A Practice of Practice

One day, a few months ago, I was sitting at my desk minding my own business when the phone rang. It was my beloved. As usual, he cut right to the chase: “Babe, come downstairs and help me unload the van.”

This is how Billy operates – no details, no backstory, no explanation. He engages people by forcing them to ask obvious questions like “Why are you driving a van?” and “What’s in the van that needs unloading?” This is especially true when he has a surprise up his sleeves, and after all these years I’ve learned not to steal his happiness with questions. Upon my arrival at the van, I caught a glimpse of his mischievous smile and my suspicions were confirmed: whatever was inside that van was meant for me. God help me. Knowing my part in the script, I prompted him right on cue: “Do I want to know what’s inside?” He tried to contain his enthusiasm by reciting the line he had undoubtedly waited days to say: “Why don’t you open it up and see.”

I pulled open the door to find a beautiful black upright piano.

I have wanted a piano for as long as I can remember. I used to play religiously from the age of eight until my senior year in high school. I balanced my piano lessons with dance, art, voice, and musical theatre, so it’s fair to say that my young life was full of opportunities to practice. Unlike my other artistic pursuits, where rehearsals were led, sculpted, and supervised by a teacher, the piano was something I mostly practiced at home by myself. The nature of my practice—the quantity, the potency, and the effort—was up to me. I learned how to overcome obstacles on my own by systematically returning again and again to the task at hand. No matter what I had going on in my life, I had to motivate myself to sit down at the piano—to show up—and commit to the work.

Back at the van, I climbed inside to play and it all came rushing back. Touching the keys felt like coming home. Neighbors walked by and yelled, “Chrissy! You play the piano!” (Surprisingly, no one yelled “Chrissy, what are you doing playing a piano inside a van?”) I now play the piano for almost an hour every day. I usually start each morning by sitting down to play, but I find myself gravitating to the piano when I need to think, or when I’m feeling frustrated or upset, or if I need space to relax. It has given me the means to express myself to myself.

Playing the piano has given me a greater awareness of the concept Patanjali refers to as samyama—the seamless process of dharanadhyana, and samadhiDharana is effortful concentration. In dharana, I have to continuously direct my attention to the practice. I’m acutely aware of the many distractions between me and the music: Ellie invites me to play tug of war by dropping her toys on the bench where I sit; my cell phone is buzzing somewhere off in the distance; my lofty list of things to do is looming overhead. In these moments I feel the urge to just get up and walk away—to seek comfort by indulging in the distractions.

Even the music, itself, provides its own distraction in how it challenges me to stay focused on where I am. Sometimes I get greedy and attach blindly to the goal of finishing or perfecting a piece of music. I’m learning that this is a trap. I’m so hellbent on “getting there” that I start to look for shortcuts. I’m tempted to plow awkwardly through a challenging stanza so I don’t have to endure the painstaking process of understanding the notes. This never works. If I deny where I am, I suffer, and I inevitably circle back and end up right where I started. I’m literally forced to commit, again, to the practice.

 

Eventually (if I’m lucky) the effort to stick with it becomes effortless and I’ll find myself completely absorbed in what I’m doing. I’m pulled deeper into the experience where the only things that exist are me, the piano, and the music. I arrive at a place of understanding and the piece starts to come together. This is dhyana, or effortless concentration.

And then, there are those rare perfect moments when I become the music—when there’s no distinction between me, the piano, and the sound. I experience a feeling of freedom within the music where I completely lose myself. I’m totally unaware of which keys I’m hitting; the pattern of my fingers has been engraved into my nervous system. If I break the trance at all by thinking about what I’m doing, I get completely lost and can’t for the life of me find my way back; it’s as if I’ve never seen the notes before! It’s only when I step out of the way and allow myself to become a conduit that the notes release their secrets. This is a kind of samadhi, of oneness.

This sense of oneness cannot be willed. It arrives through diligent, consistent, and heartfelt practice. Playing the piano has reminded me just how valuable it is to practice practicing. It has affected almost every other aspect of my life: my relationships, where I now seem more willing to abide in the intensity of reactionary patterns; teaching, where I feel simultaneously more patient and persistent; writing, where I’m finding techniques to stay focused despite my habit of conceding to writer’s block; to my house chores, where I’m realizing no amount of bad attitude will make any of it any easier. It seems my whole life is actually one big practice.

Practicing gives us the tools to find harmony with whatever arises on the journey; the work leads to ease. Practice prunes us to stay the course. And when we’re pulled off the path, practice offers us the grit and courage to find our way back. Never mind the goal. If it’s worthy and good for the soul, your heart will never lose sight of it. Commit, instead, to embracing where you are and then take action with the tools you have in front of you.

Opportunities to practice arise in unexpected places. Mine showed up in a van. How do you practice? To what do you devote yourself constantly, consistently, and with great heart? How does this practice inform the greater practice of your life? This is your yoga—your journey; it’s a practice of practice.

Chrissy
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  • Thanks for welcoming me into your h(om)e.

    May this meditation help you find the peace within. I look forward to sharing more inspiration and goodies with you in my regular newsletters.

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