Constancy / by Michelle Cowan

Constancy.  It’s why I get extra good stuff at my regular lunch place.  It’s why I know how to play the piano.  It’s how I made (and kept) most of the friends I have.  It’s how I keep improving in spin class. It’s how I wrote a novel in the 7th grade (not a good one J ).  It’s how I developed a consistent meditation practice.

Perhaps some people are born with a calm mind, incredible musical abilities, perfect technique at [fill in the blank], a chiseled body, and a line of people out the door to befriend and love them.  But I doubt it.

People develop these qualities over time, through constancy.  Notice that I didn’t say “by perfecting their abilities,” “honing their craft,” “working harder and faster than everyone else,” “spending all their time on this activity,” or “following a carefully defined path.” No.  It's constancy.

I’m not talking about becoming an Olympic gold medalist or the greatest writer of all time, although constancy DEFINITELY plays a part in those achievements.  I’m talking about marked improvements and marked stability that we "mysterious" build up in certain areas of our life.  

I’ve often heard people use the words “consistency,” “frequency,” and “repetition,” but something about “constancy" speaks to me.  A friend brought it up at the Houston Zen Center a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to forget it.

He was referencing Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which Suzuki discusses the Japanese word “nin.” Its usual translation is “patience.”  But Suzuki posits “constancy” as a better interpretation. Suzuki discusses it quite eloquently, and I highly recommend looking this passage up. But I want to discuss what it means to me.

My friend at the Zen Center said that when he started thinking about developing “constancy” in certain situations, instead of “patience,” he felt a powerful energetic shift inside. I did, too. Neither term is better than the other, but “patience” connotes something akin to "waiting" for me. I feel like I’m often being asked to wait and “have patience,” and I rarely excel at it – much less enjoy it.  Whether I need to be patient waiting in a line, or when dealing with another person’s behavior that might annoy me, or when dealing with myself and the qualities I wish I was developing or getting rid of sooner, patience comes up again and again.

Patience feels kind of helpless to me. All of life might be waiting, sure.  But maybe that's why I hate all of life sometimes.  I feel like I'm being asked to just sit there and wait for things to develop.

In contrast, constancy implies action.  Constancy (as my friend explained it) means that when I’m sitting there, annoyed at myself because I’m not doing something quite well enough, I keep doing whatever I’m doing. I could be sitting down to meditate, and my mind is going everywhere, just like it always does.  I could stop, or I could keep sitting every day.  It means that when I have a low-energy day at spin class, I don't stop going out of frustration.  I keep going, even if just once a week.  Or when someone in my life is doing something that annoys me, I don't totally change my course to avoid that person.  I keep doing what I'm meant to do, even if that person has to be around while I'm doing it.

I often picture myself at a pottery wheel, trying to make a bowl or something.  I am not happy with how things are going.  If my mind says, “Be patient with yourself," I think, "Whatever.  I’m not getting this.  I’m just going to stop now.”  In contrast, if my mind says, “Constancy, Michelle. Constancy," I turn my attention away from my angry or frustrated thoughts and focus instead on the task at hand. The more bowls I spin, the better it will be. 

Sure, I could also read pottery books, take more classes, learn better technique, and study the different kinds of wheels and clays available to me.  But I will see results even if all I do is just continue to put clay on a wheel and make bowls.  I will get better.

This applies everywhere.  I will eventually make friends if I keep showing up and talking to at least one person at my regular haunt. I will eventually get better at the piano if I keep practicing new songs.  I will develop stronger legs and cardiovascular conditioning if I keep going to my spin class. I will finish my novel if I keep writing a little bit several times a week.

I don’t have to be the most outgoing person and talk to a dozen people every time I go to certain meetings or meet-ups. I don’t have to practice the piano two hours a day. I don’t have to work out six days a week to see results.  I don’t have to write for an hour every day to finish a book.  And I don’t have to meditate an hour every day before sunrise to gain a little enlightenment.

For me, one person is enough. Twenty minutes a day is enough. Three days a week is enough. Fifteen minutes every other day is enough. Five minutes a day is enough…

I tried to start meditating many times and couldn’t stick with it. I would be very consistent for a few days or weeks but then stop.  I knew that meditating was changing something in me and that I wanted to do it every day.  But I couldn’t get myself there.  It wasn’t until a therapist said that scientists had done an experiment where they had looked at the neural pathways of people receiving certain stimuli, doing certain activities, or thinking about certain things. They mapped their brains at the beginning of the experiment and then had the participants meditate for five minutes every day for two months.  At the end of the two months, neural pathways had actually changed.  And the participants overwhelmingly reported changes in mood and reactions.  Five minutes per day.

That released me.  Somewhere in me, I thought I had to meditate at least 20 minutes for it to be meaningful.  SO WRONG.  Many days, I can only get seven minutes or 12 minutes in.  But the fact that I do it every day keeps me going for the next day.  Even when I don’t see a difference in my thoughts or behavior, I keep doing it.  I trust that meditation is where I want to be.

I do the same thing where I can elsewhere in my life.  I think that having patience with myself often translates into me being way too lenient or lazy about behaviors I honestly do not like. Things get boring and stagnant when I allow myself to drift into certain old habits, and I become unhealthy.  Constancy has energy.  It pulls me into flow. Even when I think that whatever I’m doing is pointless, I feel a special energy in my life when I remain constant.

Constancy is not like pushing myself to do a million things every day and feeling guilty if I don't accomplish my goals. Constancy is continuing on, even when I can't get everything done that I want to get done.  Constancy is continuing on.

Sometimes, that's all I can do, really.  Just let go and continue on.  I'm grateful to my friend at the Zen Center for the good word of the month: constancy.