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Have you ever feared you’ll never excel at a skill or reach a goal you set? Have you ever judged yourself or your efforts as “not good enough,” creating a sense of paralysis? Or how about this: Have you ever felt so eager to excel that the process became stressful and unsatisfying?
In his book The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, Thomas M. Sterner explores how to “master any skill or challenge by learning to love the process,” as the cover reads.
Sterner has mastered quite a few challenges; he’s a concert piano technician, an accomplished musician, a pilot, and a golfer—and he’s learned how to practice each skill with a focus on the present.
Sharing personal anecdotes, insights, and lessons, Sterner teaches us how to simplify and concentrate on the task at hand; break goals into smaller, more manageable steps; and slow down so that we can give our full attention to each step along the way.
I highly recommend The Practicing Mind to anyone who wants to find more joy in the process of working toward their goals, and in doing so increase their effectiveness.
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1. What inspired you to write The Practicing Mind?
I was always learning new skills growing up. However, my creative mind was very unbridled and so it didn’t want to stay with any one endeavor for very long. I was undisciplined and lacked perseverance.
Perhaps what saved me was that even at a young age, I was aware that I was stuck in this pattern of behavior that made me feel disempowered in regards to my own destiny. In my late teens, I set out to better understand why I operated in a manner that was not serving me well and to figure out how to change it.
That first led me into an extensive study of eastern thought and meditation, starting in college, and later into western studies of peak performance and modern sports psychology. The culmination of what I learned and how it transformed me led to the book.
2. In Chapter 1, you wrote that our culture is built on multitasking. Do you think it’s possible to multitask without sacrificing mindfulness? And if so, how?
I need to expand on the word multitasking. Yes, our culture is built on this concept because we are constantly trying to increase productivity. However, multitasking, as we think of it, does not exist. We really don’t do multiple things at the same time at the level of our brain.
What we do is more accurately described as “switch tasking” because our brain must stop each process it is currently working on before starting a new one. It is very linear in nature. This happens so quickly that it feels as if we are doing multiple things at once but in reality we are not.
This constant stopping and starting not only costs us enormous amounts of energy over time, it causes our energy to be very scattered instead of being focused. Ironically, when we are more mindful and present in our activity, we are operating more in harmony with how our brains naturally function.
So I would have to say that trying to multitask interrupts a more natural state of mindfulness.
3. In Chapter 2, you explored our instincts to focus on the fruits of our labor, as opposed to the process itself. How can we let go of outcomes and still work toward specific goals?
I don’t know if it is really our instinct to focus on our goals. I think we are taught this unhealthy mindset by our culture and the modern marketing media. Ideas like, “When you get a certain automobile, when you can afford a certain life style, when you look a particular way, then you will feel happy” are programmed into us constantly.
There is much profit to be made when those feelings exists within us. Along with that programming comes the feeling that we cannot be happy without those things. We are taught to be very attached to our goals. This mindset creates and reminds us that there is a void between where we are and where we want to be.
We must go through a process to reach any goal, but our perception and experience of that process is flexible and within our control.
I enjoy sailing, and most sailors would say, “When you have left the marina you have reached your destination.” This is because with sailing the joy is in the journey to the destination. You trim the sails for the most efficient use of the wind and in each moment the destination you have chosen moves towards you.
That process and that journey can feel effortless and joyful as you watch the sun sparkle on the water and feel the wind and sun caress your face, or you can check your watch every five minutes and curse the boat for not moving faster. The fifty miles between you and your destination remains the same with either perspective.
Your destination serves to steer your efforts, and that is enough. When you focus on the distance between you and the destination, your experience of the journey becomes one of impatience and struggle. You waste energy that could be going into observing and trimming the sails for maximum speed.
So it’s the understanding of this truth that gives us what we need to let go of our goals and to experience them flowing toward us without a sense of struggle and anxiety.
4. Later in the book, you talk about the pursuit of perfection and how it impacts our happiness. Can you speak to this a little?
This very much relates to the question on being attached to the goal. I think we all experience a sense of incompleteness at times. That experience feels like, “I am not happy and I need to get to some other place where I will be. Then this feeling will go away.”
To me, this feeling is born from a false sense of perfection and our need to achieve it—the perfect job, the perfect relationship and so on. These all refer to a static place in time and space that we can get to with a certain amount of effort.
In reality, true perfection is none of these. By nature it must be ever expanding and evolving. For the musician, for example, perfection is not the ability to play a particular complicated piece of music, even if it were possible to define it as the most difficult piece ever written.
That would mean that once the musician mastered that piece, they were done growing. They would never evolve technically or grow any deeper in their relationship with music.
True perfection is infinite in its ability to expand, which means that you don’t reach it, but instead you are there right now, simply by being in your own process of growing. This infinite nature is a gift, not a punishment.
When you can let go of the “when I get to here, things will be perfect” feeling and realize that you are already there, you give yourself the opportunity to experience perfection in every moment through your awareness of your own growth.
5. One of the main themes of The Practicing Mind is awareness. Why is self-awareness so challenging?
For me, self-awareness is being separate from our thoughts, not functioning within our thoughts. It is the realization that we are not our thoughts but the one who has the thoughts.
When I ask people to sit quietly with their eyes closed and stop thinking, most cannot. For many, this is the first time they realize that their mind produces thoughts even when their will is commanding it not to.
When we are not aware of this, our mind leads us around on a leash all day firing off thoughts for each circumstance we visit. We are then the puppets of the emotions these thoughts elicit. This is what I mean by being in your thoughts instead being the observer of your thoughts.
Awareness of this difference is most empowering because it gives you the privilege of conscious choice.
6. What’s one simple thing we can do every day to develop discipline and focus?
That’s easy—meditation. None of what I am talking about here is possible without self-awareness, and that awareness comes naturally through practicing stillness.
It’s important to remember that when you meditate, it’s the instant that you catch your mind producing thoughts without your permission and you reel it back into silence, or to your breath, that your awareness strengthens and expands. Each time you re-center your mind, you grow. No effort is lost.
Understand that if you approach developing discipline and focus as a skill that will make you happy only after you achieve a certain level of it, then you are falling back into the trap of perfection.
Your awareness of your goal and your moment-by-moment effort toward it is enough. You have already reached your destination.
Learn more about The Practicing Mind on Amazon.
FTC Disclosure: I receive complimentary books for reviews and interviews on tinybuddha.com, but I am not compensated for writing or obligated to write anything specific. I am an Amazon affiliate, meaning I earn a percentage of all books purchased through the links I provide on this site.