This article was written by David Smithstein, sensei at the San Francisco Isshin-Ryu Academy and owner of Lean & Mean Business Systems, in San Francisco, CA. It was reprinted with his permission.

There is a stage of personal evolution that is so important that over the years many paths have been developed to help people get there. These paths are all fundamentally trying to accomplish much of the same thing, but in different ways. They have originated from all over the globe, they encompass both past and present techniques, some are even built into the fabric of life itself, and they all have different names. Yet if you put masters from each in a room together they would all agree on what the landscape of our inner world looks like.

Some examples include:

So what is this thing called a “practice” that is so important, and how can someone compare things on this list? Clearly, the things on this list are not all the same, and in and of themselves, many were not necessarily designed to be a personal practice.  However, they all have the capacity to bring people towards a similar goal: the realization that an individual is not simply his or her thoughts; in fact, we are so much more.

When your brain is awake it is basically in a constant spasm of bio-electrical regurgitation, otherwise known as “thoughts.”  That is essentially what the brain does: just as a muscle contracts to move your skeletal system, the brain is like a computer running software for the system that is you. Of course software is never perfect. There are bugs sometimes and it doesn’t always do what you want it to.

So the statement that an individual is not simply his or her thoughts is like saying you are not simply the software, you are actually the programmer. The tricky part of that analogy is that instead of a human programmer using code to talk to a machine, the “programmer” in your head is a component of your thoughts/brain/machine built into the machine itself. So if we are talking about software that can manage other software, we are actually talking about the operating system itself.

Because you have to use your thoughts to think about your thoughts, and it all seems like you anyway, this line of thinking can easily become trite, circular, and meaningless. However, another way to think of it is this: just like a computer, we all have layers of thoughts. Some are deeper, and closer, to being the true you, and are like a computer’s operating system, while others are simply an expression of what has been programmed previously.

We often have thoughts that are reactions to life and those around us. This can be understood to be like the software installed on the operating system. The most import “thought software” for most of us was installed during our childhood when the hard drive had the most space and we were open to new installations. Most of us take these thoughts for granted as truth, rather than seeing them as coming from inside of us. The goal of a Personal Practice is to help an individual see that we each have our own “operating system” inside of us, and it’s capable of installing and un-installing, and running or not running, the other “software,” or thoughts, that we have.

So much of our experience in life is a direct result of the thoughts we have. When something good or bad happens, we have thoughts about it, and those thoughts will lead to feelings, good, bad, or indifferent. Those feelings might make us take action, and those actions are going to be good, bad, or indifferent as well. Since all of these life experiences and actions originate in our brain, and our brain is like layers of software that spits out thoughts, what if we could change the software? Do we have to swallow everything that comes out of our brain hook, line and sinker? Is our brain so perfect that we are absolutely 100 percent certain our thoughts are always spot on perfect about everything we think about?

This is where a personal practice comes into play. A personal practice helps us to go through the slow and gradual process of finding the software that is working, the new stuff we want to install, and the software in our head that needs to be debugged, or un-installed altogether because it just isn’t working right. This work can’t even begin until we realize it is even possible in the first place. This realization can come from a variety of activities, for a variety of reasons, but these activities all have in common the ability to give us that experience.

What most people don’t realize is that they need to be looking for this experience. So while two people may be doing the same activity, only one may actually be doing it as a personal practice while the other isn’t. And of course some activities, such as meditation and yoga, were designed specifically for this purpose and make it easier.

The martial arts, for example, lends itself well to being a personal practice, but there is a lot of variation in terms of how well that aspect is taught at any given school, as not all teachers have this orientation towards their art. Some think how well you can fight is the measure of success, but unless you are a professional fighter, a Navy Seal, or personal safety is a regular and serious concern, then how well you can fight is probably not the best choice for your ultimate purpose in practicing a martial art, and doesn’t ultimately lend itself to the ultimate goal of self-realization.

The martial arts, like yoga, is an art of movement. Learning the movements creates opportunity for a lot of thought about the process of learning. A simple example might be that you think, “This is hard, I can’t do it.” But being patient and determined you keep practicing, and then you discover that you actually can. It might then occur to you to ask yourself, “Why did I have that thought about not being able to do this, when clearly I can?”  Do you have that thought, “I can’t do it," about everything? Was it a necessary or helpful thought? This is the beginning of the process of cultivating the ability to think about our own thoughts.

When you develop the confidence through expertise, this gives you the choice of which thoughts to have, and it gradually occurs to you that every thought you have had is not the golden egg you once thought it was. It’s a humbling experience, and one of the most precious gifts any teacher of any discipline can pass on to a student. The irony of focusing on the personal practice aspect of a martial art, is that in the end, it will make the individual the most formidable opponent for the simple reason that all true warriors know that their most important weapon is all that stuff in between their ears.

Some activities, such as martial arts, yoga, meditation, and psychotherapy, were designed as a personal practice to help the practitioner achieve this goal of self-realization. Other activities can become a personal practice through intention on the part of the practitioner. The important thing is for each individual to find a way to practice that works for them, and start practicing.

 “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” – Sun Tzu

[this article was first published at the San Francisco Isshin-Ryu Academy website]

Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images for DAGOC

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