Turn here

January 2nd, 2008

When we were little, my mother would drive us to our babysitter’s house early each morning so she could go to work as a schoolteacher. My big sister and I walked to our elementary school from there. My little sister, who was about 2, stayed at the sitter’s all day.

The three of us sat in the backseat as my mom drove the familiar few miles of the daily route. This was before car seats– egad – it was even before seatbelts, so you won’t be shocked to hear that my little sister stood on the hump of the floorboard and gripped the back of the front seat as we rode. She would stand like that and speak into my mom’s right ear, saying:

Turn here! Turn here!

My baby sister wasn’t giving my mom directions to the sitter’s house; she was giving her directions away from the sitter’s house. It was so funny: as if just hearing the words would cause my mom to steer away from the same old, everyday destination.

My mom, of course, couldn’t turn. But I can, and I do, every time I remember.

As always happens in the dharma, or your life, the very conversation you’re having gives you the inspiration you’re seeking. The very question you ask contains the insight you need. And so it happened in a dialogue yesterday about towels and trash and teeth flossing.

Why is it so hard to do what we know we should do?

Because it takes self-discipline, I replied. All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different direction. Toward one thing, away from another: the particulars in any situation don’t matter because we always know the right way. A different way. With practice, you get better at turning.

Even as I responded I was remembering a fascinating article I read in the paper a year or two ago. It was an account of the rather startling finding in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a book based on a study of how people get really good at what they do. The book shocked everyone by disputing the notion of talent. How people get really good at something is not because they have more talent but because they practice more.

Specifically, they do deliberate practice. Not just mindless repetition, but mindful repetition – directional, correctional and concentrative.

Turn here! Turn here!

Friends, this is my practice. This is Zen. It is not anything new you need to learn about. It is not some new information you need to study. It is not anything you haven’t heard before. It is just a turn you might not have yet made, or made again, and again, and again.

Maezumi Roshi used to say he was so sick of himself. So sick of hearing himself saying the same thing over and over again. Nyogen Roshi, my teacher now, says the same thing.
As a student, I get sick of hearing them say the same thing over and over again too. I’ve heard the same thing about a million times over. But then, for the first time, I might actually hear it. And then I might actually do it. And when I do, I arrive in a different place altogether: into the wide-open, beautiful, limitless and unknowable life right in front of me.

Turn here! Turn here!

Someone who advises me on my writing usually bounces things back to me with the encouragement to try again, reminding me that readers like to be taken on a journey. I’m sure that’s true, but this advice frustrates and perplexes me, at least momentarily. My readers are already on a journey – a desperate, painful, heart-wrenching, anxious, chaotic, and unfulfilling journey. They take this journey every day and night, incessantly, and even given the information and encouragement to go somewhere else, they usually never do. They might die on the same forsaken highway, having missed all the exits.

My practice is not a journey. Or if it is, it is a journey of one turn.



  1. “two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting. ” That is why taking music lessons makes us better, and that is why it is easier for celebrities to stay thin: they have personal trainers. I always felt that quality of practice was so much more important than quantity, so often we learn that practice is rote repetition.

    The talent is knowing how to learn. Oh, and learning with others help too 🙂

    Comment by Mika — January 2, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

  2. i’ve been reading here for a while, but don’t always find or i suppose make the time to comment. i wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts and words in this space…they are a source of constant inspiration.
    wishing you and yours a wonderful new year…i’ll be here reading and learning through it all 😉

    Comment by Kirsten Michelle — January 2, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  3. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for stopping by my little space in the world and making yourself known. I actually facilitate a DBT group (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that uses a lot of concepts derived from Zen Buddhism. Really valuable.

    Comment by Terri — January 2, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  4. We had an orange 1967 mustang convertible with white leather seats. I stood UP in the backseat and sang Aretha Franklin songs at the top of my lungs at every stoplight. Talk about no seatbelts.

    As for the article about practice vs. talent? Not missing the exit? Exactly. Thanks for the reminder.

    Happy New Year!

    Comment by denise — January 3, 2008 @ 3:33 am

  5. So often I realize my son is on his own highway. I encourage, teach, do a thousand things and yet still realize I don’t know which way he’ll choose to go. For some reason it bothers me more to imagine someone else on it, than to be there myself.

    Then there is what my mom always liked to say–he who hesitates is lost, and miles from the next exit.

    Comment by Marta — January 3, 2008 @ 7:09 am

  6. Superb!

    Absolutely Superb,

    Love and peace, Maithri

    Comment by Maithri — January 3, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  7. I’m on the verge of turning here myself; your post comes at the perfect moment. Away from what I thought, toward something wide-open: This here life.

    xo Jena

    Comment by Jena Strong — January 3, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  8. This is a great post and very inspiring. Yes, we often hear the same things over and over, but that’s because they’re true. And practice makes all the difference. Thank you.

    Comment by Shelli — January 3, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  9. I amaze myself how many times I make the same old drive, all the while saying to myself, “you really should turn here.” I guess I haven’t really heard yet.

    Comment by Mama Zen — January 3, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

  10. AHHHH.

    Nothing else.

    Just AHHHH.

    I liked reading this. The whole thing.

    Thank you.

    Comment by mb — January 4, 2008 @ 2:29 am

  11. Mika, as for how to learn, in Zen we use a stick.

    Jena, get off the verge!

    I’m shouting so Mama Zen can hear me!

    Marta, your mother said it all.

    Thank you all for speaking up. You have commanded my complete attention, which is love.

    Comment by Karen — January 4, 2008 @ 5:14 am

  12. I love this: get off the verge. I’ve been stuck on the verge for a long time. Thanks!

    Comment by Moanna — January 5, 2008 @ 2:16 am

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