Life as Practice

Written by: Dina Bell-Laroche

As we look ahead to 2021, we might find ourselves feeling a mixture of emotions … fear, sadness, happiness, anger, disgust, or surprise – the six basic universal emotions that psychologist Paul Eckman identified back in the 1970s. We now acknowledge through other theorists that the language of emotions is one of the most powerful forms of communication which informs how we relate to self, others, and the world around us.

Naming what we feel is often the first step in acknowledging our inner landscape. According to the science behind emotional intelligence, the choices we make, the actions we take, and the perceptions we have are all influenced by our emotions. Knowing this empowers us to choose wisely. Earlier this year I wrote about how our EQ (emotional intelligence) can be cultivated and strengthened through daily practice. The CEOs and other sport leaders we work with acknowledge how comforting it is to know that what they are feeling matters and how being able to name their emotions empowers them to respond with intention. While not a full-proof method, taking a moment to pause, breathe, and acknowledge what we are experiencing, invites perspective to be taken. And perspective-taking is a central muscle that we work with when committing to lead with purpose.

How best to cultivate emotional intelligence? While there is no right answer, this blog offers a deliberate form of practice to support our commitment.

Since September 2019, I have been immersing myself in the study of death and loss, also known as the field of thanatology. I have discovered many things over the past 18 months … how trauma is stored at the cellular level, how children move through their grief differently, how our North American culture fosters grief illiterate and death phobic attitudes, how cultural humility expands our capacity to be emotionally intelligent, and so much more. To integrate what I have been studying I have taken up a daily practice of pausing, turning inward, and connecting to the emotions that are present in the moment. This turning inward forces me to disrupt the conversation I am currently having and invites a new one to emerge … the conversation that I am longing to have. “We feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home,” Maya Angelou observed in Letter to My Daughter, “a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.”

Being in practice changes you. Ask any athlete.  What I am speaking to is a specific type of practice … a mindful and deliberate way of connecting to life as a form of practice. Any form of deliberate practice alters the way our brains work. The neuroscience behind improving performance shows that while our brain works in many mysterious ways, the more we practice, the more myelin we create. And myelin is considered the mother of all performance-enhancing naturally producing substances, allowing us to make the most of our brain and bodily functions.  The lesson here is key. Practice makes myelin, so practice carefully. While we intuitively understand why the quantity of practice is important to improving our skill, we are becoming increasingly appreciative of the quality of the practice. To read more about this, you might find Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code an interesting primer on the topic.

Here’s what I have discovered while engaging mindfully in a daily practice of turning inward … there’s a lot there to explore. Beyond the strategic mind, the titles, and the images we adopt, our inner realm is often a new frontier full of wonder and fear. Exploring our emotions and beliefs and assumptions requires courage … a willingness to sit with, and challenge conventional ideas of rightness and wrongness that can leave one on shaky ground. For instance, reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo has had me question many of the assumptions I’ve held about racism and introduced me to a new way of examining my own privilege and values. I walk away even more curious, humbled by how much I don’t know.

As we look ahead to meet the uncertainty of 2021 with an open mind and heart, my invitation is to set the intention for bringing more mindful awareness to your everyday living. In so doing, you might discover many of the hidden treasures that live within you and be humbled by what you find. Try this one practice for the month of January and send me a note to let me know what you’ve discovered at DBL@sportlaw.ca.

Step 1: Commit to one act of deliberate practice every day.  Stick with the same practice for at least one month. A simple one to warm up your ‘life as practice’ muscles is to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. This simple new practice can bring us more fully into the moment.

Step 2: As you engage in your practice, notice what you are feeling in the moment. Name the emotions that arise as you continue with your ‘life as practice’ experience. For me, when engaging in something new, I often feel frustrated at not being able to master something quickly. What inner stories are you telling yourself?

Step 3: Now notice where you are experiencing your emotion(s) in your body. I will be writing more about somatic intelligence in my next blog but until then, simply notice where you hold your emotion in your body.

Step 4: As you begin to complete your practice, notice the thoughts that arise as you are engaged in the activity. Paying attention to the hundreds of thoughts that then inform our actions is a powerful way to increase our discernment. Noticing without action shapes our capacity to take perspective. We will all need to choose more wisely moving forward.

Step 5: As you complete this practice, you might like to connect with my blog on Finishing Strong that speaks to our capacity to pay attention to our relationship with endings.  Happy discovering.

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