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eggbeaterLive as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Yesterday, I wrote about all the things I learned on my Radical Sabbatical – and then promptly didn’t do when my sabbatical was over!  One perspective on what might seem like illogical behavior can be found in the Four Stages of Competence.

I learned some things and had some insights, but I hadn’t practiced them enough to embody them, so I went back to my old habits (I moved from Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence, to Stage 2, Conscious Incompetence).  Learning was important but it wasn’t enough to change me.  Change and mastery happen in a cycle:  Learn, Practice and Embody (and repeat!).

Ever borrow a friend’s car and feel like a complete spaz driving it?  You go to put the turn signal on and the windshield wipers start?  It feels like someone’s put an eggbeater in your brain. That feeling of being confused and bamfoozled?  That oogie feeling?  That, my friends, is the sensation of learning or Conscious Incompetence!  We know what we want to do but we aren’t able to do it.  It feels strange and gawky, but no worries, it is just part of the process!

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  “Practice, practice, practice.” ~ old joke

After learning (Stage 1 to 2), the next part of the cycle is practice.  I’m practicing when the intense awkward feeling passes (mostly, anyway), and the focused work begins.  In practice, I do the newly learned skill over and over with concentration and attention.  At the beginning, I may fluctuate between learning (Stage 2) and practice (Stage 3) and then back again.

Many teachers and trainers believe that all we need to gain a skill or change our behavior (or thinking) is the information:  the learning that shows us why we should do it.  But most people do better with the information and experience to really learn it.  (Ever try to eat more green leafy veggies or go to bed early instead of watching Downton Abbey until all hours because you know that it will be better for you?  Ever have a little trouble with that?  Yeah.  Me, too.  For ideas about how to start a new habit, click here.)

Practice might seem like grunt work:  the discipline that comes after the spark of learning and before the grace of mastery.  Practice in its pure form, though, is both indispensable and energizing.  When I am practicing, I am absorbed in the process and noticing the details.  This kind of attention allows for on-going discovery and refinement.

With continued practice, I move from Stage 3, Conscious Competence, to Stage 4, Unconscious Competence, when I can do the skill without thought or effort.  This stage of complete embodiment or mastery then cycles back into Stage 1.  The very nature of Stage 4’s unconsciousness can lead to a tendency not to consider advances or other approaches which could improve my abilities and outcomes.  On some level, no matter what our level of expertise, there is always more to learn and new details to practice.  (Remember the Beginner’s Mind post?)

While this cycle may seem like an endless series of awkward learnings followed by never-ending practice, there is tremendously cool news!  The process of learning and then practicing changes your brain.

“What is the strongest force in the Universe?” “The force of habit.” ~ another old joke

Your brain wants to be efficient, so whenever it can, it creates shortcuts and habits to reduce the energy it takes to do things we do often.  Imagine the effort of typing or driving a car if you had to really focus on all the details of those skills?  It would be exhausting just to drive across town or write an email!

Learning something new, on the other hand, burns new neural pathways in your brain.  Learning makes connections where there weren’t connections before.  Which is, as previously mentioned, entirely and tremendously cool — especially since 15 years ago, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was  not only finished growing but that neurons were being pruned in the brain.  For a long time, science told us that an adult brain couldn’t change!  But loads of current neuroscience shows that the cycle of competency actually allows our brains to transform and develop – no matter how old we are.

Practicing Nia is a process of learning, practicing and embodying.  By moving in a wide variety of ways, speeds, ranges of motion, and patterns, your body and brain are always learning.  If you are new to class, you are doing a lot of learning/Stage 2!  If you are doing movements that you’ve done before, you may be doing more practicing/Stage 3.  Eventually, we can embody the movements in Stage 4/Unconscious Competence…but in Nia, we don’t stay there very long!  It is The Body’s Way to be in this cycle of learning, practicing and embodying, constantly stimulating not just your bones, muscles and connective tissue, but your brain and nervous system!

I hope you’ll join me this week in finding something new to learn and practice.  Enjoy the oogie sensation and know that it is expanding the capacity of your brain – keeping you vibrant, young and alive.

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