Eric R. Maisel Ph.D.

Rethinking Mental Health

Daily Practice Demands Honesty!

It's up to you to notice if you aren't really paying attention as you practice.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

This post is part 10 of a series of posts on the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice. In this series, I’ll explore the elements of daily practice, varieties of daily practice, challenges to daily practice, and strategies for meeting those challenges. Please join me in learning more about this important subject! Complete information can be found in The Power of Daily Practice.  

Your daily practice demands honesty. If you play a passage on your musical instrument, and it isn’t strong yet, you are honest enough to say, “This isn’t strong yet.” You don’t then berate yourself, pester yourself, rail at the gods, or create any sort of inner or outer drama. You just calmly say, “Not strong yet.” Then you practice more.

If you skip too many days without attending to your new start-up business, you are honest and say, “I skipped too many days.” You don’t then also say, “I’ve wasted so many days!” or “Now I have no chance!” or “I missed that golden opportunity!” You nod to the truth that you skipped days that you shouldn’t have and proceed with some simple affirmation, like “Right here, right now” or “Back to work.” And you get to work.

Being 80 percent honest or 90 percent honest is lovely and a pretty high bar to set for human beings. But you and I are actually aiming for 100 percent honesty. We are aiming that implausibly high because that tricky, untruthful 10 percent or 20 percent can scuttle our ship. One blind spot, one area of denial, one little white lie the size of an elephant, and our practice may not survive.

Imagine a general honestly admitting that his troops need more training and then increasing their training. Good for him. Imagine him honestly admitting that their rifles jam too often and getting them better weapons. Good for him. But imagine him refusing to acknowledge the enemy’s air superiority. For all the honesty that he managed to muster, he will likely lose the war.

That last 10 percent is often the hardest to admit because it is “the hard truth.” That general can admit that his troops need more training because he can do something about that: train them more. He can admit that their rifles jam too often because he can do something about it: order better weapons. But what if there is nothing that he can do about the enemy’s air superiority? That is a bitter pill to swallow—and many a mortal will be inclined to refuse to look that hard truth in the eye.

Take a memoir writer with a daily writing practice. Maybe she has faced the truth that her siblings will be upset with her for writing about them and made peace with the fact that they will be angry. Maybe she has faced the truth that she will be revealing embarrassing family secrets and made peace with that. Maybe she has faced the truth that she herself doesn’t come off that well and has made peace with that. But what if she hasn’t quite admitted that she is physically afraid of her ex-husband and dreads him reading it? Not facing that last hard truth is likely to cause her not to write.

She should rightly congratulate herself for dealing with all those truths that she did acknowledge. That took a lot of courage. But she mustn’t let herself off the hook with respect to that last one. That last one must also be faced, not out of a moral imperative, but because if she doesn’t admit it, face it, and deal with it, one way or another, she’s unlikely to get her memoir written. And that will deeply disappoint her.

I think you can see that honesty of practice requires that we face many hard truths, not just one or two. Take a yoga practice. You may have to face the truth that, on some days, it bores you. You may have to face the truth that certain positions are actually injuring you. You may have to face the truth that, as you’d intended to start a yoga business, you don’t need more training but rather the courage to start a business. You may have to face many other truths as well. Each of them is its own knotty problem and its own taxing challenge. 

Be honest about whether you are attending to your daily practice enough. Be honest about whether you are creating turmoil and dramas so as to avoid your practice. Be honest about whether you are engaged with your practice or just going through the motions. Be honest about whether you leave your practice too soon. Be altogether honest: anything less jeopardizes your daily practice.

Consider Larry. Larry, an established inventor and engineer, set as his daily practice the study of a certain aspect of artificial intelligence. He loved the problem he set for himself and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting to his practice regularly. He spent a lot of time thinking about it, journaling about it, and chatting online about it with other AI specialists. Finally, it came to him.

“I’ve known this all along,” he explained to me, “but I’ve kept it hidden away so that I wouldn’t have to face it. The truth is, AI scares me. It scares me where AI will lead. Just go see the movie Ex Machina. I love AI as an intellectual puzzle, but I actually hate where it may take us. What am I supposed to do about something that I’m so completely invested in that I also despise?”

With that cat out of the bag, Larry had no choice but to give up his love of AI as an intellectual puzzle. A few months later, he began a very different sort of daily practice: a daily writing practice, working on a book exposing the dangers of AI. In his heart of hearts, he wished that he had never admitted that truth to himself, as he dearly loved AI as an intellectual puzzle. But he also knew that he really hadn’t had a choice: The truth was going to win out eventually.    

Your daily practice requires 100 percent truthfulness. That is a lot, but any less is too little.