Sometimes I marvel at the practice of meditation. How can such a simple, repetitive, and boring exercise yield so much transformation?
Take a minute and think about that.
Putting in the Time
What happens when you train on an instrument for example? At first, you have to practice your scales. In the beginning, Jimi Hendrix played blues scales over and over again.
He didn’t descend riding a bolt of lightning from Electric Ladyland and just play the Star-Spangled Banner like Jimi Hendrix.
No. Before he became a master of his art, he put in the time doing thousands of hours of scales. In the process, his fingers became facile. He learned the notes and the chords and the relationships between them all. Eventually it became a living extension of him -- a pure form of unmediated creative self expression.
Jesus and Buddha both famously sat in isolation, unmoving, until they had their respective insights. From the outside, I bet it looked pretty boring. They weren’t doing anything! And yet that nothing doing gave rise to insights that irrevocably changed our world and, in many respects, helped our species evolve.
Science involves a lot of rote and repetitive routines. You often have to do the same thing over and over again to test and then verify the results. And then get other people to do the same repetitive things to corroborate your results.
It’s not like a mystery novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. No, it’s pretty boring. But some things in life only appear to us through this kind of repetition.
When the Invisible Becomes Visible
Meditation is a great example of that. Through sitting down and doing nothing but focusing on a single point, over and over again, something that’s usually invisible comes into focus.
Why is that? For one thing, it’s your mind stream. Usually we’re in motion all the time. Moving, moving, moving and making decisions, worrying, exulting, celebrating, regretting, ruminating, and on and on.
We’re often completely immersed (read, lost) in the interpretive apparatus of our minds.
But when you stop -- which is what meditation is all about -- you become like a rock in the middle of a rushing river. Suddenly, you realize that there’s all this inner momentum. It’s a torrent of traffic in your mind bearing down on the next problem du jour.
But because we so rarely slow down, we just don’t see it. We don’t realize that fatal error that keeps us lost. We’re just riding the endless rapids of the thought stream.
And because it’s all we know, we fail to see that there is something else…a shore with solid ground in a world beyond the rapids.
Standing on Solid Ground
You see, when you meditate, all of that momentum comes into sharp relief. You start to see the movement of your own mind. You start to notice patterns and triggers and whirlpools and eddies of thinking.
But now you’re standing apart from all that momentum. You have perspective. And it’s only possible through this very rote and boring process of doing the same small action over and over again. Bringing your attention back to a single anchor, whether it’s your breath or your body or one of your five senses.
Like so many artistic, spiritual, and scientific breakthroughs, surprising and totally novel things can emerge from this simple and boring exercise. Whole new worlds of perception and knowing can open out in front of you like an undiscovered valley of wildflowers.
So next time you find yourself hedging about getting onto the cushion, don't just think that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Instead, remember how they became giants.
I heard that Thomas Edison tested over 6,000 different filament fibers for his incandescent lightbulb before landing on the one that forever changed our world.
Remember that big things have small (and sometimes boring) beginnings.
Have you found that practice makes perfect (or at least much better) with your meditation practice? Share your stories of how you got started in the comments below!