“The best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all” - John Kabat-Zinn
One of my acting teachers used to begin each class with the simple instruction of telling us to “feel our feet on the ground.” The request sounds somewhat ridiculous at face value. After all, if you’re standing, where else could your feet be but on the ground?
My teacher wasn’t just making an obvious request though, he was asking us to be present and to genuinely feel our feet connecting to the earth - to breathe and be in the moment. As a physical artist, the only way an actor finds truth is to be wholly present and the only way to be wholly present is to breathe and feel your feet on the ground. That’s where the work begins.
Feeling my feet on the ground has sometimes been an elusive goal. Like many Americans, for most of my life, I’ve continuously drank the Kool-Aid that doing is succeeding. It’s almost as if ‘dream it and do it’ should be inscribed on our nation’s flag.
We are a nation of doers and our culture is predicated on the self-made individual. Making a life worth living in our society means building, climbing, and most of all, doing. In order to sharpen our saws for doing, many of us incorporate the habit of a “practice.” That is, a process of cultivating a skill, craft, or discipline.
Practice helps prepare us for doing more and in turn, succeeding. Or at least, that’s the idea. In fitness, I have been exercising regularly since I was a teenager. As an actor, rehearsal has helped me learn my lines and try new approaches. As a marital artist, sparring kept me sharp and helped me learn to defend myself. I’ve been practicing and doing constantly for much of my life.
Part of why I love fitness are the “laws” associated with the practice, starting with rule number one, effort = success. While you can’t will yourself to be talented or artistic, you can will yourself to be in great shape. Practice doesn’t make perfect with exercise, but it certainly pays off.
But even with well-intentioned effort, exercise isn’t immune from the laws of failure either. The human body often has other ideas than a linear progression of advancement. There is aging and injury to contend with, and life sometimes gets in the way of expressing our physicality.
Fitness is just like any other endeavor from jobs to relationships to daily activities – there are peaks and valleys, waves and calm waters. Our job is simply to be present, learn, and let go.
The reality is however, that during a setback we tend to stick with our default - staying busy and doing more. When our body breaks down, we seek distractions and new activities. When we lose our professional identity or relationship, we stay occupied by seeking a new one. But what happens when all of our doing, practicing, and trying doesn’t materialize? What happens when doing becomes a distraction from the essential work of observation?
While it’s tempting to double down during failure and keep ourselves occupied, doing so doesn’t necessarily serve us as well. As a wise teacher once reminded me “Eric, you can’t run faster than your shadow.”
At such a crossroads, it’s time to go back to step one – to feel your feet on the ground and know that true ‘success’ isn’t your job, your body, or even your relationships, but qualities and character. A season of change calls for a new form of practice, but not the sort where you count the sets and reps.
We tend to think of the word practice in terms of repetition with the intention of getting better at something. But the practice of mindfulness is simply about paying attention and capturing the present. Becoming more mindful isn’t about doing more or rehearsing more diligently. There’s merely the art of releasing your expectations and allowing the universe to flow through you. As meditation guru and best-selling author John Kabat-Zinn states, “Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.”
In recent years I’ve had to learn how to stop doing and start being. Being mindful isn’t about trying harder or doing more, but mindfulness does require the same qualities that promote successful doing - intention and discipline. With the art of being mindful, life itself becomes the practice of commitment to the present moment. For now, that’s enough.