Drops of Water Wear Away the Stone

Many of us will make New Year’s resolutions.  And most of us who do will probably fail to keep them.  We don’t fail because the resolutions are flawed to begin with.  We fail because we don’t approach our resolutions as simple habits that must be cultivated.

Did I say simple?

Yes.  A habit emerges through repetition and there is even some science to it.  It used to be thought that it took 21 days to cultivate a habit.  This was based on a best-selling book of 1960 written by a plastic surgeon who noticed that it took his patients on average 21 days to adjust to things like facelifts and amputations.  But he was wrong.  God knows how many people tried things for 21 days, failed, and gave up forever.

A study in The European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that the average time to cultivate a habit is actually 66 days (with a wide variation between individuals).  The good news is that one can skip a day now and then with no ill effect.  Also, that the way to kill a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit.  Despite the individual variations, the whole thing turns out to be simple and technical.  Just do it.

Of course, non-Westerners and we Westerners before we became rationalists had already known this for a few thousand years.  Habits are repetition.  Repetition is action.  Action precedes thought and develops it (and not the other way around).

And we need habit to build a rich spiritual life.

1, A Japanese Potter

I had an American student in Japan who was trying to practice the craft of pottery making.  He had raised some money and he wanted to do an apprenticeship with a master potter in a famous porcelain making area in Japan known as Kutani (Nine Valleys).  There was a potter who was willing to work with him, but of course he required an interview.  So we traveled into the mountains to the town.

The apprentice told the master that he wanted to experiment with the Kutani style (and it is an ancient style).  But the master proposed a different plan.

The master proposed that the apprentice make simple sake cups for the year, and only sake cups.  These were the smallest thing that the master’s operation made.

“But what about creativity?” asked the apprentice-to-be, perhaps thinking that the master was just trying to make him some sort of factory hand.

The master took us to a part of the workshop where a woman sat at a wheel making delicate tea cups (the second largest thing the operation made).  She was a Chinese apprentice and he explained that she had been with him for about three years and had graduated from sake cups to tea cups.  While the master spoke, the woman watched us and listened in, making cup after cup on her wheel, identical and perfectly, with hardly a glance at her hands or the wheel.  She placed each cup on a tray that would hold 36, to be glazed and fired.

“My Chinese apprentice will work here another 7 years, gradually moving on to rice bowls, sake bottles, etc. until she becomes a journeyman.  In maybe another decade when she becomes a master she will be able, if she desires, to innovate.  But one cannot really innovate creatively unless one can make sake cups perfectly, each time, over and over.  By touch.”

The apprentice grasped the logic of this and agreed to the plan.

2. The Diligent Muslim

During my summer in Cairo in 1976, there were a few people who broached the idea that I might convert to Islam; some as a joke and some who were serious.  The serious ones never suggested that I just recite the shahada ( “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” with the desire to convert, which is the simple formula one uses to convert).  Instead, they suggested that I just try Islam out for a while and see how it worked out.  They said this in part because gradual conversion is encouraged in the Koran and is likely to be more authentic and in part because there were some Americans roaming around Cairo who had “converted” as part of their adventure in order to accumulate new "experiences". (This was the seventies).

I usually changed the subject when this came up, but one time I asked the person what he meant exactly by “trying it out for a while”.  He explained that to try it out, I should consider committing to doing the prayers and observances and rituals for 40 days.

Why 40 days?

First, he explained, there was a tradition (not a requirement) of 40 day long spiritual observances (not unlike Christ’s 40 days in the desert).  Second, it was widely known (he claimed) that it took 40 days to engrain a habit.  In any case, 40 days was a good number, since it not only engrained the habit, but it weeded out the unserious, since most people were only rigorous in their observances for the 30 days of Ramadan each year.

The idea of repetition to instill a good habit is appealing maybe because it is so simple.  In Asia (and probably in the East in general), in any traditional art of craft that I know of, there seems to be a belief that action precedes thought.  Unlike the West, where we seem to like to read the books and study the theories so that we can get our minds right in order to then go out and do the action, non-Western thinking focuses on mastering a limited performance in the belief that it is the repetition of action that both brings mastery and enables the student to then grasp the theories.  Traditional Asian musical training, for example, has the teacher teach the student one song at a time, having the student simply imitate the teacher until the student gets it right each time and can then move on to the next song.  Students don’t start with music theory or learning all the notes and chords first.  And it works.

My point here is not just about approaching our New Year’s resolutions anew as habits that need to be cultivated through simple repetition.  I think that this may also help our spiritual lives.

We already know the theories.  We already believe what we believe.  Our deficits are in our practice.  We find repetition to be stifling and confining.  We hate it.  But our ancestors used repetition, not because they were ignorant or simple minded or because they didn’t hate it like we do or were just counting up their prayers.  They did it because spirituality was both craft and habit.  Repetition, at first, was as boring for them as it was for us.  But the treasures of mastery and its depth lay on the other side of the suffering.

Happy New Year. 

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unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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