Practice does not Make Perfect…

…but it certainly helps!

Imperfection. It’s what enabled the universe as we know it to come to be in the first place. It’s a commonly held belief among astrophysicists and cosmologists that if the Big Bang’s energy had been completely uniform, we would not exist. The imperfections in the heat and dispersal of energy from the birth of our universe actually enabled gravity to take hold and enabled gasses to coalesce into denser and denser matter, enabling gravity to take hold and create stars and planets. All due to the slightest of imperfections. Imperfection, one could therefore say, is the basis of our existence.

The analogy for imperfection and how we evolve is similar: there is no “perfect” in our lives; no final “ah hah!” moment where everything falls neatly into place and we become self-actualized, pain-free, and enabled to live without challenge for the rest of our eventful, trouble-free lives. Even the most advanced meditators readily admit that they need “beginner’s mind” to maintain their practice of mindfulness and a fresher, more engaged take on living. This reminds me of the mind of a child–there is no expertise, there is no “been there done that,” there is only the moment. The eternal now.

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How we’re Wired. It just so happens that this is how we’re wired: there is a constant communication (and occasional conflict) going on inside ourselves–the modern parts of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex, manages conceptual complexity, empathy, social relationships. The more evolved Pre-Frontal Cortex works with and filters information to the more ancient mechanisms of our brains. Whether there’s a healthy balance between the many parts of our more evolved and older parts of the brain, or whether we’re trapped in fight or flight anxiety, everyone struggles with life. But there appears to be a difference between self-improvement and a search for perfection. Some among us strive the the latter (whether we admit it or not), and this often prevents a healthy balance of modern and ancient mechanisms (we can never quite meet our own expectations). But I’d wager that those who are happiest are the ones who are able to let go of that futile search, and not only tolerate imperfection, but embrace it.

As Stephen Hawking tells us in his “Universe: The Story of Everything,” our perfect little universe exists because of some very important imperfections at the birth of the place.

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Who’s in Charge Here? Most people think that their modern brains are in charge, and for the most part, day to day, they’d be right. But in certain circumstances, it’s clearly the ancient brain that takes control. Let’s say you walk into a room and happen see a dead body. You’d think that your modern brain would assess it immediately and consider what’s happening in front of your very eyes. The truth is, however, your modern brain–your pre-frontal cortex–is somewhat slow compared to, say, the amygdala–it’s bypassed by the survival mechanism in your brain, which immediately communicates with the rest of your body and prepares it for action–fight, flight, or freezing. You might feel sick to your stomach; or feel your blood pressure suddenly rise, along with your heart rate. All ancient survival responses to what your modern brain only starts to understand after a few seconds. The modern brain, you see, is much slower than the ancient brain, at least in terms of reaction times. We’re built that way to survive. Have you ever suddenly swerved out of the way of another car–that’s your ancient brain working; your modern considerate, thoughtful modern brain just doesn’t have the reaction time.  In most “healthy” people, there’s decent balance between these two different but complementary parts of our brains, but that balance can be misaligned due to trauma, anxiety, stress, and depression–all of which undermine the prefrontal cortex and empower the fight or flight mechanisms in our heads. Mindfulness meditation is well known for helping to maintain a strong pre-frontal cortex and keep harmony in the brain…

…and the way to do this–whether you embrace the mindful teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and/or “taking in the good” neural rewiring techniques of Rick Hanson–is to practice, practice, practice.


Original pic courtesy of Chatanooga and Beyond

v. prac·ticedprac·tic·ingprac·tic·es

1. To do or perform habitually or customarily; make a habit of: practices courtesy in social situations.
2. To do or perform (something) repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill: practice a dance step.
3. To give lessons or repeated instructions to; drill: practiced the students in handwriting.
4. To work at, especially as a profession: practice law.
5. To carry out in action; observe: practices a religion piously.
6. Obsolete To plot (something evil).
There is Only the Ongoing Practice of Practice. Generically, in the “mindful world,” the term “practice” refers to whatever one does to develop more mindfulness, spirituality, a deeper understandings of one’s self  For Transcendental Meditation, practice takes place once in the morning and once at the end of the day. Many people practice meditation every day at a certain time; some do it haphazardly, and some practice mindfully as much as they can throughout the day. It all depends on what you’re practicing (internalizing and “taking in the good” several times per day, as Hardwiring Happiness author Rick Hanson suggests), or striving to live life according to the tenets of a variety of Eastern beliefs, such as those posited by Thich Nhat Hanh. For others, it’s going to church once a week that does it. For the more “Eastern-oriented” among us, there’s a clear sense that daily practice–whatever that practice happens to be–is important for changing patterns of behavior and building resilience (and neural networks). But one thing is clear: there is no “perfection” at the end of practice. There is only ongoing practice. There is no terminating suffering, only creating better ways of dealing with it, viewing it, and responding to it.

The More You do Something, the More You Do Something. Integrating a practice–any practice, really–takes focus, attention, and dedication. Sounds easy, right? No, I know that it doesn’t. And the one thing that I really haven’t seen in any practice (please, let me know if you have contrary info in this regard), is a way to get people to want to practice. Now, that said, the brain will want to keep doing something after it’s done it over and over for, say, a period of three weeks (or so I’m told). As it has been famously said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Once you stop doing it, the brain’s new habit wonders why and wants you to do it. Runners and those work work out consistently are well aware of this phenomenon–do something for a long enough period of time, and not only do you “get used” to it, but you miss it when it’s not there. Same with mindful practice.

From the mindful teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh to the “taking in the good” neural rewiring techniques of Rick Hanson to the Neurosculpting methodology Lisa Wimberger–is to practice, practice, practice, so that can lead appreciating the imperfect as being just “perfect.”

There’s no better time than now, because time flies. 🙂

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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