I was thinking about what we call “practice.” We generally think of that as the time spent in silence, in meditation or prayer. And I do know that most people who have a contemplative practice are practicing not just for the fun of it, or even for the goal of some sort of relaxing or blissful experience during practice or on retreat, or even to be in greater contact with God. They are practicing because they have noticed that things are different when they are not practicing.
But really, where the rubber meets the road is what happens when you walk down the street and pass by someone with their hand out? What goes through your mind when a co-worker (one who might actually annoy you) comes up to your desk? What do you feel at the end of a long work day? What happens when you have gotten angry at someone, or what are you going through when you flip the switch on the election machine? What thoughts are in your mind when you look at yourself in a mirror, or hear something critical?
I almost might argue that we should reframe what “practice” is. Unless one is an incredibly extraordinary person, we are not going to be perfect. We are not going to approach ourselves, or others, with compassion or approach situations with equanimity each and every time. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll falter. It’s almost as if that everyday stuff – that’s the practice. The sitting in silence stuff is almost like preparation for the practice.
I started a new contemplative practice over the past week. For months now, I’ve struggled with a lot of restlessness when I sit in silent prayer or meditation. It’s kind of like my legs have a life of their own. Sometimes, I can be equanimous about it, and just go along with the restlessness. But mostly, I resist it, and wish it would go away. Now, instead of my time sitting in silence, I spend at least 15 minutes in contemplative, mindful movement. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out that was what my body was telling me to do all this time! I’ve done contemplative dance/authentic movement in the past, and loved it, but somehow it took until now for me to figure out that I should add it to what I do each day.
Practice comes in all forms, and opportunities for practice come at us fast and furious. The challenge is our willingness. Are we willing to be as diligent in looking at what happens in our daily moments as we are in our contemplative practice each day? Can we look at them as all part of the same whole?
I’ve never really been a musician. Oh, I’ve dabbled. I played guitar as a kid and teenager for about 8 years or so, but then dropped it. I picked up the drums when I was 40, then kind of stupidly sold them to make room for a partner to move into my place at 41. (She moved out when I was 42, but I never did get another set of drums.) I do have a guitar mostly collecting dust in a corner of our living room, and a couple of small African drums in my study. Like I said, I’ve never been a musician.
But I know a lot about practicing. Practicing life is a lot like practicing playing an instrument. It takes a lot of work and attention. And sometimes you’ll make a horrible racket, and other times you’ll come out with a beautiful symphony. And the cool part is just like playing an instrument, the more you practice, the better you get. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the practice isn’t work.
This is the great thing: whether you are making a horrible racket or are coming out with a symphonic masterpiece, you can still have joy. In fact, it doesn’t even matter. Right now, I feel like I am in a moment of cacophony – the horn section is out of sync with the strings, and the timpani – oy – it’s an unholy mess. I’m re-assessing recent decisions, re-evaluating priorities, and it’s messy, and the future feels uncertain. But I’m happy anyway. I know, it’s kind of strange. It’s even surprising me.
The reason I’m happy is because I don’t have to identify with the cacophony I am creating of my life. It’s just the racket that comes with along practicing. None of us has to. Making mistakes in life means learning and growth. It’s all good to be a student of life. And I know that somehow, there is a symphonic masterpiece happening right now, even amid the cacophony and mess.
And underneath it all is a truth – like the musical essence of a guitar, or a drum, there is an underlying foundation for us to find – our true life’s purpose.
For a while, I thought that I must have some specific life’s purpose. Some specific vocation, or specific set of tasks to accomplish before I leave this planet. But the recent racket I’ve been making has taught me is that my purpose is a lot simpler, and a lot more difficult. My life’s purpose is to simply to live my life, in every moment, with compassion and generosity. It doesn’t even matter what I do, as long as I do what I’m doing with compassion and generosity. It’s both mind-bogglingly simple, and mind-bogglingly difficult.
That out of tune timpani you are hearing in the background? That’s me. I’m tuning. Just wait for a bit.