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Authors: Thomas M. Sterner

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The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life

More Praise for
The Practicing Mind

“Thomas Sterner’s book has provided helpful information in all areas of my life. As a business leader, I became more effective; as a public speaker, more dynamic; as a parent, more attentive; and with my weekend hobbies, I learned to have more fun and increase skills.
The Practicing Mind
helped me realize that the way to get to an end was just as important as the end, if not more so. Life is a journey and not a destination; thanks to Mr. Sterner, I love the journey.”

— Ralph Citino, banking professional

The Practicing Mind
engagingly transforms difficulty into devotion, offering a practical, easy-to-understand approach that will transform your view of even the most challenging or mundane steps on your journey of life. In clear language and interesting personal anecdotes, Thomas Sterner shows us that by mindfully focusing on the
of pursuing our goals, we can let go of attachments to the outcomes we cannot control. So much suffering in our modern world could be alleviated if everyone absorbed Sterner’s very wise lessons.”

— Marney K. Makridakis, author of
Creating Time
and founder of

The Practicing Mind
, Tom Sterner achieves a rare combination: he provides not just a clear set of practical steps for creating focused effort but also a theoretical background that can help us to reframe our expectations and values so that we can keep in perspective the difference between process and product, progress and goals. Highly recommended.”

— Dr. Scott A. Davison,
professor of philosophy at Morehead State University
and author of
On the Intrinsic Value of Everything

“Thomas Sterner elucidates a paradox of life: real achievement requires patience and discipline, and in order to develop these qualities one must apply both of them. He then guides us, with many practical examples from his own experience, to resolve this paradox through the application of mindfulness. Sterner shows us how to be present, how to observe without judging, and in the process, we liberate our natural ability to learn. Paradoxically, as you embrace the process-oriented approach described in
The Practicing Mind
, you’ll achieve better results in any endeavor.”

— Michael J. Gelb, author of
How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci
Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age

“In a society of immediate gratification, Thomas M. Sterner’s book
The Practicing Mind
almost parodies itself. Designed to be a primer for slowing down, becoming more aware of the present moment, and increasing self-discipline and focus, Sterner’s brilliance shines through in the brevity of this complex book’s pages. . . . [T]his tiny but intense book delivers enough information to contemplate and apply for a lifetime.”

Roundtable Reviews

Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life


Copyright © 2005, 2012 by Thomas M. Sterner

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means — electronic, mechanical, or other — without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

Originally published by Mountain Sage Publishing in 2005

Text design by Tona Pearce Myers

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sterner, Thomas M., date.

 The practicing mind : developing focus and discipline in your life : master any skill or challenge by learning to love the process / Thomas M. Sterner. — 1st ed.

    p. cm.
Includes index.

ISBN 978-1-60868-090-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Mind and body. 2. Persistence. 3. Self-control. I. Title.

BF151.S74 2012




First New World Library edition, April 2012

ISBN 978-1-60868-090-0

Printed in Canada on 100% postconsumer-waste recycled paper

New World Library is proud to be a Gold Certified Environmentally Responsible Publisher. Publisher certification awarded by Green Press Initiative.

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

This book is dedicated
to the gentle spirit of my mother,
Margaret Sterner.
You taught so many, so much,
with so few words.




1. The Learning Begins

2. Process, Not Product

3. It’s How You Look at It

4. Creating the Habits We Desire

5. Perception Change Creates Patience!

6. The Four “S” Words

7. Equanimity and DOC

8. Teach and Learn from Children

9. Your Skills Are Growing


About the Author


would like to thank the people who made this book possible.

To my wife, Jamie, and my two daughters, Margie and Melissa, I say thank you for believing in me and being patient with the long process of getting here.

To my father, I must say thank you for a lifetime of support and friendship beyond any words.

Finally, to my close friend and editor (perhaps an unusual combination) Lin Bloom McDowell, thank you for helping me to say what I needed and wanted to say. Editors are the invisible heroes who make creating a book possible.


eal peace and contentment in our lives come from realizing that life is a process to engage in, a journey down a path that we can choose to experience as magical.

The Practicing Mind
is about remembering what you already know at some level and bringing that memory into the present, where it will both serve to place you on that path and empower you to partake in the journey. This book will reintroduce you to a process you followed to acquire a skill before you knew what
meant, and it will remind you that life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort to refine the motions, both physical and mental, that compose our days.

We all understand that activities such as learning to play a musical instrument and developing a fundamentally sound golf swing are skills and as such require practice. But in fact, life is a journey that requires and even forces us — either consciously or unconsciously — to master
one skill after another. We easily forget that when our lives here began, learning to walk and to articulate our thoughts and feelings started from a place of “no skill.” Driven by both desire and necessity, we mastered these skills one step at a time, one sound at a time, and, perhaps most important, without a sense of struggle. Just as with such endeavrs as music or golf, we acquired these skills by the process we call
: the repetition of an activity with the purposeful awareness and intention of accomplishing an intended goal.

In our overpaced and overstressed world today, we use the word
to define a personal asset; for example, we might say, “That is not part of my skill set.” At the same time, our recognition of the value of possessing many diverse skills is expanding. Ironically, though, we miss the point that the ability to develop any skill as swiftly as possible, with the least amount of effort, and even to experience inner peace and joy in the process, is in fact a skill itself, and one that requires constant practice to become an effortless part of who we are.

When we learn to focus on and embrace the process of experiencing life, whether we’re working toward a personal aspiration or working through a difficult time, we begin to free ourselves from the stress and anxiety that are born out of our attachment to our goals, our sense that “I can’t feel happiness until I
my goal.” This “goal” always takes the form of someplace we have not yet reached, something we don’t yet have but will at some point, and then, we believe, all will be right in our life.

When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of
instead of
the goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering.

We describe those who demonstrate this “skill” as possessing such qualities as self-discipline, focus, patience, and self-awareness, and we recognize that these all-important virtues are interwoven threads in the fabric of true inner peace and contentment in life. With this skill, we are masters of the energy we expend in life, and without it, we are victims of our own unfocused and constantly changing efforts, desires, and directions.

The Practicing Mind
helps you to understand and develop this skill as a natural part of who you are, and to understand how the culture we live in constantly instructs us to the contrary. This book is about how learning to live in the present moment and becoming process-oriented centers us on this magical path and brings us a wonderful sense of patience with both ourselves and our lives as we learn to enjoy our journey.

Everything in life worth achieving
requires practice. In fact,
life itself is nothing more than one
long practice session, an endless effort
of refining our motions. When the proper
mechanics of practice are understood,
the task of learning something new becomes
a stress-free experience of joy and calmness,
a process which settles all areas in your life
and promotes proper perspective
on all of life’s difficulties.


hen I was a child, I studied the guitar, though I was so young at the time (just four years old) that I don’t remember much of it. However, as I look back on the music I played, it’s fair to say that I acquired a substantial amount of skill. Yet I quit after two years and did nothing much, musically speaking, for the next several years. At the age of nine, like so many kids growing up, I began studying the piano. Once again, this lasted briefly, this time only ten months, and the son for this was that I really didn’t enjoy practicing. If asked why, I probably would have said that it was boring and difficult, and that I felt as if I wasn’t getting any better. Though my perspective may have been accurate at the time, it stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t very good at the process of practicing music, or practicing anything else, for that matter. Unfortunately, I was far from sophisticated enough to realize this. However, because of my love for music, I eventually returned to the piano and did go on to learn to play.

During my late teens and early twenties, when I was still single, I pursued music very seriously and achieved a fair amount of success. I could compose and arrange in just about any style. I played as a professional in many settings, from the nicest country clubs to the worst taprooms. I put together a rather expensive recording studio and became acquainted with some of the better-known songwriters and artists in the worlds of pop, jazz, and country. By the time I hit my midtwenties, I was a pretty good musician by most people’s standards.

My musical development continued, and by the time I reached my midthirties, I began to realize that something had really changed in me with regard to my feelings toward practicing. I not only loved to practice and learn anything but found the total immersion of myself into an activity to be an escape from the daily pressures of life. I even felt cheated if I was deprived of an opportunity to practice something, such as a particular aspect of my golf swing. Much more important, I was beginning to understand that all of life is practice, in one form or another. Until then, like most people, I mistakenly associated the word
only with art forms such as music, dance, and painting. I did not see dealing with a cranky child, an overburdened work schedule, or a tight monthly budget as actions that required applying the same principles as learning music did.

As my comprehension of the relationship among life, mental discipline, and practice grew, I began to direct all my effort into defining the fundamentals of the
, and into observing when and how often I applied these fundamentals in daily living. I wanted to better understand the changes in my perspective that had created such a turnaround in my attitudes toward the process of learning something new. Had I just grown up and matured, or was something more defined, something more tangible, developing in my mind? I knew I processed life differently than I had in the past, but what were the mechanics of the new system? That was what I needed to know.

I didn’t realize at the time that it was my experience of learning music growing up that had laid the foundation that would help me understand both the mental and spiritual struggles in which I now found myself as I searched for answers. Those early experiences — of wanting to accomplish something while dealing with a personality that was not particularly well disciplined at the time — went a long way toward helping me understand why we fail at endeavors that might be very important to us. My successes and failures in music provided me with a point of reference to which I constantly compared my daily experiences. That is why you will see references to music throughout this book. It is not, however, necessary that you yourself have studied music to feel a kinship with me as I describe the aspects of music that taught me so much. Since the nature of the practicing mind exists in all activities of life, you will, no doubt, be able to relate my experiences to those that you have had in your own life.

As important as music was to my learning process, it
wasn’t the activity that first inspired change in how I approached daily life. Instead, I first became aware of the shift in my perspective toward practicing when, on my wife’s advice, I took up golf in my early thirties. I think, initially, the reason I didn’t see my early days of musical study as being a backdrop for this change in awareness was because those experiences were so far removed from the present day. Indeed, by this time in my life, music was second nature to me, and my practice regimen was so natural that I no longer had the perspective of a struggling student. Golf, on the other hand, was totally new to me. I knew almost nothing about it, and I had no preconceived ideas of how it should be played.

In the beginning, my father-in-law would take me out to play on his course, and I would rent or borrow some old clubs. I quickly experienced the frustrations of the game, but what made a bigger impression on me was that I didn’t see anybody playing who was really any good. Most of the people I observed had been playing golf for as long as I had been playing piano, and yet in their own activity they hadn’t gotten out of book one, so to speak. They played terribly and seemed clueless about how to fix their problems with the game.

What I mean is that even though they had played golf weekly for many years, they still couldn’t accomplish basic things, such as getting the ball up in the air. They couldn’t hit the ball where they were aiming, they never improved, and they had no idea why. By that time, they should have been able not only to hit the ball hundreds
of yards at their target but also to do things like make the ball go high or low and curve its flight from right to left at will. Armed with their total lack of knowledge of how they
swing the golf club, or what they actually looked like when they did, they were repeating the same lack of fundamental skills over and over again and expecting different results. To compare this to music, it would be like watching someone who had been playing the piano for twenty years get frustrated at his inability to play more than one note at a time because he didn’t realize he was supposed to play with his fingers, not his elbows.

Perhaps my biggest advantage was that, even though I was not uncoordinated, I had not excelled in any sports growing up. Therefore, I assumed I would need to find an instructor to guide my learning process, lest I end up like so many other eternally frustrated golfers. Also, because I had grown up trying to learn to play musical instruments (besides guitar and piano, I also studied the flute and saxophone), I
that mastering the skills that would bring both consistency and joy to the game would take time and applied effort. It never occurred to me that golf would be a quick or easy study. I was undaunted by, but yet aware of, the fact that despite my ability to play the piano well, I had fallen short of many of my musical goals. I comforted myself with my knowledge that I was an adult now, armed with an adult mentality and all that I had learned from those failures. I was sure this would see me through to achieving my goals in this newfound endeavor.

What I learned from golf was that all my failures in music had stemmed from my lack of understanding the proper mechanics of practicing, of the process of picking a goal, whatever that may be, and applying a steady effort toward achieving it. Perhaps most important, I realized that I had learned how to accomplish just that
the frustration and anxiety usually associated with such an activity.

Golf provided me with my first opportunity to quantify these mechanics into something tangible to someone with my upbringing; before this point, I was lie everyone who had come before me. I wanted the joy and benefits that are rewarded to the individual who perseveres at working toward a lofty personal goal. I wanted to experience the self-discovery that one attains by picking a goal and steadily working toward it, regardless of the pitfalls and frustration. This desire to learn is only the first step, though. Without an understanding of proper practice mechanics, and without an awareness of our own internal workings, we’re almost certain to use up the initial inspiration and motivation that propelled us into our endeavor, leaving us feeling we cannot reach the goal that had seemed so worth striving for just a short time earlier.

Why bother with any of this? This is a question I asked myself. I mean, really, what is the relevance of this to how we live our lives day to day? How does understanding and developing this mindset impact what we experience moment by moment, what we accomplish, and who we are? The answer is that this mindset influences everything. It is
the blank page on which we draw our lives. It determines not only what we draw but also what we are
to draw. It shapes every aspect of who we are, what we become, and how we see others. It is self-discipline and self-awareness. It gives us patience with ourselves, with others, and with life itself. It is certainly one of the most powerful and meaningful gifts we can give ourselves — and yes, only
can give this gift to ourselves.

Our culture today is one built on multitasking. Multitasking is emphasized not just to increase productivity (which never seems to be enough), but for survival. We teach it to ourselves, and we teach it to our children. We are always doing and thinking of more than one thing at a time.

Think about the simple act of driving a car. What is the first thing many of us do after we start the car? We turn on the radio. Now we are driving
listening to the radio. If someone is with us, we are carrying on a conversation on top of that. If we are alone, we might talk on a cell phone. Our minds are juggling many activities, and our energies are very dispersed. Even though this tires us completely, it has become normal for us as our world moves faster and faster. We don’t even question the levels of absurdity that multitasking reaches at times.

Years ago, I took one of my daughters to a skating party sponsored by the sixth grade of her school. I told her I would sit inconspicuously in the concession area and read while she skated. Here is what I saw and heard as I observed the scene. Six TV monitors hung from the ceiling
along the main side of the rink, where people put on their skates. Each TV played a different channel, and each one’s volume competed with those of all the other TVs. Loud music was playing throughout the rink. There was a video-game area where about a half-dozen full-size arcade machines blared out their own sound effects. There was also a seven-foot TV screen at one end of the rink playing a music video that was different than the music playing on the house PA system. Finally, there were all these eleven-year-old kids skating around the rink, and none of them were talking to one another. How could they? Just skating while absorbing all this sensory input that the mind needed to process was exhausting.

At times we must do several things at once, but the problem for us is that we are so used to always multitasking that when we decide we want to reel in our minds and focus ourselves on just one activity, we can’t. Our minds are so agitated, and that agitation has a tremendous amount of momentum. It doesn’t want to stop moving. It tires us out and stresses us out. We find we can’t sit still, and we canRtion >be still. However, the practicing mind is quiet. It lives in the present and has laser-like, pinpoint focus and accuracy. It obeys our precise directions, and all our energy moves through it. Because of this, we are calm and completely free of anxiety. We are where we should be at that moment, doing what we should be doing and completely aware of what we are experiencing. There is no wasted motion, physically or mentally.

Going back to the car example, how many times have
you driven somewhere and then noticed that you didn’
t remember a portion of the ride? The reason you experience this is because instead of focusing on driving the car, your mind was overflowing with unrelated thoughts. So few people are really aware of their thoughts. Their minds run all over the place without their permission, and they go along for the ride unknowingly and without making a choice. Instead of observing their thoughts and using their thoughts to serve themselves, they are
their thoughts.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would be amusing. We are convinced that because our technology is evolving, we must be evolving, too. We think that because we have cell phones with cameras in them, we must be more advanced than people who lived twenty-five hundred years ago; but in fact, those people in the past were much more aware of their internal world than we are because they weren’t distracted by technology. We have all this technology, which is supposed to make our lives easier, yet it doesn’t. They had none of the technology, but they had much simpler lives and perhaps a better understanding of how their minds worked.

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