3 min read

You can’t practice results, only techniques

You can’t practice results, only techniques. Ken McLeod describes this misunderstanding when it comes to spiritual practice.

Right speech, for instance, is described as truthful, relevant, considerate, and appropriate. That is a description of result.

What happens when you try to practice that way?

The best result is that you end up in a mess, tied up in knots, unable to speak or say anything. That is the best result because when you are completely tongue-tied, you are forced to see that something is wrong with this approach.

The more common and the more problematic outcome is that you act out, you perform, your idea of what right speech is. Almost inevitably, your speech will be contrived, disingenuous, inappropriate, and will ring false.

Attempting to practice the result of a path, rather than techniques on the path, leads to problems. The challenge is that results are clear and easy to point at. Techniques to those results, on the other hand, are manifold, and often conflict with each other.

Practicing technique is often boring, frustrating, and discouraging. It makes you recognize how far away from the result you are, and how much work there is left to do. And since different techniques often conflict with each other it's extremely hard to stay committed to one before the results reveal themselves—what if the technique is the reason you're not there yet?

So what is a technique Ken provides for the path to right speech? Quite simply, listen carefully to yourself when you speak. I originally was going to paraphrase his instructions, but here they are in full:

1) You are having a conversation with someone, or you are in a meeting, or you are giving a talk.

2) As you speak, listen to the sound of your voice as if you were listening to someone else speak.

3) Hear how you are speaking, what you are saying, how it comes across to you, etc.

4) Experience all this in your body. Experience your own emotional reactions to your speaking. Experience the thoughts and stories that come up as you listen to yourself speaking. You may have to do these one at a time before you can do them all at the same time. It's usually best to start with the physical reactions that arise when you listen to yourself speaking.

5) As you rest, you will probably sense some imbalance in how you are speaking. You may register that imbalance as a physical sensation (e.g., you feel some physical discomfort), as an emotional sensation (e.g., an emotional reaction to what you are saying or how you are saying it), or a cognitive sensation (e.g., a thought, perhaps, of "That's not quite true" or "That's not what I meant to say" or "That was a bit loud" or "Why am I mumbling?")

6) When you can experience all of that at the same time, ask "What experiences this?" Don't try to answer the question. The question itself usually precipitates a shift. Rest in that shift. If you don't experience a shift, breathe out, and rest at the end of the exhalation, letting body and mind rest naturally.

7) Keep speaking, but let what you are saying or how you are saying it change a little in light of the imbalance you noticed. Don't make a big adjustment. The idea here is to let the adjustment arise from the resting rather than from your idea of how you should be speaking. As Rumi said, "A white flower grows in the stillness/Let your tongue be that flower."

8) Now return to step 1. Say what you have to say, listen to your voice as you speak, and go through the steps again (and again, and again, and ...).

In any pursuit it's so easy to look at the end goal and then strain, stretch, and self-flagellate when you don’t magically leap to it. Or you perform a half-baked imitation of the result, and rationalize away the obvious dissonance and incorrectness.

The result and end-goal are still critical for setting the intent of the technique, but in the end, you can’t try to practice a result, you can only practice technique.