“Nobody can be anybody without somebody being around.”
John Wheeler

The Element

Learning Curves

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Shakuhachi is a challenging instrument to play because it only has 5 holes. The range of notes you can play depends on subtle variations of blowing technique. One of the challenges a beginning player faces is playing higher octaves. I can’t do this yet – but I do play around with it all the time. This morning focused on this – and still nothing! So I did some (re)searching online for tips and advice how to do this.

My searching led me to a blog post by Bas Nijenhuis (who’s blogĀ  I enjoy visiting from time to time) titled Wavering Motivation. This is something I’ve experienced in Yoga andĀ  in Shakuhachi practice. When I’m fortunate enough to not get overwhelmed by it – I recall some supportive teachings I have received about this in Yoga – and it helps me.

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When people first come to Yoga, it is relatively easy to experience change – the very fact that they are there, moving and breathing is an achievement. Sometimes there are achievements such as noticeable improvement of the breath, touching the floor when bending forward, calm and meditative moments, etc. This is the first part of the learning curve – there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from a balance of effort and reward. Each such period of “satisfaction” is followed by a period where there is no evident progress, the learning curve flattens – and motivation drops. Until sometime down the line there is an experience of progress again – in a recurring pattern.

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My experience shows that as learning progresses:

  • Periods of satisfaction (green tinted areas on the chart) become shorter.
  • Periods of low-motivation (red tinted areas on the chart) become longer.
  • As a result of which, periods of satisfaction grow further apart.
  • Achievements (which lead to satisfaction) become more subtle and refined.
  • Somewhat surprisingly – less effort is required to experience achievements (most of the effort is focused on the longer period of waiting)

Preparing for the Waiting

Longer periods of waiting are inevitable. As your practice deepens the more likely you are to experience longer and more challenging such periods. A sign of a mature and quality practice is the ability to recognize and sustain these periods gracefully:

  • Discipline is usually the first tool mentioned for these situations. It is useful to cultivate discipline during periods of satisfaction when there is a forward momentum working for you. This can be achieved by introducing regularity into your practice – forming a habit. There will be parts of the practice you love doing (usually those that give you a sense of satisfaction), and there will be others which are less interesting – some almost like chores. A balanced practice includes an effective combination of these qualities – so when the motivation drops – you will have a fall-back – you will be practiced at doing your chores. But discipline shouldn’t be over-rated.
  • Grazing – is a quality I learned in improvised performance. It is a quality of doing without expecting results. It is a mode of suspended judgment and an appreciation of whatever is present. A great way to learn grazing is watching professionals do it – so go and watch cows. They do what they do not because of a promised fruit, they do what they do, because this is what they do. Calling it “grazing” seems to give it a legitimate existence – it’s no longer something temporary we do until something better comes a long, it is a worthy action in it’s own right.
  • Playfulness is a really great ingredient to introduce in your practice. I used to take Yoga sooooo seriously – ridiculously serious. Smiling is a great technique to introduce playfulness – whenever I find myself intensely concentrated I add a smile – which softens my face and then radiates into whatever posture my body is in.
  • Softness is quality that balances effort & discipline and it usually comes bundled with grazing and playfulness. Sometimes when I teach guest classes (which means teaching only once people I don’t know) I build a practice around a theme of softness. One way to introduce this is to approach familiar practices but stopping just before your known limits – doing slightly less then what you are used to doing. It’s always proved to be a great practice. It comes in very handy when you are impatient and achievement is stubbornly pushing you into an intense practice which leads to more impatience. A touch of softness can turn that around.

In Waiting

I find that periods of waiting are delicate times (at least in the context in which I am in waiting). I tend to be protective and private about my Yoga practice when I am in waiting. I don’t talk about it with others, I don’t seek advice, I don’t try to solve it. It’s tempting to look for solutions and salvation, and it usually leads to disappointment – because there are none. Advice seems to always fall short, what works for someone else may not work for you.

If possible, I will turn to my teachers for inspiration, they have been through this too, they know me and they know how to offer a supportive presence without making false promises.

I find that this learning curve is typical of many aspects of life. Relationships come to mind, as I write these words, as another great example where I experience this curve. It’s kind of like driving on a fast downhill road and accumulating momentum for a steep uphill climb that follows. Momentum is not enough to get you up the hill, you need to know how to run the engine effectively, and hopefully remember to enjoy the view going up as much as the thrill of going down.

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