I really wanted to like meditation. I’m the demographic that’s supposed to like it, since I’m generally a sucker for the things that go with it, including avocados, wind chimes, and motivational TED talks. But when I downloaded a meditation app on my phone, I realized that it wasn’t going to work for me. Most of the meditations had awful synthesizer soundtracks of syrupy chords that didn’t follow the proper rules of chord progression and never seemed to reach a cadence. Or they featured the caws and whistles of disgruntled-sounding whales. Or they didn’t have any “music,” but the voice on them spoke in a dull monotone, or growled in the fry register, or sounded dehydrated. The whole thing irritated me so madly that I couldn’t relax for a second. I am exceedingly untalented at relaxation at the best of times.
Then one day when I was listening to the podcast “Magic Lessons” by Elizabeth Gilbert (I told you I was that demographic), Gilbert mentioned a trip to an ashram in which she’d found spiritual fulfillment in scrubbing floors.
That made me sit up and listen. Scrubbing floors is detestable. How could one possibly find enlightenment doing something so horrid?
That was when I started thinking about the repetitive, boring(-seeming) actions that could, just might, become a source of reflection and equilibrium.
I started with housework, since that’s a big one for me. I’m in the annoying position of loving cleanliness and order, but disliking the process of what I have to do to achieve them, and being too fastidious and too stingy to pay someone else to achieve them for me. But I did start to change my attitude after I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (yes, I’m that demographic too). If you don’t know this delightful, wildly eccentric book, you should read it, if only for the part where Kondo asks us reproachfully to consider the feelings of our socks.
After I read Kondo’s work, I embarked on a huge purge of my home and office, throwing out all my unused, outgrown, dusty, broken clutter, and in the process discovered all the great stuff that I’d forgotten about and could now enjoy because I could see it. Work and home now both seemed like havens of peace and repose. Really.
Among the things Kondo teaches is how to fold your clothes in a way that makes them stand up on their own so that they can be stored vertically. This was the most delightful discovery of all. I’d always hated folding laundry because it was so boring and so endless. But Kondo’s method, which deliberately draws on the Japanese art of origami, actually seemed to make folding laundry fun, and I found myself looking forward to my twice-weekly ritual of pulling the clean clothes off the drying rack so that I could fold them into lovely little independent-standing rectangles. Something about it made me feel calm and loved, and for the first time I found myself really appreciating all my nice clothes in a way I hadn’t when they were crumpled and disorderly in the chaos of my closet.
After that, I had to laugh at myself because I realized that I had been meditating in my own way all along. How? Through my daily ritual of practising scales for at least 30-45 minutes. A thing I have done religiously (and I use this term intentionally) since I started playing the cello aged nine. A thing that makes me fall in love with the sound of the cello all over again every time I do it.
I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for scales, and what I use them for, such as the series “The Multifaceted Gifts of Scales,” part one, part two, and part three. In this blog post from three years ago, I described how scales force me to ask the searching question “Am I making my best sound?” — and the parallel question, “Am I being my best self?”
Finding, and being, your best self. That’s probably what all those repetitive practices do, really, isn’t it?