When I was first learning to surf, my experienced-surfer friend, Clare, encouraged me to practice my pop-ups. She recommended lying on my stomach on the living room floor and practicing the process of paddling, then pushing up and popping up. The pop up is important in surfing and something most beginner surfers struggle with. It’s the movement that allows you to go from lying prone on the board to being up on your feet in two quick movements. First, you push your chest up off of the board (think upward facing dog, not push up), then you bring your feet forward in one movement placing them on the board and becoming upright. Many people will hesitate meaning they only get to one knee, which can work for a while but will eventually, if not immediately, hold back some success.
I practiced this on the floor at home. I practiced it with her in the sand on the beach before we would paddle out. I immediately understood the importance of the practice—to build muscle memory. Muscle memory is procedural memory. It’s building the coordination between movement in a way that allows you to complete the movement without conscious effort. Practicing the pop up is helpful for a beginner (and really any) surfer because it allows the movement to be made without conscious effort.
Imagine yourself sitting on a board, watching the waves come in. You finally decide there is one that is coming at you in the right way that you can be in position to paddle for it. You are paddling forward checking the wave’s position against yours as you paddle. The paddling requires a big effort so you are paddling hard, the wave hits, you start to feel it pushing your forward. This is the moment for the push up/pop up sequence. If you are like me, a lot of mental energy already went in to getting to that point. I am still a little hesitant that I might nose in causing the board and me to pushed under the water. In that moment, the muscle memory of the pop up allows me to commit without much mental energy and get to my feet. I’m getting better at this but it has taken A LOT of practice.
I see this pattern repeated over and over again in my life. Practicing the piano, when I was young, was building muscle memory. Learning to type. Learning to play the saxophone. Cheerleading stunts and dances. Volleyball skills. The repetition builds muscle memory which eventually makes the activity unconscious.
Muscle memory is another term for motor learning–the repetition of a movement until it become automatic. It’s easy to think of physical examples of this, but what I want to write about today are the other practices I do that are kind of like muscle memory.
I want to create so I write. You get to see some of it here but I write way more for myself than I publish. When I first decided to start writing, I wrote at least five times a week for 6 months before I published anything. And even when I started publishing, it wasn’t because I felt ready. I just recognized that I would never feel ready. It would always feel vulnerable to share my writing, and I wanted to do it anyway. So most days I write something for myself, even it if’s just a short paragraph. And I try to post here three times a week. I’ve said this before, but this has been the single greatest sanity builder. There is something healing in the creativity of this practice. I process things through writing that I can’t process any other way. After I wrote the post on Sunday, I emerged from my bedroom and my mom, who was visiting, said, “You look lighter!” On days when I feel blocked, I remind myself to simply keep writing, to keep showing up for myself.
I want to have courage so I ask myself what feels brave and I do it. At least I really try to. I live with a lot of fear. It wakes me up in the early morning some days. It makes it hard to fall asleep some nights. I have found that the best antidote for fear is to remind myself that I am brave. A while back, I wrote a courage list in my journal. I made a list of everything I had done in my life that required courage. What a helpful exercise! Now, I have made it a conscious practice to be brave in my life. When I do my morning thought download and empty out what’s in my mind, I sort through it to identify which thoughts are the fear voice. This consciousness allows me to know when fear is driving the car so I can kindly ask fear to get in the backseat. There is not much that feels better than the feeling that comes after courage.
I want to be sane to I expose myself to the outdoors and exercise. If it’s been more than a day or two without it I start to get antsy. That’s the muscle memory. That’s the intrinsic reminder that I need to recharge in this important way.
These are a few examples of mental/emotional muscles I’m trying to strengthen. Here’s why I care. When life is going good, I don’t really need these things. It’s when it gets hard that they become so important. It’s when the wave is about to roll me that I need the muscle memory of the pop up so I can get to my feet and ride the wave. Because—there are days when I absolutely need to write and I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to face the reality of what’s in my mind. There are days when I hesitate to do the brave thing—so many days when I want to let fear drive the car. There are days when it’s hard to do the mom thing and go to work and run the household and care for the friends and family around me.
Those are the days I need the muscle memory. I need my body and spirit to know what to do because I’ve been practicing it. It’s the physical manifestation of my intention.
Something I’m just starting to work on is play. Brené Brown calls it “laughter, song and dance” in her research. I used to be really good at this but it’s been buried in the seriousness of life. My life, even the things I enjoy, has become a checklist of activities that have a function for my mental or physical health, household function or work. I think I need a serious intervention to bring play back into my life, so if you have any suggestions, please help me out!
Malcom Gladwell wrote, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” I’m less concerned about getting good at any of this and more concerned about being freed by it. But, I like his acknowledgment that the power is in the process, not in its perfection. So let’s be intentional about what we practice and let’s be kind to ourselves as we do it. Namaste.