Practice Is What You Do

What you do is practice

A thing I’ve come to appreciate about Taekwondo is how studying it helps me with the rest of my life.

Awhile ago, I was walking up a flight of stairs. I was thinking about an exercise we do at Taekwondo called “knee up.” The key to a really good Taekwondo kick, whether it’s a roundhouse kick or some other kick, is your knee. Your knee controls your aim; your foot goes where your knee points. The height of your knee controls how high you kick—knee high, kick high. A warm-up exercise is picking up your knee, chest height being the goal.

Walking up those stairs, I looked at my knee and realized the motion is similar. So, I used that knee-up motion to take the next stair. You know what? It was easier. On the next couple of stairs, I was mindful about what was going on with my leg. With knee up first, the motion started in my butt—that good old gluteus maximus—and thigh. Otherwise, I would start the motion from my foot, and now I noticed that climbing the stair felt more tiring.

Later that night, at Taekwondo, I thought about knee up. Kicking is a whole lot easier when you let your butt do most of the work.

This makes sense, is embarrassing, and is alarming all at the same time. It makes sense because the gluteus is the largest muscle, and one of the more powerful muscles, in the body. It’s embarrassing because it took me more than 55 years to notice; I assume most people pick up their legs using their gluteus rather than pushing off from their feet. I could be wrong.

It is alarming because of a recurring dream I used to have; at least, I hope it was a dream. I’m walking somewhere, and it’s taking a long time to make progress. It becomes more and more difficult to pick up each foot. After a few steps, it’s almost impossible to move. I can only shuffle forward; eventually even though I must keep moving—it’s urgent—I can’t even begin the motion to take a step.

It is alarming because it is evidence of how I used to live only in my head, not paying attention to the fact that I have an entire body to inhabit. Ben Gibbard has it right: “It is true what you say. I live like a hermit in my own head.” Was the dream real? Have I forgotten the time when I could barely walk?

At Taekwondo, I practice picking up my knee. I want to kick well, like my Masters. So now, I pick up my knee when I climb stairs.

Practice is what you do.

After my first Taekwondo class, my mind was clear and calm. I had been trying to find a way to silence the mental chatter for years. And here it happened during an hour of Taekwondo with no effort.

At bedtime, instead of listening to the chatter in my mind, I began thinking about Taekwondo. After I learned my first meditation (Mental Education), I recited it silently as I fell asleep. When I learned my first form, I developed a way to practice it mentally. I built a workout area in my mind, and I learned how to imagine myself in my body doing the form. I still fall asleep doing Taekwondo with a clear and calm mind.

Practice is what you do.

One day I was practicing a split kick, part of the second degree black belt curriculum. With Master Shin watching, I ran up to a couple of rectangular targets he had stacked for me. But instead of jumping, I stopped. As I walked back toward him, Master Shin said, “There’s no room for fear here.”

I thought about that a lot, in Taekwondo and outside of class. Anxiety and fear; fear and loathing. I began to notice the times that fear or anxiety caused me to stop. I began to silently recite a Taekwondo meditation in those moments, and the anxiety (say, while sitting in the dentist’s chair) or fear (where is my next project going to come from) began to leave me. Life is nicer when there is no room for fear.

Months or maybe years passed—it was a long time. I practiced Taekwondo the way a Zen student contemplates a koan. I don’t know why I do this, other than practicing Taekwondo feels really good.

I read some of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, as background for a book I’m working on and because it was on the entering-ninth-grade summer reading list. Gladwell argues compellingly (although there is little science to support it) that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at something. How long is 10,000 hours? There are 8,760 hours in a year, but we spend a third of that sleeping. What am I doing with those other 5,840 hours?

Regardless of whether the 10,000-hour rule is correct, whatever I’m spending 5,840 hours a year on is what I’m getting good at. What you do is what you are practicing.

I used to worry every day, ruminate even. I could worry about the fact that I was worrying. My stream of consciousness—thoughts that arise seemingly of their own volition; without a thinker, so to speak—now there’s a paradox for you—was filled with negativity about the past, myself, and my present efforts. You know the drill. It’s catalogued in thousands of songs in every genre, in books, speeches (remember moochers?), blog posts, in every needle track, in every cut on an arm or leg.

What you do is your practice.

When I think about it, I think I’d rather practice something other than negativity. Most of the time now, I don’t need to think about it. I practice Taekwondo.

Lee Chang Hoo says it best:

I clench my fist
Not to fell a firmly rooted tree,
Nor to catch a fish
Rushing into calm water,
Nor to spout flame from my soaring breast,
Nor to put on wings that
I might fly to lofty areas
But that I may enter
From the small quiet place
Inside my tightly clenched,
Softly trembling fist
Into the way towards a boundless life
Opening endlessly before my eyes,
I clenched my fist and
From people who smile
Beneath a vast sky
I seek the path to the
Subtle meaning of my life.

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