One of my yoga teachers read a passage several years ago in class. He was talking about when a pitcher throws a ball, he doesn’t “think” about throwing the ball, he just throws it. You could use that metaphor for any professional athlete; the idea of Michael Jordan dunking the basketball; of Pete Sampros serving a tennis ball; Tom Brady throwing a football, Anika Sorenstan swinging a golf club. Hours of practice and god-given talent have rendered their skill to the point where they no longer “think” about what they are doing, they just do it, at the appointed time, in an organic way.
It’s not just athletic skills that lend themselves to this concept. If you’ve ever seen a singer, dancer, actor, concert pianist or conductor in their element, you see this come to life. Any skill you can conceive of can lend itself to this idea. Even in the academic area, you’ll meet those that completely live their subject; they draw on examples from real life, they extend the concept or subject matter to practical living in a way that deepens the understanding of the student so retaining the information is so much easier. Whenever you are around someone that can bring a concept to life in a real way, you have met someone that owns the subject matter to a degree that is beyond book learning and in the realm of unconscious competence.
Knowledge doesn’t start out that way. In any of the above examples, even in the case of athletes that are born with a certain level of hereditary talent, they need to practice in order to nurture and grow that talent. Maybe they have a leg up on the rest of us but they still practice their craft. Knowledge is a continuum and just as we learned how to walk by taking a lot of spills and by really concentrating, we start out at a level of having to think hard about what we’re doing. Again, in this concept, it’s referred to as the first level of knowledge, or “conscious incompetence.” Here, we don’t really have the skill, we don’t even really know what we don’t know but we know that we don’t know it! That ‘s the “conscious part.” We are aware we lack the skills and the knowledge about the particular subject matter and when we are doing whatever ‘it’ is, there is a tremendous amount of thinking involved. Remember when you learned to ride a bike and you took the training wheels off? It took a lot of concentrating and thinking to try to create the right sense of balance and biomechanics so you would stay vertical and moving forward at the same time.
Eventually, as in the bike example, you start to get the hang of it. You’re moving into the phase where you know more about the subject matter but you’re still thinking about it as you do it. So, it’s more “competent” but still very “conscious.” This is the stage known as “conscious competence.” If yours is an academic skill, you may need your notes, but you have a good understanding of the subject; if yours is a physical skill, you may find that you’re more able to move your body in a fluid way but there is still a lot of thinking going on. At this level, knowledge is beginning to take hold but there is still a lot of support going on to attain knowledge and answer the questions you have.
Pretty soon, over time, with consistency and commitment, you get to the point we started out at, which is “unconscious competence.” You know it; it’s ingrained in your being. You can answer questions on the fly. If someone were to ask you why you do it, why you love it, you’d answer in a way that is completely your own and from your heart. You still need to keep yourself in a learning mode and you do that, through practice, through reading, through being around like-minded people.
How does this apply to a yoga practice? Since I’m a yoga student, first and foremost and also a yoga teacher, I’m always thinking of ways to apply different concepts, physical or otherwise, to my own yoga practice. I remember starting out as a newer student and how I devoured everything there was to read about yoga. I went to class every other day for months, well into my first year, and spent all my free time learning as much as I could. I went to workshops, teacher trainings and over time, realized that teaching yoga was something I wanted to do. Over time, there were poses that would have originally challenged me that became routine. There were scenarios, like walking into the studio either to take class or teach, that used to create anxiety that no longer gave me butterflies. There was a sense of ‘knowing’ that was missing, and was now filled.
My practice then went into a phase of unconsciousness; I hesitate to say “competence” because that’s always a difficult word to apply to yoga “practice.” People like to say that it’s called a yoga “practice” not a yoga “perfect” because the paradigm of yoga is that we practice it not to perfect the poses but to help us tap into what’s real and authentic in our bodies. We practice it not to master it to a level where we can do the most challenging poses but to learn as much as we can so we can do that which makes us feel wonderful about our bodies just the way they are, in this moment. That’s not to say that we let ourselves off the hook from a “being challenged perspective” but it means that we are truthful with ourselves about what we’re capable of right now and we push ourselves to our growing edge with grace, compassion and love. So, as I moved into an unconscious phase, I got a bit careless. I rushed to class; I practice on auto-pilot. I came and went with a speed that spoke to efficiency and not one of enjoyment when it came to what I was doing. Herein lies the risk of moving towards knowledge; as it becomes more engrained in our being, we take chances, we cut corners (not always, but sometimes).
There are times in our lives when we move through these phases around different subject matter. We just start a new job; there we are at the beginning. We take a trip to Italy after learning Italian and find ourselves chatting almost effortlessly with a local at coffeeshop and we realize we’re consciously competent. We finish our first marathon after training for months and realize running is engrained in our body after months of work. The risk we run as we get “smarter” is that we get careless so there is always something to be gained from the beginner phase. There are many writings about Zen philosophy that refer to “beginner’s mind” and this concept has never lost its relevance. To keep an element of the beginner in all that you do around your subject matter is to keep things always fresh and to keep a sense of being humble about you. This helps keep you grounded and real and truthful and this is always a good thing.
We all have something that we can say is our “unconscious competence.” We all have wisdom, engrained in us from life experience, book learning, being committed to something, being around like-minded people whom we admire. We all are teachers, of something, in one way or another. We all have something to share of value, and if we open ourselves up to share what we have, not to give advice but to share, we can open the door to knowledge and wisdom in someone else. When we talk about the concept of “paying it forward” this applies here; the idea that as we learn and become inspired, we share that knowledge with someone else in the hopes that they can be inspired too. It’s the circle of life from a learning perspective, kept alive by the love and joy of others around the topic, subject matter or physical practice of their craft.
So as you are learning that something new, as you’re working on your own “competence” around something, remember another famous saying, “ Do not despite the days of small beginnings;” the days when we struggle to learn and feel awkward and clumsy. For these are days you will never have again. And the contrary, as you move towards a greater knowing; towards a level of excellence in your craft, remember that you are first and foremost a student and as such you have a responsibility to honor those that took the time to teach you by sharing your knowledge with others. Not in a way where you’re giving advice but in a truthful way, where you share your joy and excitement about learning and hope to spark in them an inner-knowing that will fuel the more academic stages of learning. For in us all resides a teacher, and a teacher who is not sharing knowledge is depriving the world of wisdom from which we can all benefit; most of all, the benefit will be yours as you share the joy your knowledge brings you.