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The Secret of Practice

I remember one of the more acrobatic and impressive capoeira players I trained with (Marcelo de Caxias) telling me that his 3 secrets were training, training and yet more training. He smiled each time he said the word in Portuguese (treino).

Later I learned that whilst he was learning capoeira, he used to go to the morning 2 hour training session at his capoeira school in Brazil, work all day in a minimum wage job, then go to the evening 2 hour training session too and then do it all over again the next day, and the next, and the next…. He was both joking and not joking when he told us his 3 secrets!

Looking back on this time, I think all of us wanted to be able to play Capoeira like him, all of us understood that the way to do it was by practising, practising and more practising, but few (if any?) of us chose to make the changes necessary in our lives to do this.

And this is true not just in the Capoeira world, but also in many other paths which require practice and dedication. We know what we need to do, but for one reason or another we avoid doing it fully.

Instead what tends to happen is that we only follow the path half-heartedly and little by little our dreams are eroded by the vices of modern life gradually numbing us. The quick ‘buzz’ or ‘satisfaction’ we might get from junk food, TV, alcohol, drugs, video games, pornography, gambling and nowadays social media and smart phones starts to eat away at our creativity and our vitality. We slowly start to give up on our dreams. By the time we realise what we’ve done to ourselves, perhaps we think it’s too late and we resign ourselves to our fate. It doesn’t have to be this way - it’s never too late to make a change – but we do need to work on it. We need to practice.

There’s an old Chinese Zen story I particularly like about an eccentric Zen teacher known as the Tree Master — since he lived in a tree. Once a high lord, on hearing about the Tree Master’s wisdom, visited him and asked, “What is the deepest truth of Buddhism?”

The Tree Master replied, “Do good, avoid evil, benefit beings.” These are the three pure precepts of the Bodhisattva, which would have been known to every person of that time.

The lord, perhaps affronted by the apparent triviality of the teacher’s response, said, “Why, even a three-year-old child knows that!”

The Tree Master retorted, “Yes, but even an old man like me finds it hard to practice.”

There are many things I love about this short and simple story, but the aspect I want to highlight is the vision I have of the old Master happily practising away in the tree. I see him up there amongst the branches, birds and leaves – playing simply like a child does when climbing trees.

This playfulness and enjoyment in practice or training is also part of the secret. When you practice like this, the practice gives you something, and you look forward to it, or at a very minimum you feel better after practice than how you felt beforehand. This is important. Practice should not be punishment.

Sometimes in our busy modern lives we forget the importance of playing, and just like the high lord, we often overlook what is right in front of us, chasing after distant far away things to make us happy instead. Whatever we dedicate our lives to, we don’t have to look too far. All we need to do is keep working away, practising, and remembering to also enjoy ourselves and play when we practice.


If you look closely, you’ll notice that even a three-year-old child knows that.

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