are going to get better at it.
Bringing this principle to life
Not all practice is the same - the most effective practice requires deliberate attention, consistent effort, and useful feedback. While it is what you practice that makes the difference, support from a good teacher or coach can maximize your effectiveness. Also, putting physical reminders in your life such as notes, images, and even digital apps is extremely helpful.
A practice might look something like this:
Use your attention to see whether you are experiencing the thoughts and sensations of struggle or flow in any moment. Simply observe the events around you and the stories you tell about those events with curiosity.
Accept whatever subjective experience has shown up. When you notice the urge to suppress or indulge the events, thoughts, or sensations that have shown up, take a breath, stand or sit up straight with relaxed shoulders and belly, and smile gently with gratitude on the out breath.
Connect to the quality of life, relationships, and performance that is most important to you. Identify which immediate actions will make a positive difference in your life and the lives of the people around you.
This practice of being present, open, and purposeful is the path to freedom from self-imposed struggle. All of the energy that is dumped into struggle against what shows up is energy that cannot be used to create what is really important to you. Unwanted and unpleasant circumstances are nothing more than opportunities to cultivate what you want to have more of in your life.
Remember my client from the beginning of this post? The reason I used him as an example is because he has taken this principle for optimal living to heart. He takes complete responsibility for what he practices in his life and he aligns his efforts with what is most important to him. As a result, he now experiences levels of fulfillment, connection, creativity, and productivity beyond what he believed was possible.
Look back over the last day or week and think about when things were "going well" and when things were "going poorly." Then ask yourself these questions: What was I practicing during these different times? What was I putting my energy into? What kinds of thoughts was I focusing on? Which internal states was I accessing? What kinds of posture was I practicing? What were my actions toward others and toward my commitments? What am I practicing right now?
Have a response to this post? Let me know what you think in the comment section below.