The Journey of Practice
by Brian Donnelly
“Life is not about getting to a certain place. Life is a path.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
We have a tendency to feel discontent on the path toward our hopes and dreams. We’re always trying to get something or somewhere. We think that when we finally arrive at that next step in a career, living situation, or relationship, we’ll be happy. Along the way, we learn to take shortcuts, to fill in the gaps by wanting more immediate things—a new piece of gear, the start of a weekend, more “likes” on our social media posts. The truth is that most of our lives are spent on the journey and that finally arriving isn’t the golden answer we’re seeking.
I’ve been thinking about the journey of practice, what it means to practice something (verb) and what it means to engage in a practice (noun). It’s a subtle but important distinction. When we practice something, there’s a goal attached. We repeat a skill to attain something, to improve a proficiency or performance. But when something is our practice, it’s simply doing or applying an idea. It’s bending linear fixation into an infinite circle. There is no goal, just empty, detached action. As the Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, tells us, “When you do something, just to do it should be your purpose. Form is form and you are you, and true emptiness will be realized in your practice.”
"ULTIMATELY, THE THINGS WE PRACTICE BECOME OUR PRACTICE."
Running is my practice because it constantly teaches me to serve a process and not some outcome. It reminds me that I need to be mindful of the journey I’m on and to enjoy what I’m doing for the sake of doing it, because running is damn hard and if I don’t love it right now, I’m just spinning my own illusion. Running is my practice because, through repetition, I understand that there are no shortcuts, just hard decisions and unknown challenges ahead, and that’s okay. It’s my practice because, ultimately, the things we practice become our practice.
It’s early spring, another gray, wet day in the Pacific Northwest. I’m staring into my back yard through the rain-splattered window above my desk as these thoughts drift through my mind. Just out of sight in the foggy fringe of trees is Portland’s Forest Park, a five-thousand-acre web of roots and ferns and trails. It’s time to run, time to slip into synthetic layers and dirt-caked shoes. Despite the chronic cold and mud, there’s no hesitation, no wanting.
Out there is my path and it needs practicing.