For a long time, practice to me meant practicing piano. It was a verb. I started playing piano when I was three. I don’t really remember much about it when I was really small, but I know I had to practice a half hour a day throughout childhood and an hour when I got older, and go to weekly piano lessons. If I didn’t practice, I couldn’t do what I wanted to (mostly go outside and play or read), because I wasn’t allowed. A lot of times, I played scales with a novel propped up in front of me. And if I didn’t practice, I would be humiliated in front of my teacher at my lesson (which had a high probability of happening anyway).
When I started doing yoga, I started thinking of practice as a noun. A yoga “practice.” For a long time, I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant though–was a yoga practice a certain set of poses you did? Or was it just the fact that you did yoga? Though I’m annoyingly literal, for some reason I never quite pinned that one down in my head, though I heard and read it over and over. I just let it be one of those things that I know what it means but wouldn’t be able to describe it precisely to another person (pretty much the definition of not actually knowing something).
In the last year, since adopting Cajun the wild reservation jackal, I’ve started running again. Running was something I was dedicated to for years, almost as much as climbing. But when my beloved companion Fletch first retired from running and then died of old age, I lost my passion for it. Frankly, it became kind of depressing to run without her.
And then Cajun came along, a bundle of energy and crazy athleticism with extra long legs that haven’t stopped growing, and one day I found myself putting on my running shoes and taking her out to the trail. The first day, it wasn’t very fun, as usual when you haven’t been running. Running doesn’t get really fun for at least two weeks when you first start (maybe one week if you have a long history of running and are just out of shape at the moment), which is my theory about why a lot of people think they don’t like it. Cajun was in heaven, and watching her pure puppy ecstasy was about as fun as anything has ever been. A few days later, we went again. By the third time, I was remembering how much I used to love running, watching Cajun bounce and dart all over the desert like a pronghorn, all full of smiles and puppyness. By the second week, I realized I was running again and I remembered I love running.
A while ago, I heard a radio interview with Edward Wilson, a fascinating man who has devoted his life to studying ants. He commented that one ant by itself is nothing. It may as well not even exist. Only as a part of the group, can an ant even live. For some reason, that really stuck in my head. And on the third run back it occurred to me that just like an ant, one run by itself is really nothing. In a way, it doesn’t even count as running. It’s only when you keep running, when you go day after day, week after week, that running becomes something, a thing you do, all the runs slowly adding up into this thing called running. It’s the total of running, the continuity of running that is running. And that must be the meaning of practice.