In a recent poll of the Tai Chi Basics community I asked what information would help improve their tai chi the most. Many of the responses you could guess:
- How do I improve my balance?
- How do I improve my stance?
- How should I breathe during the form?
- How do I find a good teacher?
But this one question surprised me and it came in many similar forms:
- How do I practice tai chi consistently?
- I know tai chi is good for me, but I keep stopping my practice. How do I keep practicing?
- I feel better when I am doing tai chi regularly, but I don’t always make it to class. What gives?
- Why is it so hard for me to be consistent?
Here’s the thing. This is my 20th year practicing. I am consistent. I’ve benefited greatly, not because I am skilled, but because I am learning from the repetitions. And, I want this for you too. To get you there we have to:
Start with the more obvious suggestions about consistency
Fully understand the distinction between will power, discipline, and habits
Unearth the deeper reason you may not be consistent in the first place
In Part 1 I will start with the oh-so-flavorful explanations about how to improve your consistency. They are truthful and apply to anything you want to be consistent about. If your consistency is non-existent, start here.
But tai chi takes a special type of consistency because we attend fun classes with real humans (the easy part) but we also have get our fannies out of bed on cold mornings and hit it, when no one is watching, when it really counts. Standing meditation, sitting, forms, qi gong… If you have an independent pursuit, a “practice,” then you need to see a clear distinction between 1) willpower, 2) discipline, and 3) habit formation. That’s Part 2.
And then you, dear reader, you who is attracted to tai chi for its deeper meaning. I have something special for you: The Reason Why You are Not Consistent. This is Part 3 and I will share a really provocative idea developed by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Part 1: How Can I Practice Tai Chi Consistently
We are not going to spend a lot of time here because a hundred other web pages will walk you through the simplicity of consistency. I think the irony is lost that if it were simple then the web pages wouldn’t be needed:
- Anticipate a slump after your excitement wears off
- Uninspired? Do it anyway. A.k.a.: the Suck It Up! method
- Go back to basics
- Find an accountability partner
- Forgive yourself and move on
- Find joy in the activity
- Do it early in the morning
- Calendar it
- Place reminders around your home and place of work
- Reward yourself
As snarky as I want to be, there are some really good nuggets in these suggestions. By default though I think a tai chi class covers many of these bases. You have partners, it’s fun, on the calendar, full of basics so you feel like you are accomplishing something, and some classes have rank/privilege as rewards.
Part 2: How can I be MORE consistent?
I believe that I am uncharacteristically consistent in many areas of my life because I see a distinct difference between three words we normally treat as synonyms: Willpower, Discipline, and Habit Formation.
Willpower and Consistency
Willpower is the ability to sustain. Once we begin something that is difficult and goes longer than expected, it helps us finish. When we are tempted to break some rule or promise, it helps us stay the course. It is a very powerful, but short energy. It’s something we keep “on reserve” for when things don’t go as planned.
Let’s say you are perfectly following a new diet but then get caught in traffic on the way home and you are starving. Willpower can get you home. Willpower will not make you consistent though.
Discipline is the ability to undertake repeated action. When we say someone is disciplined, we are actually describing their current state, not their action. A disciplined person might be orderly or in good shape. Their continual action seems effortless. Discipline is a methodical energy that helps us determine when and where we do our action. However, discipline will not make you consistent though.
Why? If something breaks your pattern, you are completely hosed! Maybe you have a twisted ankle for three days and stop working out completely. Or maybe you have one piece of cake at your birthday party and blow your diet. We have all been there.
Habit Formation is the ability to break an action into tiny repetitive activities that your subconscious takes over and you no longer think about. I think this is what is happening when we say someone is disciplined. They actually are stressing less than you. They just eat that way or sit down to write daily as mindlessly as you drive from your work to home.
Let’s use the goal of “practice tai chi consistently” and look at how these three paradigms would be applied to it:
Willpower: It’s Tuesday! Practice Damn it! You said you would practice after work. I don’t care if you are tired.
But what happens if you are exhausted/sick/late/asked to go to happy hour?
Discipline: I am going to practice every day at 5PM for 21 days.
But what happens on day 22?
Here is the process that I use to add new habits to my life:
- Make it first – get out of bed 15 minutes early, even 10 minutes. Whatever sounds doable.
- Make it tiny – what amount of time seems embarrassingly small. Can you practice for 7 minutes? 6? How many moves of the form? Just 5?
- Go for every day but set a goal for X/66 – Hey, life is going to happen. Don’t beat yourself up for not doing it every day. Choose an amount that sounds silly-small but is more than what you are currently doing. You will be better off for it. 22/66 days sounds weak right? But that is every 3 days. How much are you practicing now? See this article for more on habits: How Long Do You Need to Practice Before It Becomes a New Habit?
- Get a running start – Let’s say your goal is to practice for 15 minutes for 22/66 days. Practice for 30 minutes right now and put two checks on your chart.
- Habit stack – If you can attach a new habit to a subconscious routine that is already in place this is a quick win. Let’s say you always go outside to get the newspaper without even thinking about it. Stack doing the tai chi form onto going outside and make it part of that habit.
The Big Secret to Becoming More Consistent
Your goal IS consistency.
Not what you want to accomplish.
Hopefully in the example above you see that yes, you will practice more but what you are really learning is consistency. Your goal is to move the activity into your subconscious, past all of your fear filters (it takes too long), and emotional filters (I don’t feel like it!) so that it just happens.
Part 3: The Reason Why You are Not Consistent
Are you ready?
You are focusing on the outcome and not the process.
If you think about things you continue to do time and time-again, you enjoy the process. If you think about times in your life where you were consistent, chances are there was some amazing relationship or maybe a positive feeling that came directly from the event that you want to get back to.
Tai Chi is a double teacher in this sense.
If we stay present during the form and pay attention to the subtleties, we will enjoy it more and become more consistent.
So not only are we becoming more consistent in or tai chi practice, tai chi is teaching us how to be more consistent. We use the tai chi form practice to learn how to stay present, enjoy, and continue a repetitive process. When we have that down, we move it outside of the class and we apply our knowledge about “how to be consistent” to other areas of our life.
If I haven’t said this enough throughout all of my writing here at Tai Chi Basics I will say it again because it bears repeating.
People practice tai chi to improve their life, become more connected, and remain happier. These feelings shouldn’t just exist during the form or class. Learn what the form is teaching you and move it out into your real life by finding ways to apply it to your work, health, interactions, really anything.
How to Focus on the Outcome and Not Just the Process
If you think about or hope for being in shape – playing the flute perfectly – doing the whole tai chi form perfectly, more than you think about and enjoy the practice – YOU WON’T CONTINUE.
Something that is not present in all of the common suggestions about consistency is that a truly consistent person finds joy in what they are doing.
Not always of course. I go through periods of boredom with my practice and I may practice less at times. But then something great happens or I meet someone else who practices and I get reinvigorated. Overall. Over longer periods of time. Collectively. I am consistent.
And joy is only possible in the present moment. Not in the past. If you have fond memories, you are experiencing them right now. Not in a future you are hoping for.
I would like to end with an extremely provocative idea that Thich Nhat Hanh shared in his talks recorded in The Art of Mindful Living.
Here is what he said:
Hope is an Obstacle
Hope is not as positive of an emotion as we think it is because:
If you invest in this future, you have to spend a lot of energy hoping. There is not much energy left for you to take care of the present. And without enough energy left, you can’t have a breakthrough.
The present moment is the substance [the decisions and actions] with which the future is made. [And therefore,] the way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.
What else can you do?
If you take good care of the present moment, there is no reason that you will have to worry about the future because now that the future will be made by the present moment.
And that is why hope is sometimes an obstacle.
People tend to hope because they feel helpless in the present moment. They find that the present moment is so heavy, so unbearable, so difficult to endure. That is why they invest in a future with hope.
I hope tomorrow will be better.
I hope after tomorrow the pain will be better.
In the light of these practices, this is why hope can be an obstacle…Bring all sorts of your energy back to the present moment and get a breakthrough. This is the practice.
The Art of Mindful Living: How to Bring Love, Compassion, and Inner Peace into Your Daily Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Sounds True