Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Practice Makes Perfect"

“Practice makes perfect,” they told me about piano, and basketball, and baseball, and multiplication tables, and reading, and swimming, and everything else I have ever pursued. Practice makes perfect.

Today we are going to talk about what it means to develop a practice, either a spiritual practice or any other kind. The entire month of February we are talking about spiritual practices of different sorts. But today, I am going to talk about practices in general. Whether it is pottery or basketball, meditation or horseback riding, most practices share a lot in common. And they are all good for us if we engage them with a degree of mindfulness.

There are a few keys to developing a practice that I’ll touch on today. The amount of effort that you put into it really influences what we get out. Getting started can be a challenge. And making that leap from a fun idea into a really ongoing practice takes a lot of follow through. But before I get into those details about practice, I would like to share a short story with you. It is a Buddhist story based on a passage in the Dhammapada, one of the sacred Buddhist texts.

This is the story of a very young monk named Pandita. In fact he was only seven years old. He was a very wise soul. His mother knew he was a special child when he was in her womb, and she therefore decided that she would grant whatever he asked. So when Pandita said at the age of seven that he wanted to go into the monastery, she and her husband agreed that it was okay with them.

So one day Pandita was out with his bowl collecting alms for the day. This is a daily piece of the life of a Buddhist monk, going door to do, collecting food donations that you have to eat for the day. And he was making these rounds with Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s two biggest followers. He was a very, very wise man.

As they were walking, Pandita noticed some farmers who were digging irrigation ditches. Pandita asked Sariputta, "Can water which has no consciousness be guided to wherever one wishes?" And the teacher replied, "Yes, it can be guided to wherever one wishes."

As they continued on their way, they next came upon some fletchers, men who make arrow. They were heating their arrows with fire and straightening them. Further on, they came across some carpenters cutting, sawing and planing timber to make it into things like cart-wheels.

Pandita pondered, "If water which is without consciousness can be guided to wherever one desires, if a crooked bamboo which is without consciousness can be crafted to fly in a straight line, and if timber which is without consciousness can be made into useful things, why shouldn’t I, having consciousness, be able to tame my own mind?”

At that moment Pandita knew he was on to something. He asked his wise teacher Sariputta if he might skip the alms rounds and return to the monastery to meditate. So Sapriputta agreed and took his begging bowl. Pandita return to the monestary and began meditating and achieved enlightenment before it was time for his evening meal. And thus he became enlightened at the age of seven.

As I mentioned the story is based on a short verse in the Buddhist sacred text, the Dhammapada. That verse goes like this:

Irrigators guide water,
Fletchers shape arrows
Carpenters fashion wood,
Sages tame themselves.

Isn’t that beautiful.

In the religious world, we might be inclined to say that of all of these things, sages taming themselves is the way, that of all these practices meditation is the highest road. Well that may be the argument for some religious folks. But I’m inclined to take this a little differently.

Yes, meditation and taming ourselves like sages is a great thing. But rather than diminishing our other practices, I think this story of the wise little monk isn’t a message that we all need to leave our daily lives and go join the monastery. I think it also points to the fact that cultivating a practice, any practice can help us develop as people, and can help us approach our religious lives with a little more purpose and structure.

“Practice makes perfect” can mean far more than a pithy grade-school saying. I honestly believe that cultivating a practice, any practice can help us at much more fundamental levels. Practice can guide us toward being better people.

It seems that no matter what we are practicing, the amount of effort that we put into it is key. Maybe it isn’t the amount of effort that I’m concerned about, but the amount of concentration, or force. Too much force and our practice becomes tense and exhausting, the thing that we once enjoyed is a burden. Too little focus and we drift into our usual routine, we lose track of the practice that we intended to do.

It’s an odd thing to talk about in the abstract, but it really is a key to any sort of practice. And it is a difficult thing to be aware of. But knowing just how much effort to put into it is really key to any type of practice.

I want to suggest that the amount of concentration that is most skillful to use, is actually pretty small, a light touch. It is just the amount of energy that is required for the present moment. Don’t worry about becoming a superstar, about losing the full forty pounds, or a fundamental change in your lifestyle. Just enjoy the practice in the present moment. One day, one hour, one minute at a time.

I have another story that perhaps some of you will relate to. It is about using just enough effort. I was not the most athletic kid growing up. Later I think part of that challenge was that my eye sight is terrible and I was not given prescription glasses until I had a pretty strong resentment for most sports that involved keeping my eye on a ball, a ball that in retrospect, I don’t think I could see very well.

So in my many attempts to learn different sports, there was this particular phenomenon that always frustrated me. You have probably had this experience as well when someone tries to teach you something. I remember it most keenly in baseball and golf, the sport that I resented the most.

Because getting the right stance was crucial for batting, or for playing golf, I remember all these details of keeping your eyes on the ball, keeping an elbow cocked at just the right angle. Feet had to exactly shoulder width apart. It was a virtual yoga pose under the summer sun.

And then they would tell me, now relax. As if I weren’t thinking of the ten things that I had just been told to do, or the bizarre position I had contorted my body in. “now relax,” they told me. It was infuriating at the time. I still have twinges of anger when I recall those unfortunate moments of my ineptitude at sports.

But now I find myself in the awkward position of telling you a very similar thing, but hopefully in a much more nuanced way. Relax into it. Whatever your practice is, it should be freeing, not oppressive. It should open your heart and your mind, not close you off from the world.

The kind of effort that builds a sustainable practice is really quite small. Just enough for the present moment, and then you do it again and again and again and again and again. Like using your breath to center a meditation practice, one breath at a time. Over time and repetition that energy builds, there is momentum. It is like a wheel, needs a little push to start and then just light taps to keep it going. After a while you don’t have to tap as hard or as often.

The energy of a practice is like a wheel spinning. The initial start of the wheel may take a bit of a shove, but once it is moving, once the practice has started, a light touch over and over again will build momentum. The wheel, the practice builds much of its own momentum until you don’t have to think about giving it that touch as often or as hard. Sure you still have to keep it going, but the effort required, the force required is actually quite small.

I want to talk a little bit about taking that fist step, the first shove of the wheel that I just spoke of. Many people will say it is the hardest step, and in many ways that is true. The first step is the hardest because it is a sort of leap of faith. “I can do this we tell ourselves. I can be the kind of person who does this. It is a leap of faith, but a leap of a particular sort. It’s a leap of trusting in our WILLINGNESS to try something, not trusting in our eventual success. It’s like sitting down at a piano for the first time. We know we are not going to play beautiful music but to play a single note. “Okay, I can do that.” That basic confidence is in your willingness, in the willingness to try, not to master the art. The first step comes not in a belief in ones ability to master, but a willingness to try.

It’s sort of like this mornings intergenerational story. At first glance it is a cute story about a child, or a little pig I guess, learning about working for money. But it’s not teaching him to be a little venture capitalist, that that money makes the world go round. This little story was about a little pig dreaming of what could be, and then settling into the world of what is, and living in the difference. Pig Pig learned to make a buck, but in the process he learned that he could be useful doing smaller projects. And that those smaller things were worth his time.

How many of us like Pig Pig dream of being a chef, rather than prepare a healthy home cooked meal, or want to build a house when we should really start with a bird-house. Pig Pig learned to take a dream and make meaningful work out of the smaller steps. He didn’t have to commit to being a racecar mechanic to wash the family car, or to being a bulldozer operator to clean up his room. He started with very small steps and a willingness to try.

There is one more piece of starting a practice that I want to talk about. It is fascinating, and seems very powerful. How many of you have heard the concept that it takes 30 days to create a habit? Gyms advertise this idea all the time. I have heeded the advice because it sounds logical, but I never really knew where it came from. It turns out that this is not just an advertising scheme to get you to join a gym. It is actually very reputable science. Recovery groups and therapeutic circles pretty widely recognize and work with the concept that it takes thirty days to create, or break a habit

And the idea grew out of one doctor’s discovery, not a psychotherapist, but a surgeon. The surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz noticed that it took 21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations in the amputated limb. That’s to say it took 21 days for people who had had a limb removed to stop feeling sensations from the limb that was no longer there. Patients experience a full 21 days of feeling sensations from a body part that no longer have. Isn’t that fascinating. (Dr Maxwell Maltz wrote the bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics.)

That’s because their brains, everyone’s brain gets used to a certain type of sensation. The tiny electrical pulses in our brains fire over and over in the same path. And as your body experiences the same thing repeatedly, and your brain fires the same electrical pulses, it starts to build pathways to enhance that particular sensation. Brains produce neuroconnections and neuropathways by re experiencing the same thing over and over.

And, those same pathways can be changed if they receive different information consistently for 21 days in a row. SO the theory goes that to change a habit, to break an old one, or to create a new one, you have to keep it up for 21 consecutive days. You have to literally rearrange the habit of your brains pathways.

The research of the surgeon pointed to 21 days and many groups stick with that. But others, myself included tend to say a month. Just to be on the safe side, and because you may miss a day in your 21 day routine, why not shoot for a full month. It takes a month of repeated activity to form a habit.

The closing hymn that we will sing in just a bit comes from the often-repeated words of Theodore Parker. “Be ours a religion, which like sunshine, goes everywhere. Its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, and its ritual works of love.” Our practices, whatever they are, can be deeply fulfilling activities, that do in fact make us more perfect people. All sorts of activities are worthy of our time and energy because we don’t just isolate our religion within the walls of our church.

However, I want to encourage all of you to engage in some spiritual practice. However grand or small, some regular activity that helps you focus on the sacred aspects of life is tremendously important. And just like basketball, piano, or ballet, it takes a balance of persistence and patience.

We talk a lot about hospitality for guests and visitors here at our church. And that is terribly important. I want anyone who comes here on a Sunday morning to feel like they have a home, and that their spirit is nurtured. But the truth is, being a part of a church community is not a pop-in sort of a thing. It’s not based on convenience. Being a member of this church is a spiritual practice. It means taking time out of your life to do something a little bit different, to refocus on what is important. And more to the point, it becomes based on habit. I have been here long enough to see it, going to church, or staying home on Sunday mornings becomes a habit. I know I’m preaching to the choir, to those of you who came today, but church is not just a place to pop in and fill up when it is convenient or your spirit is low. Church is a kind of spiritual practice, a habit that you can cultivate. Like any other practice, no one can do it for you.

This place is not the one and only holy spot. We don’t hold “the” answer here between these four walls. But when you need to, you can come here and be supported. And when you have a tremendous new insight or feel filled with spirit, you can come here and share. But more importantly, in the in between, the times between despair and triumph, the day to day, week to week, and year to year, this is a place for you to come and nurture the spiritual practice of building community. Because, it takes your practice to make this place more perfect. Coming to church is not an occasional convenience, but a spiritual practice to cultivate, so that when the tough times come, you know deep down, that you are not alone.


1 comment:

  1. Did my core workout, Chinese stretching exercises and light cardio workout. Then did a half hour seated breath meditation. Reflected on a complex dream I had last night then kind of zoned out. Seemed to go a bit deeper than usual. A good sign.