Creativity and repetition

Pontoon Bridge at night, Kumbh Mela festival, India, 2013

Pontoon Bridge at night, Kumbh Mela festival, India, 2013

Consciousness clusters

I had a recent revelation about the way I work. I was learning a particularly vexing guitar piece, and I started out as usual, gathering tools to decipher the intricacies of J.S. Bach. I’m not a sight-reader of musical notation; I play “by ear.” For Bach, this means pure memorization. I break the piece down into bite-size chunks, and then try, through repetition, to implant the correct technique of execution into my DNA so that it can be played correctly in any setting. As I started the process of endless repeating, I became aware of how many road blocks or hurdles my mind was throwing up to stop me from making progress. I had to start and stop again and again, keeping the end goal in mind and pushing through the resistance of my ego, which made excellent suggestions such as, “Hey! You suck. Why don’t you put this off for another time, or, better yet, give up?” Or, “Hey. I have an idea. This memorization deal would be so much easier on a full stomach. You have hummus in the fridge.” Or, “Hey. THIS IS BORING. Do something interesting instead: like Facebook.”

I patted my ego on its little pointed head, and thanked it for the fantastic suggestions, and continued to plug ahead towards my goal. Fingering irregularities and mistakes began raining down on my efforts. Again, I pushed through, weeding out the mistakes and eventually arriving at a place where there were no distractions and no mistakes. Then, on to the next four bar phrase.

Pleased with my progress, I quit for the day and slept with a sense of accomplishment. The next morning, I resumed and lost almost all the ground I had gained. I finally recovered the bars I had learned and eventually had the sequence down cold.

Why not just learn to sight read and be done with it? This is actually part of my larger goal, but for right now, I was workingunder a deadline, and it was not an option.  Bach’s composition still deserved to be accurately and lovingly rendered. With the intention of attaining that goal in mind, my neurological plasticity created a tangle of pathways toward my becoming an adequate “Bach machine.”

Each instance of difficulty actively bypassing the ego’s distractions made my technique stronger. Each victory of pure intention over procrastination enabled me to hear Bach’s beautiful music and, in turn, transmit it to another soul. This is amazing to me.

In meditation practice, we gently ignore the distracting pronouncements from the ego such as,
“That meditation was all thoughts. You’re not going ‘as deep’ as you used to. Maybe you should give up, or start drinking.” Or, “Those other meditators are obviously having a different experience from yours. You must be uniquely different or bad. Just give up.” Or, “Hey. THIS IS BORING. Do something interesting instead: like Facebook.”

Our intention should be simply and innocently to repeat the mantra, and take it as it comes.

Portrait of Bach, aged 61, by  E. G. Haussmann , 1748

Portrait of Bach, aged 61, by E. G. Haussmann, 1748