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Martha Graham on the Power of Practice

The concept of practice is an integral aspect of being human: doing something repeatedly, making errors and learning from them, operating at the edges of your ability, and most valuable of all, the satisfaction from improving.

Among the many things we discover about ourselves when engaged in the practice of writing or dance or making music is how to live, which is perhaps the most important discovery of all.

Practice is more than just repetition—it’s a movement of energy that creates a fissure in us to reveal what’s within. Practice is a beautiful word because it is irreplaceable and no synonym captures the behavior and processes quite like this one. We can conceptually grasp the notion of practicing a free throw shot or a baseball swing, but to practice living—to practice critical thinking, kindness, humility, self-awareness, or empathy—isn’t as easy as spending an hour a day doing lay-ups.

Legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham masterfully expresses this in her essay in This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women:

I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.

Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

Graham continues:

Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries, even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration; there are daily small deaths.

I believe what Graham meant by this “performance in life” refers to our daily dance of living. The same principles that necessitate mastery in dance also connect to mastery in living well. The cultivation of living well is only attainable through constant and never-ending practice.

Graham says that it takes 10 years for a dancer to mature; if that is true, then it takes a lifetime for us to learn to live well. It is the process in learning to live well that gives meaning and shapes grace, not the final achievement (or illusion) of it. The day someone claims to have mastered the art of living is the sad day they surrender their practice of it.

What are the practices of living well? Where do you start?

Practicing empathy on a daily basis, using your environment as a stage in which you practice, is about choosing to pause on the narrative being constructed in your mind. Every personal encounter is an opportunity to gain experience. It’s a conscious choice to withhold judgment and instead embrace the other person’s worldview, simply to understand rather than see who’s right or wrong.

The Greek philosopher Plato viewed wisdom as abstract and theoretical. Aristotle, his pupil, disagreed and viewed wisdom as a moral compass that could be used as a framework of how to properly act in a particular situation. This wisdom, he argued, must be cultivated and practiced in daily life. For example, in his view, anger could not be placed into a category of good or bad. Aristotle was more concerned with whom to be angry at, for how long, in what way, and for what purpose.

Aristotle distilled his ideas in his book, Nicomachean Ethics. Ethics, as we know them, are moral principles on how to behave. He believed that we could learn traits like self-control, loyalty, kindness, perseverance, humility, open-mindedness and more. He called them arete, which translates to excellences or virtues.

Virtues are the traits that we practice; they’re not predispositions of personality adopted at birth.

One practice that I’ve been committed to over the last few years is the practice of self-awareness. To be mindful of my thoughts and feelings is a fruitful foundation for making better decisions, and for too long, I was oblivious to those things.

Russ Roberts, in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, recommends imagining an “impartial spectator” to help you know yourself. This is a clear example of practicing the virtue of self-awareness:

Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness—the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.

Another way that I practice self-awareness is to journal at the end of the day. Like an eagle soaring above its prey, journaling allows me to zoom out to see the big picture, and then zoom back in to study the details. I can observe the patterns of my thoughts and decisions and run it through a trial: Was this intentional? Was this the right choice? If I made a mistake, what can I learn from this?

In my journal, I also acknowledge my mistakes. It could be as simple as acknowledging that I again freaked out while driving because someone cut me off. Then I put it to the test: Why did I freak out? What was the trigger? What did I accomplish? How can I avoid making this same mistake again tomorrow?

Perhaps the reason why the practice of virtues and living well is more ambiguous than practicing a golf swing or baking a cake is because the progress isn’t as obvious. You can record yourself for a month and notice a difference in your athletic performance or the quality of your cake, but can you record yourself and notice a difference in your emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth?

This is why the art of living well is a daily practice—virtues are your aim and the world is your stage. From time to time our friends may acknowledge that we’ve matured or changed, and this feels good. We can look back at our new habits and the way we make decisions and connect the dots on how we’ve made progress. But in the words of Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations translated by Gregory Hays, “It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone ever realizing it. Remember that.”

In short, don’t practice living well and being a good person for the hopes of applause. Be a good person and practice to live well because it is intrinsically fulfilling to do so.

Finally, Kurt Vonnegut detailed the life-giving importance of practice when he responded to a letter sent from an elementary school class that was tasked to test their persuasive writing skills. Vonnegut wrote the only response the class ever received: “Practice any art . . . no matter how well or badly, not to get money or fame, but to practice becoming, to find out what’s inside of you, to make your soul grow.”


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