The Karma of Practice
Men are not punished for their sins, but by them.
— Elbert Hubbard
Performance becomes easier with practice. In fact, with enough practice, performance can become autonomous—that is, it requires no conscious attention at all. Consider activities such as driving or using a computer keyboard. When first attempted, performance is slow, hesitant, and filled with error, but with practice speed increases, variability decreases, and execution becomes increasingly effortless. What once demanded considerable attention can now be performed rapidly and accurately with little or no awareness of the component actions.
Conscious attention is not required to initiate an autonomous sequence. Mere exposure to the triggering stimulus is sufficient, and, once initiated, the action has a ballistic quality, tending to run on to completion all by itself. For example, when driving, a red light is sufficient to elicit a complex sequence of events that does not require my attention for successful performance. Conscious awareness is not required for my foot to move from the accelerator to the brake pedal or to guide the pressure on the brake to bring the vehicle safely and smoothly to a stop. Rapid, accurate, effortless performance that makes no demands on valuable conscious resources has obvious advantages. The down side of over-training a behavioral sequence becomes apparent when you want to change it. For example, an experienced driver would take longer to learn to reliably stop at a green light than it originally took to learn to stop at a red light. Until the driver has acquired the new habit, [s]he must pay attention in order to override the well-practiced behavior of driving through a green light.
After considerable practice, reaction patterns become autonomous. While autonomous behavior can be overridden, it requires conscious attention to do so. The karma of repeatedly avoiding say a stressful responsibiity is that it becomes progressively easier to avoid in the future.
It is easier to learn to stop at a red light than to learn to stop at a green light after you have already learned to stop at the red light and go on the green light. Changing a well learned reaction pattern is difficult. On one side there is the well exercised behavioral sequence — e.g., avoidance — that leads to a familiar, perhaps even comfortable, outcome. Against this is pitted a poorly exercised behavioral sequence that leads to an unfamiliar and possibly unpleasant outcome. This is not much of a conflict; the path of least resistance has the advantage. To have any chance of performing as intended during the crisis you have to have the skills and faculties to over-ride the many forces that favor the path of least resistance.
A professional boxer provides a metaphor for this challenge. The boxer will perform one kind of exercise, e.g., weight training, tp develop his his physical strenght. Likewise, you can use Focused Attention meditation exercises to enhance your ability to mindfully aim your attention.
The boxer may use shadow-boxing to practice sequences of responses, and may hire sparring partners to help him develop the procedural skills to react quickly to an opponent's attack. Likewise, you can practice and rehearse in imagery, but the best training is to practice responding as intended during genuine high-risk situations.
As you respond mindfully to the challenges as they arise, you will be exercising and strengthening your ability to cope with the things that happen. The Karma of performing as intended during high risk situations is that doing so becomes easier over time. With sufficient practice the path of greatest advantage gradually becomes your default path.
Use It or Lose It
Habit strength, like muscle strength, increases with exercise. Each performance of a successful coping response strengthens the intended behavior sequence, while the outmoded reaction tendency weakens through disuse. It will take a finite number of exposures for the new reaction to become stronger than the old one. How many exposures? In the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams suggests that the magic number is 47 – as applied here, it takes 47 consecutive mindful responses to establish a new default. Of course, I could be wrong. It might take 112 or 23, but it will not take a million or even a thousand. You will get better at this with practice and after perhaps 47 mindful response you will find that it has become easier to react as intended than to follow the old pathogenic sequence.
You can succeed at this task, but you must stay mindful during the early phases of habit change and make sure you respond intentionally to each and every high-risk situation you encounter. While you are going through it, it may seem as though it will never end, but if you can stay “awake” during this stage of habit change, you will discover in retrospect that this part of the passage did not last very long.