Accomplishment in any discipline involves repetition. If we want to build muscles, we don’t lift 10,000 pounds one time, we lift a few pounds thousands of times. Just as repetition is the source of necessary hardship for a piano student aspiring to be a concert pianist, it remains so for spiritual students aspiring to wake up. We hear the same teachings continuously, we practice the same mantras ceaselessly, we return to the meditation cushion, and then to our breath, incessantly. In the Tibetan tradition, one does 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mantra recitations, 100,000 mandala offerings, 1,000,000 guru yoga recitations – and that’s just for starters. These may seem like outrageous numbers, but they are nothing compared to the numbers we have already accumulated in our practice of materialism.
I have had selfish thoughts millions of times, bragged about myself, criticized others, gossiped, cheated, lied, and practiced self-centered actions millions upon millions of times. I have been mindless billions of times, I have forgotten the truth countless times. The numbers are astronomical, and so is the sphere of their influence.
Now when my teacher tells me I have to recite 1,000,000 mantras that cultivate compassion, I know why. He is not torturing me, even though it sometimes feels that way. He is simply using the universal laws of reality, the same ones that I have unconsciously used to get me so stuck, to now consciously get me unstuck. When I visit my teacher Khenpo Rinpoche, he listens patiently as I relate my litany of problems. Then he might compose a spontaneous verse and tell me to recite it 1000 times, or to read an entire book ten times. He is legendary in his use of repetition, and he uses it because he understands the laws of cause and effect.
On the spiritual path we replace unconscious habits of confusion with conscious habits of wisdom. Instead of my unconscious practice of sloth, impatience, greed, anger, or any of the selfish habits that come so easily to me, I consciously practice discipline, patience, kindness, love, and any of the selfless habits that are still foreign to me. I am working to become familiar with good habits.
The spiritual path is hard because we are stopping old habits that come so easily, and replacing them with difficult new ones. For example, mindlessness is natural to us. It is easy to space out and be distracted. Try to look at an object without wavering for a few seconds and we will see our talents in distraction. This is a bad habit, formulated over countless repetitions, and a central unconscious practice on the worldly path. It is no longer even a practice, but a constant performance. We have accomplished mindlessness.
On the spiritual path we want to replace this bad habit with a good one. Even though mindfulness is a natural expression of the awakened mind, it has been buried under eons of mindlessness, so we have to work to dig it out. The initial stage of mindfulness practice is called deliberate mindfulness because it takes effort to bring our wandering mind back. It is difficult only because it is unfamiliar.
One sign of progress on the path is that deliberate mindfulness evolves into spontaneous mindfulness. With enough practice it becomes effortless. We have formed a good habit, even if we did not have a good time doing it.
The path is full of magic, but it is also full of mechanics. The result of a concert pianist is magical, but the causes are painfully mechanical. Similarly, the result of effortless mindfulness is magical, but its causes are equally mechanical. There is nothing glamorous about the hard work of repetition. Understanding the mechanics of spirituality dispels illusions about the ease of its accomplishment.
Science speaks about phase transformations, or punctuated equilibrium. A common example is how water comes to a boil. Put a pot of water on the stove, turn on the heat, and wait. Depending on the intensity of the heat, and the temperature and volume of water, it will boil slowly or quickly, but either way there is a period where nothing seems to be happening. All this energy is going into the water with no obvious result. The phase transformation from water into steam takes time.
Similarly, when we engage in spiritual practice we have placed ourselves on the stove and turned on the heat. If our practice is half-hearted, then it takes time for that low temperature to transform us. If we practice whole-heartedly, the higher temperature brings us more rapidly to a boil. But either way there is a period where nothing seems to be happening. All this energy is going into our practice but nothing is cooking.
As long-term practitioners reflect over years of practice, they discover they are starting to get warm. The changes come slowly because the water that is being heated is so cold, and the heat of our practice is usually tepid. But sooner or later we come to a boil. After years of practice we “suddenly” transform from an uptight aloof person to an open, loving one. The phase transformation occurs, and we have suddenly gone from a confused sentient being to an awakened one. It is like growing old. As each birthday comes around we don’t feel that much older, but one day we look in the mirror and suddenly realize we are old.