Practice as an Identity Marker & Personal Construct
Lately, the broader concept of practice has been on my mind.
My qualitative research study on what motivates people to practice a form of movement, exercise, or sport, and how this changes over time, is one that can translate fairly easily to other contexts.
It doesn't matter so much what my research participants practice but rather, what their practice means and why it matters to them.
When I peel back the layers of meaning and mattering, I arrive at questions such as:
Is our practice a reflection of our self-concept?
Is our practice a replacement for a strong sense of self?
Does our practice reflect the way we see the world around us?
Does our practice offer a way for us to belong?
Does our practice offer a way for us to escape?
Given practice requires repetition, I also catch myself wondering what can happen when a practice is taken to an extreme. Could a practice ever become out of balance and if so, what might that say about ourselves?
It's easy to think of movement, exercise, and sport as forms of practice. The same could be said for creative practices such as art, music, and handicrafts. Each of these activities requires specific skill sets that are honed over time, and skills acquisition and development often walks hand in hand with the concept of practice.
But what about practice being something we engage in with and without skill, and with and without awareness or a conscious motive?
What about the Zen saying, the way we do anything is the way we do everything?
What if how we practice in one area of our life translates to how we practice something in another area of our life?
These are the kind of questions I'm hoping to unpack in this blog entry as I bracket personal reflections on practice within myself.
I first heard the Zen saying, the way we do anything is the way we do everything, while training to become a fusion martial arts and yoga teacher. Zen and Taoist philosophy had a way of popping up in the training and we were expected to teach aspects of key texts such as the Tao Te Ching in our student classes.
The saying stuck for years, and reflecting on it led me to notice how my ultra-organised karate persona carried over so easily into humanitarian work. My desk was spotless, and my work was timely and well-structured. I could think clearly when working in prisons and refugee camps, where I encountered people who were experiencing stressful emotions and states; anger, grief, fatigue, and hunger being just a few of them.
Wherever I went, the way I was - in other words, my character - came with me. As character is one thing that is cultivated (or degraded) with practice, that makes perfect sense to me. Karate taught me a certain way of being and this way of being was undoubtedly fused with Zen, given this is where karate's spiritual origins lie.
Yet my karate teachers were also Muslim and cultural aspects of Islam also found their way into my training. For example, the segregation of males and females in one of my training locations, where my teacher's concept of faith did not allow for the mixing of the genders. We also paused for prayer in some locations and shifted our training hours around fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
My karate teachers' nationalities - Iranian, Palestinian, and Egyptian - also found their way into my practice. As I speak Arabic and Farsi, it was normal for us to switch languages in classes. Language changed the experience of the class and by extension, my karate practice.
This Middle Eastern cultural infusion of a Japanese martial art worked well for me. I was a third culture kid - a child raised in the United Arab Emirates who grew up to work (and train) in multi-cultural settings in Doha, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beirut. British by passport but a little more worldly (or at least Middle Eastern) at heart.
It was the same in judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu practice. I trained in multi-cultural environments with teachers from Iran, the Cameroon, and the States. My training partners were French, British, Iranian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Australian, American, and Emirati, to name a few. Judo in particular - by way of being an Olympic sport - was particularly open to different cultures.
So when I "returned" to the UK some three years ago, to a predominantly white area in North West England, I experienced something of a cultural shock in practice. Physically, as a white person of English and Irish origin, I fitted into my new dojo perfectly. But emotionally and spiritually, I felt lost.
Although the teacher was a kind and competent person, as were my practice partners, the way of teaching and training just didn't speak to my heart. That we trained in a church hall had very little to do with this. If anything, that was the part that actually made sense, for practice had always contained a spiritual dimension for me.
It's hard for me to admit I'm capable of thinking something like that. That kindness and competence wasn't enough. A value I hold dear (or so I think) is one of embracing cultural diversity. Yet given my struggle to transition into a different cultural training environment, and accept new ways, is this value really what I practice? Or something that I'm still learning?
This is where the concept of practice as a broader concept becomes much more interesting to me as a researcher, and why the Zen saying above is one that still lingers.
When I reflect back on why my motivation to practice karate changed over time - from intense training to almost nothing in the space of one geographical move - I wonder if my practice had prepared me for the process of social change.
We practiced karate on the beach, on squash and tennis court floors, and in hotel gym studios. My instructor's dojo was based in another town and he would visit us to teach. As a result, I got used to practicing in all kinds of places. I learned how hard it was to train in sand and how much a squash court floor could burn and blister my sliding soles.
I thought I was fairly adaptable and able to weather change, at least in terms of terrain. I had also practiced in other countries, with other teachers and students and assumed that with whom I trained, and where I trained, would never be an issue.
Whenever I moved countries, as a result of my humanitarian work, I packed my belt and suit and assumed that I would find a way to carry on, and carry on I did. Yet the easiest change of all - back to my country of birth - proved to be the hardest "carrying on" of all. Almost overnight, the karate environment that had been so much a part of me, no longer touched my heart. The motivation to practice was no longer there.
It wasn't just karate. A similar dynamic with yoga had happened just a few years before. After years of practice and teaching while on mission, I returned to my childhood home of Dubai. Back to a peaceful life, and away from war. It should have been yoga heaven for me, as the city is packed with yoga studios. But within a year my practice and teaching had faded. Something was no longer there and looking back, it was my heart.
The way I practice karate and yoga were attached to cultural spaces in time. How I identified with both practices was influenced by these spaces. When those spaces changed, the practices did not survive. Perhaps because while they may have touched my heart, they hadn't actually taken root within my heart. They weren't deeply embedded enough within me for me to pack up and take anywhere.
Coming back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this post, I find myself exploring my identity and the concept of belonging in my various practices. To what extent does finding meaning in my practice - and belonging - matter to me?
Is my practice a reflection of my self-concept?
Is my practice a replacement for a strong sense of self?
Does my practice reflect the way I see the world around me?
Does my practice offer a way for me to belong?
Does my practice offer a way for me to escape?
Yoga and martial arts are aspects of myself. Both practices involved challenges that forged my character. Yet they were also crutches to my "self" during difficult times.
I found yoga during my first humanitarian mission to Jerusalem in my early twenties. It offered a way for me to cultivate peace of body, mind, and heart. It also offered a way for me to connect with my spiritual side when all my assumptions about a safe and kind world were shattered. That forced me to confront my existence and the purpose of life, and yoga was a big enough container in which to hold me as I did that.
As a teacher, yoga offered me a way to connect with other teachers and students on this path. These other teachers and students were travellers like myself. We offered each other spaces for connection without the need for so many words.
As a child, the karate dojo offered a predictable and orderly space where I felt at home. Later, as an adult practitioner, my practice offered me a way to feel at home again after many years of living and working abroad. It also offered me ways to reconnect with aspects of my personal power that some experiences had eroded.
Yet yoga and karate also offered me opportunities to escape. The more I practiced both, the more my identities became intertwined with theirs. For example, my holiday choices were influenced by where I could do my next yoga teacher training, and my free time was swallowed up with martial arts.
The extent to which I practiced meant I didn't have to deal with what was happening elsewhere in my life. For example, the absence of a loving relationship, and the absence of fulfilling work. I didn't need to think of these, or take steps to resolve these issues, so long as my yoga and martial arts practices were there. They were in many ways, the coping strategies I needed to get through life back then.
Today, I have a loving relationship and my work is for the most part fulfilling. Yet my yoga and martial arts practices are largely stalled. It isn't only geographical change that has caused this stalling. It is the time traditional practices such as martial arts and yoga take versus the time it takes to build a loving relationship and create work that is fulfilling. Neither fulfilling work nor loving relationships just land in our laps - if they do, we are quite fortunate!
Three years in, as my relationship and work begin to settle, and a global pandemic looks set to stay, I find myself looking towards the possibility of re-establishing my martial arts and yoga practices. But unlike before, where I drew on a need for community and cultural belonging, this time the motivation to practice lies first within myself.
My sense of "self" has evolved during these years away from practice. I have explored it through other activities such as running and lifting weights. I have qualified as a personal trainer and fitness instructor, and taught self-defence. I have gone on long country walks, ran and lifted weights in the snow, and swam and kayaked in cold reservoirs. My identity is more fluid yet my love of movement is just as strong.
There isn't as much drive to define who I am by my practices, or connect with others through my practice (although I remain open to the possibility of community practice when Covid social restrictions lift). Yet there is a need to find and connect with myself within a personal construct of practice and practice paradigm.
The cultural shock that accompanied my geographical move to the UK three years ago after 40 years in the Middle East is one that is only just beginning to make sense. Add to that a global pandemic and new way of life and well, there is even more to rearrange inwardly in terms of how I see and relate to myself, and how I see and relate to the world around me. Running and lifting weights won't quite cut the depth of practice such introspection and relating requires, but I suspect yoga or martial arts just might.
There is a need for practice as process - and a way to move through this process rather than think or write about it. Practice is ultimately experiential. It is what we live and do, not what we feel and think.
My ideal way of starting each day would be with yoga practice and to close each day, with martial arts practice. One wakes me up, the other winds me down. One opens me up to the possibility a new day holds, the other washes off the sweat of a day gone by. They are in many ways the perfect balance to each other. A sort of yin and yang.
As I prepare to return to practice, I come back to a question I posed at the beginning of this blog entry:
What if how I practice in one area of my life translates to how I practice something in another area of my life? Consciously or not?
What if how I practice love and purposeful work is now something that I bring back with me into my yoga and martial arts practice? What if the Zen aphorism really holds a grain of truth, and that all we do and how we do it is ultimately connected?
It will be a process, no doubt, of figuring out how to re-establish my practice routines. But this is the way practice goes, particularly over time. Life changes, our practices change - and along the way, so do we.
Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.