(As long as each trial is based on adjusting for previous errors.)
There’s nothing to be gained from making the same mistakes over and over again.
Yet we’re apt to do this when we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing.
Sounds trite, doesn’t it? Except that in modern culture people are rarely ever paying attention to whatever is going on right here, right now. We’ve built a habit of directing our attention away from the present moment.
Don’t believe me? Sit down, pull out a piece of paper and a pen. Set a timer for five minutes.
Now pay attention to your breath- no need to control it, just watch it, feel it go in and out, over your lips and through your nostrils and throat and inflate your lungs which fill your whole torso basically.
Each time you notice that your attention flits away from your breath- to schoolwork, friends, hopes, fears- make a mark on the page.
I just did. I made twenty-two marks.
A few things that drew my attention away from my breath:
- Thinking about what I was going to write next
- Wondering how many minutes remained in the exercise
- Wondering how many marks I’d end up with
- Wondering if there was some number of marks I ought to end up with
- Realizing that the notion that there’s some number of marks it’s “bad” or “good” to end up with is absurd, and noting that I should mention that to avoid confusing readers as to what meditation is about
If meditation (which is what you just did, if you played that little game with me) can be said to be about something, it is simply that act of noticing when your attention has wandered away from whatever it is you wish to be focusing on, because noticing is more than half the battle.
If you practice noticing the moment at which your attention goes astray, you may notice (ha) that it feels like less of a struggle to pay attention to what is happening.
You sort of naturally drift back to the present, to the task at hand, when you have noticed that you’ve drifted.
This sort of course correction is perfectly natural- you don’t have to try to make it happen. In fact, trying will prevent you from allowing it to happen.
And it’s what allows you to notice patterns and break out of ruts.
How, exactly? Well, we could point to three processes involved with improving at doing anything.
One is to have the general intention of improving, which then breaks down into the specific intentions of improving in certain areas and correcting certain mistakes.
Another is to know one is making a given error, and to have some idea of how to correct that error. An experienced teacher can tell you both of these things, but that won’t help until you see and understand them for yourself- and anyway, teachers don’t know everything. Sooner or later, you’ll have to find your own way forward.
And another is to notice at the moment one makes the error, or is about to make the error, and to reach for a different pathway.
Perhaps it’s obvious to you, but these three are interrelated. They depend on one another. Without all three of these factors (and some others besides, but I don’t want to overcomplicate things for you at the moment) you can’t improve.
To put it another way, in order to get better at something:
You must want to get better.
You must know what sorts of mistakes you’re making, and what you might try instead.
And you must notice when you are about to repeat a mistake, and try something else.
The first one is easy. Either you want to get better, or you don’t. If you don’t, quit if at all possible. Find something that you want to get better at.
The second one is easier than ever. Teachers abound on YouTube, on message boards, in good old brick-and-mortar schools and studios- it’s never been easier to talk to someone who knows more than you about whatever it is you want to know about. If anything, there’s too much information- if it ever gets overwhelming, just remember that in the end the answer comes from within you. Don’t be afraid to tune out the other voices for a bit and just play around.
It’s the third one that seems to hang so many people up, and this seems to be because by and large we have lost touch with the present moment.
Luckily, it’s always there, waiting for you to get on board and ride along.