Review: The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life

The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life
The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beware! This pretends to be an eminently readable book about practicing music or sports WHEN ACTUALLY it is about mindfulness, Eastern religions, happiness and a guide to living your life fully. Wow.

The author reads his own book on and is quite relaxing to listen to. I was happily enjoying this book at the superficial level of learning how to be Present during practice to improve skills, and then began to realize the deeper levels of meaning. He draws a contrast between the young mind, being told to “practice for 30 minutes” and finding the tedium and the disappointment crushing, as one’s expectations of the skills one would LIKE to have being always out of reach. He compares this to an adult learner, who, with more life experience (we hope) is typically practicing music or sports more for enjoyment. In the second case, the thoughtful, present learner, can experience the actual practice as enjoyment: “I am always getting better, even this minute.”

A wonderful metaphor the author provides is that the sailor, who is always fixated on the horizon in the direction of travel of his sailing ship, finds that the horizon always recedes, and is constantly frustrated at his lack of visible progress. Instead, the sailor who looks at the waves constantly crashing against the bow, and the visible crests and troughs, the fish, the dolphins that constantly pass by, is not only aware of, and enjoying the present, but also the inevitable forward progress he is making. The second sailor is much more aware and satisfied in the moment.

The author speaks about the overlapping 4 S’s, as a way of thinking about being Present, with the concrete example of “cleaning out the garage: an overwhelming task that begs to be deferred”:
-Simple: break a big task down into bite-sized parts, think of only part of the garage
-Small: “I will only clean from the northwest corner, three lateral feet until the window.”
-Short: “I will only spend 45 minutes on this task and consider it done.”
-Slow: “I will be aware of every movement and action that I am taking.”

He notes that if we can pursue the 4 S’s in any task, large or small, we can find ourselves in what others later called “flow state” where time disappears, one is focused and can actually enjoy accomplishing tasks. And if done well, this actually takes no MORE time, and often takes less time, because we are less distracted and perform better and more accurately.

I have applied these principles myself to practicing the ukulele (itself the embodiment of simple and small), to rehearsing my kata for karate, to writing a blog, and, when set up properly, to answering my inevitable backlog of email. Mihaly Cziszemnihalyi’s Flow speaks to this, as does Daniel Pink’s Drive.

CMIO’s take: where can YOU apply the 4 S’s in your life? Life lessons appear in the most unexpected places. Here’s wishing you can apply a few principles of the Practicing Mind in your life.
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Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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