Finding effective practices

When we want to build participatory knowing—the dynamic relationship between action and context—we talk about practices. Your meditation practice, practicing law or medicine, religious practices. When we do, it's easy to think about the actions we do inside of the practice, but each practice is tightly couples with a context that gives the actions themselves importance.

A practice consists of:

  1. A "base" starting place,
  2. using set of techniques—following a defined path
  3. to achieve a specific outcome.

For many kinds of practices—yoga, martial arts, meditation, many therapy modalities—understanding these components will explain why some practices "work" and others don't. Many practice failures stem from a misunderstanding or misapplication of these aspects.

Starting place

Nuclear physics would be quite difficult to understand—much less apply effectively—if you hadn't learned chemistry prerequisites. And if science in general doesn't resonate with you, then learning this is likely a waste of time.

The starting place is a set of prerequisites or a place of common understanding that practices assume you'll start with. Sometimes, these are be well-defined, and sometimes a bit implicit (what are the prerequisites for that local Tuesday evening Yoga class?). Either way, not every practice is for every person, because we're all in different places. The Western approach to treatment and medicine isn't used to thinking about these; we expect something to work (surely the techniques would work if they're good!). But the techniques themselves cannot be separated from where they operate from and what the seek to accomplish. We can't separate the act from the context.

Each practice assumes a common ground. This may be related to interest, cognitive development, physical fitness, belief system, or knowledge. My wife is training for endurance trail races, and uses a plan designed for existing trail runners to be ready for a race of a certain distance at a certain date. It's not useful to someone who has never run a 5k, or doesn't need to train high-elevation climbs.

If you're not at the right base, the techniques may not make any sense, and you're most likely wasting your time. Worst case, you're actively inhibiting future progress by confusing the function and path that you're on.

Techniques, defining a path

Techniques define a path that can be followed with practice. In areas of historical successful pedagogical development, deliberate practice techniques arise. These allow the practitioner to put in the time, do the work, and usually get to the right outcome. Many popular paths have deliberate practice plans available: there's many books that prescribe straightforward meditation paths, increasing flexibility and strength is well-understood, and learning medicine happens within an established context. Occasionally, the main techniques allow for deliberate practice, and exceptions are handled separately — such as with a teacher or mentor.

Deliberate practice isn't always possible. In less-defined domains, or those without a history of pedagogical development, the base may be poorly defined, techniques may be less rigid, and the outcomes are more nebulous. Practice may look more like working more loosely with a coach or teacher, and developing rich experience over time. As you gain experience and encounter exceptions, you develop tacit knowledge.

Usually, paths imply a specific and useful model of the world: ideas that are likely true, or at least useful to adopt. Some practices have more of this than others. Learning linear algebra doesn't require adopting a religious belief system of vector spaces. But other practices do have fundamental principles that have quite opinionated views of the world—for example, how trauma works and is processed. These principles should make sense to you; ideally literally, but sometimes just metaphorically. Before following a path, explore whether the principles are compatible with your understanding and experience of the world.

The Suzuki Method is a music training method that assumes anyone can develop musical talent. The method is clear, reproducible, and has few caveats. Teachers are important, and facilitate filling in gaps in knowledge. This method adopts clear principles of music learning: saturation in music is important, learning by ear first is important, memorization of music is expected, play should occur in groups, etc.

The techniques may not even try to convince you of these principles. Instead, they're adopted by the learner, trusting that they are indeed practically useful.

Specific outcomes

Practices should have clear outcomes that they're working towards. This seems obvious, but in many self-mastery practices, the clear and specific outcome isn't often well-defined. Making this harder, outcomes may be difficult to understand for someone who hasn't achieved them — so practitioners may chase nebulous and perhaps unrealistic ideals of what may be possible.

You want the techniques to actually work. Looking at people who were at the right base and practices the techniques, did they arrive to the desired outcome? Do you like where this path takes people?

Before starting a path, be clear about what you want to accomplish, because names for things may be overly broad. "Playing music" may mean jamming with friends in a garage, or performing with a symphony. The paths to achieve each of these look quite different!

When you adopt a specific meditation practice, are you clear what the goals are and where following this path leads? The Headspace and Calm apps teach meditation, but are far simpler and have less dependencies than learning from a Buddhist lineage teacher. They're making no metaphysical claims, and the principles are light. There's nothing wrong with this, but this "meditation" is quite different from what Shinzen Young is talking about here — so the outcomes will likely vary quite a bit.

In the next post, we'll consider different branches of meditation, which is about as nondescript as "exercise". What do they assume about the world? What are they trying to get to? Understanding different meditative practices through this lens cleared up my misconceptions, and helped me choose a path that worked for me.

This two part series draws primarily from David Chapman's Vividness web book, Cedric Chin's Tacit Knowledge series, and Shamil Chandaria's The Bayesian Brain and Meditation presentation.

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