05 November 2008

Practice and its rewards

Consider the champion gymnast: her entire body a testament to the vigorous exercise regime and iron discipline required for it to move – to somersault, pivot, spin and soar – as it does. Our admiration for the gymnast in motion is partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because we recognise the unseen dedication implicit in the flawless execution of the maneuvers. We do not envy or begrudge her grace and power because we understand that she has paid a price for such goods. We see justice done in the incredible control of her physicality; we witness the law of causality obeyed in the focused output of her mind.

The gymnast serves as a model for anyone aiming to build a character devoted to virtue, dignity and happiness. The ancient Greek philosophers realised that the mind, like the body, can be trained for excellence, that it could exercise itself in developing its nobility. In a manner analogous to the physical practice of the gymnast, the person who desires it can train their mental muscles to attain eudaimonia – happiness or human flourishing. But as with any pursuit of a worthy goal, physical or psychological, continuous effort is the price demanded. There are no shortcuts to the good.

Neuroscientific studies validate the Greeks’ ideas of self-cultivation. Constant practice of any skill builds new and reinforces existing neural connections in the brain, making information transfer faster and more efficient. This translates into the easier performance of any particular skill, whether riding a bicycle, programming in software code or maintaining a calm state of mind in the midst of chaos. Yet to acquire fluency in a skill necessitates action on our part. Skills do not simply flow into a passive receiver. What we call ‘talent’ is merely an innate predisposition towards certain skills, but talent without practice yields only a stillborn promise of achievements that could have been, but never were.

It is insufficient to simply wish to be nobler in thought and action. One must exercise the muscles of the mind constantly, keeping that virtuous, dignified and happy individual before you as the ideal to realise. The musician, observed Aristotle, becomes a good musician through playing his instrument regularly, and with purpose. To live is to play the most important music ever. Practice, always, to play it well, to play it virtuously, with dignity, happily. As with the gymnast, when others bear witness to your eudaimonia, those who understand justice will not envy or begrudge you your joy and contentment. They will recognise the law of causality in action; your diligent practice has earned you your right reward.


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