Learning – embodiment is the goal

 November 8, 2016

I love working with my voice teacher. In private lessons we spend about 80-90% of our time in loops of practice, observing (listening, sensing, feeling, watching) and feedback. Frequently she demonstrates what she is trying to elicit from my vocal performance so I can attune to the experience. We don’t spend very much time talking.

Why is this so important?

In The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation Denning, Dunham and Brown write, “Richard Strozzi-Heckler (2007) says that our bodies achieve beginner’s status with a skill after about thirty recurrences of a movement, advanced beginner status with three hundred recurrences, and basic competence with three thousand recurrences. These repetitions strengthen neural connections in the muscles and the parts of the brain that control them. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell (2008) says that people whose embodiment of a practice is so deep that they stand apart from most others have spent at least ten thousand hours practicing. This is an enormous amount of time that takes many years. Because the quality of the resulting skill depends on the focus and quality of the practices, it is essential to have standards for good practice from the beginning.”

It takes 30 repetitions to become a beginner. Wow! And it takes 3000 repetitions to build basic competence. Double wow!

The authors go on to say, “Modern research in brain and cognitive science explains why embodiment is so important and fundamental. Our cortex, the site of consciousness, can process sensory input at about forty events per second; in contrast, our limbic system, the site of the unconscious, can process about twenty million events per second (Lipton 2005, 166). Conscious thinking is mostly serial; unconscious thinking is mostly parallel. The body, therefore, moves our practices from conscious to unconscious performance so that they can be done far faster and better. The process of embodiment puts more and more of what we pay attention to into our unconscious. Experts and masters who fully embody a practice have no conscious awareness of how they actually perform it.”

Conscious processing occurs at the speed of forty events per second. Unconscious (embodied) processing happens at twenty million events per second. No wonder things seem so clunky when we they are new. And… through practice, they slide over to the embodied side of the ledger, freeing our attention to go elsewhere.

This is the science behind my ‘mantra’ that “thinking kills Kirtan.” Recall drivers education class as a teenager… Which pedal is the gas? Which the brake? Where are my turn signals? Very clunky at first… and anxiety provoking! We are scared we could kill someone… and we could! We are so focused on the mechanics of the car we have no attention left over to focus on the environment around us. Yet, over the years we have become so embodied in driving a car that we now cruise down the highway at high speeds, listening to music and holding an inner or outer conversation.

In the domain of Kirtan, how many times have you played a C major, three note chord, C/E/C, fingers 1/2/4? Think about where it is now, and how it was to play it the very first time. At first you had to think about it. Now (hopefully!) it is embodied.

I say we must move from our head (understanding) to our hands (embodiment) so we can share our hearts (Bhakti). We need to move as many actions as possible into the realm of embodiment. If we have 100 units of attention, we need as much of this as possible to be available for our band, the participants, working with the energy and responding to what is unfolding. This is leading Kirtan! If we are consciously processing playing the harmonium, singing, etc. we will utilize most, if not all, of these units of attention and have little left for other activity. Hence the need to practice, practice, practice for the sake of building embodiment. Embodiment is the goal, as it allows us to more skillfully and beautifully serve others through Kirtan.

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