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Self-Practice – Past, Present and Future

(8 minutes read)

Zhan Wang, Floating Rock, Sculpture by the Sea, Photo Richard Watson

Self-Practice feels like a rock in the sea. A momentary sense of weight surrounded by constant change. Can it help respond to the inevitable with anything other than helplessness?

Or does it at least give confidence in a process that is self-directed by its own weight, and not eternally floating with shifts and turmoil?


I think of self-practice as a space rather than a series of actions. When I 'enter' this realm the rules are not exactly the same as the rules of daily life. I am in a place where my perception works differently. This way of thinking has received a new meaning and magnitude since recently opening my own physical space.


This is not the first time that I've had my own practice (and creation) studio. As a young dancer in Israel I felt the necessity to balance the daily rehearsals with my own movement, so I moved into a small house in a village with a storage that turned into a small movement studio. It accommodated the first structured movement research I’ve conducted. It was also where I found the metaphor of the archer as a role model for the aspiring mover. This experiment had to end prematurely due to economic and personal reasons, but the year spent in this magical studio imprinted within me the idea of self-practice as a space. Having an actual physical space to practice is a huge privilege but I think that the metaphysical understructure of this metaphor is more important than the actual walls and ceiling.



Painting by Susan Culver


Philosopher Bertrand Russel gave once a lecture on Astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a collection of stars called our galaxy. Towards the end of the lecture he was interrupted by an old woman who sat in the back of the room. "What you are presenting here is rubbish! The earth is not some floating ball, it is flat and standing on a Giant Tortoise!". Russel tried to keep his composure and responded; "If that's the case what is the tortoise itself standing on? " The old lady replied, "You are very clever young man, very clever. But it's actually turtles all the way down!"


This story has many versions, and while the hypothesis may seem absurd, the moral contains an important philosophical seed. All knowledge has to have a foundation. Something has to be at the bottom.

Finding the foundation of self-practice begins with moving away from 'problem solving' to 'storytelling'. People begin to practice when they confront a problem or an absence in their lives. Back pain, boredom, to improve a social skill or to fill up a lack of meaning. Whatever it is, the practice can work out the symptom but will often reveal something wider in the process. Dedication creates a practice that is both active and reflexive, it allows to question the essential Modus Operandi of the practitioner. In other words, it reveals the path that led to the problem. And very often it is deeper than it seems. The practice space is a parallel reality that reflects on the life story of the protagonist. It opens a loop of attention with safer consequences than 'real life'. Through skill development it can give us insights about how we tell our past story and how this narration leads us to act in the way we do. The practice is the place where we can confront how we see ourselves and what type of actions and behaviors emerge out of it.


So what is the fundamental of all self-practice? The person practicing.


What do the turtles stand on? The same thing that the self is based on, the faith that there is something underneath…




Once we understand the practice as a response to a personal absence, and that the fundamentals are the faith (or illusion) of the self. we are ready to begin with choosing our framework, or what I call 'practice design.’

While entering this topic, it is important to note that the potential for learning is both endless and finite at the same time. I once met an impressive Judo and BJJ black belt who demonstrated incredible physical skills and testified that martial arts changed his life for the best. It taught him more than he could ever imagine. Paradoxically, he also wished he would have had more time to practice painting. His expertise was accompanied by regret. His ability to reflect on where he is at this point with his practice (including what he lacks) was what impressed me the most. A Musashi style testimony about the abundance of possible human developments… The choice of mastery is accompanied by the choice to gracefully let go of a different path.

I don't see this experience as a problem but as a characteristic of the dedicated practitioner. An expression of the human condition. The more you practice, the more you know you don't know. You discover new aspects of yourself that sometimes can no longer be developed. This exploration makes you both fulfilled and sad at the same time. The practice design should allow co-existence between the two.  


Samurai archer - Mizuno Toshikata

So, what is practice design? The relationship between challenges and how to approach them. A constant questioning of the present:


What challenges will encourage my growth TODAY?


What tools do I have available NOW to confront these challenges?


Practically, the practice should have enough challenges that are not aligned with your natural strengths. For that reason, the approach should be accompanied by patience and critical thinking. Being exposed to constant challenge and stress can either break the spirit or turn the practitioner into an insensitive animal running forward without the ability for meaningful introspection. The ‘scientific’ tools to overcome challenges are either periodization or auxiliary devices. In terms of human movement, I think that the most impactful tools are the old-fashioned ones; notebooks, self-made training tools and most of all, high quality guidance. The combination of those is what I call practice design and it is critical if one wishes to turn the practice to self-practice in contrary to folk or traditional practice. Emancipation always happens in the present.





To understand how to look forward we have to synchronize our perspective and our objectives and goals. How we envision ourselves in relation to our goals can be visualized by the Kanisza Trianlge.

Kanisza Triangle 1


Metaphorically, our immediate goal will be to complete the triangle. "If I could only do that move, I would be complete. If I could only lift just this amount more or run a millisecond fast…"


These goals are important but what happens if we shift the perspective? Changing the angle of how we see our improvement WITHIN the foundation and the design we've created for our practice?


When objects are grouped together, they are seen as a whole. The brain ignores the gaps and completes the figure by itself. This is called 'The Law Of Closure'. The Kanizsa Triangle, for example, has the viewer perceive three black circles, and two triangles, even though there are no circles, or triangles that exist in the image. The non-existent triangle is what we naturally go for as a goal. What we feel is a natural completion automatically becomes an objective. A guide or readjustment of possible achievements can help us reposition the absence into larger complexity and further our destination.


Kanisza Triangle 2

The Law of Closure is not something we can escape from into full freedom. The practice is not merely a sum of its parts but what we are able to see in the space that it creates. What we can see becomes our objective and our direction of improvement. How can we keep on shifting the things that we can't change in order to see more objectives that we didn't know were relevant for us?


How can we find more absence rather than just completing the lines?


I believe that these questions themselves can become valuable tools for shifting perspectives. However, in the grand scheme of things, the right guidance or the right dialogue are the most efficient. A skillful teacher or a trusted practice partner…

Kanisza Triangle 3




The spoiler is that bringing it all together is not something that will necessarily cause a change. The things we fear cannot be fully worked out through practice. We will die, get sick, fail and lose. These are inevitable and no amount of practice can change them. It could be that taking on the Viktor Frankl approach can teach us something about the value of the right practice. Something in the realm of 'it's not about what happens to us but how we perceive it'. Practice can help us perceive. Also S.N. Goenka the founder of Vipassana meditation proposed a similar approach. To die with grace and to accept death gracefully is the result of a lifetime of practice according to him.


Nevertheless, practicing for the end of it is not such a bad idea. Any ending can be sudden and unexpected and yet, one wants to hope that in the last moment they have the choice of how to take their last breath. Delaying this moment as much as possible and accepting it as it comes holds a certain purpose. It can be the reason to stick with one's self-practice despite all the obstacles that could appear along the way. Eventually, we will only know at the end if we've managed to connect past, present and future in our practice. And by that time, would it even matter?


"I don't need a reason

For what I became

I've got these excuses

They're tired and lame

I don't need a pardon, no no, no no, no

There's no one left to blame

I'm leaving the table

I'm out of the game" – Leonard Cohen/ Leaving The Table.

The lonely boat man by Asha Sudhaker Shenoy


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