How To Be Devoted: Wishing won’t make it easier. Practice will
I wish . . .
I wish I could play the cello. I wish I could do calligraphy. I wish I could rock climb. I wish I could grow an organic garden. I wish I could speak a foreign language.
I wish . . . I wish . . . I wish . . .
I wish I could do a lot of things. But of course I am experienced enough to know that wishing alone will not get me there. I have to apply myself. Practice, devotion, and discipline: these are the vehicles that will ultimately move me from simply wishing to have a talent to manifesting that talent. If I want it enough, I have to choose to make the effort and apply it.
Imagine this scenario. A man wishes he could run a marathon. He is out of shape. He has not so much as jogged to his mailbox. But he has a wish. So he buys himself some good sneakers and on the appointed day he shows up smiling and ready to go. The starting gun fires. And he is off. He is panting and he is puffing. He is sweating like mad. After a few blocks he sits down on a curb, dejected.
You approach this man and ask him what went wrong. “I don’t have the slightest idea. I wished I could do it. And then I tried and I failed.”
What would you tell this man? Would you point up the obvious? Would you explain to him that he should have trained? That he should have practiced? Maybe you would tell him that he should have started out walking. That he should have started with shorter distances and slowly built up his strength and endurance. Perhaps you would tell him that he should have been exercising regularly. That if he really wanted to run in a marathon he should have devoted himself to the discipline of running.
At this point the man turns to you with a sadness born of resignation: “I guess I am just not a runner.”
You can do nothing more at this point except shake you head. He doesn’t seem to get it. Wishing does not make a person into a runner. Running does. Could anything be more clear?
On the other hand, when it comes to emotional states of being that we know to be healthy and beneficial, we hear people make statements like this all the time:
“I’m just not a patient person.”
“I’m not all that brave.”
“I can’t seem to relax.”
“I just don’t have compassion for that person.”
And then we hear wishes:
“I wish I were more patient.”
“I wish I could be that brave.”
“I wish I could just relax.”
“I wish I had more compassion, I just don’t feel it.”
We wouldn’t expect to run a marathon without training. What makes us think that we could be patient, brave, relaxed, or compassionate — or any number of other positive states of being — without practicing them with the same kind of discipline or devotion that we would use to train for a race?
All of these things are not just emotional states, they are actually spiritual disciplines. And if we want to get good at them, we must find ways to practice.
And just like exercise we need to start out with the easy lifting. If you go to the gym, you don’t start out by bench pressing your weight. You pick up enough weight to challenge your muscles without hurting yourself. If you begin with too much weight too quickly, you will end up being discouraged or injured or both.
I have been a classroom teacher for many years. Often when people hear this they say, “Oh I just don’t have the patience for that.” Well, of course. If you’ve not spent a lot of time around children, you certainly would not want to start with a roomful of wild-eyed toddlers or petulant adolescents. Of course you would lose your patience. You haven’t practiced. But does that mean you are not a patient person.
That is like the logic of our friend the would-be runner who never trained and expected to finish a marathon. We think if it does not come to us immediately and with ease, it means something essential about who we are and what capacities we have. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We all have essential capacities that can be strengthened through practice. We can practice being patient while waiting on hold on the phone. While waiting in line at the store. While waiting for a friend to return a phone call. But we have to do it consciously, with the awareness that we are practicing. And over time, we will get better, stronger, more talented.
The same could be said of courage, inner peace, and compassion. We need to identify what we want to get good at and practice at it daily. With discipline. With devotion. And with the knowledge that with this kind of practice, we strengthen our inner being and we develop a talent.
So no more wishing.