January is, for many, a time of resolutions, grit and determination. Whether it’s a fresh commitment to healthy eating and exercise, or a renewal of discipline, setting aside time to practise the piano – this is a month where many make a decision to turn a new leaf.
I hope that as many as possible who make a commitment towards self-improvement in its many forms will succeed in their freshly stated aims. But what are the ingredients of perseverance which will foster that success? Here’s my theme for this month’s reflection!
And I will try to explain why I believe that Progress is a Process, and that perseverance is never simply a matter of grim resolve and self-discipline …
When we think about perseverance we typically veer towards the negative and the forceful, rather than the positive and pliable. I would like to counter these instincts by considering perseverance from three angles.
Rooted deeply in ancient Daoist philosophy, these three keys to perseverance are:
- The Plan
- The Well
- The Seed
Let’s consider each in turn.
Firstly, to secure our perseverance we need to have a solid (but not unyielding) plan.
“When it seems as if nothing encouraging is happening to us, it is important to remember such perseverance. Work may be drudgery, maintaining a home may be routine, and we may find our goals quite distant. But we must persevere and prepare nevertheless. That will bring a steady pace toward our goals, and buoy our faith in rough and threatening times.”
Deng Ming-Dao: 365 Tao Daily Mediations (1992)
Notice how perseverance and preparation go hand in hand here, and understand that success comes at a steady pace rather than being instantaneous.
In order to persevere, we benefit from a concrete schedule of ideas, actions and measurable targets. A vague hope is unlikely to sustain us in moments of doubt, nor provide a means to celebrate our progress, step by clipperty-clop step.
If your challenge this year involves learning to play a Chopin Ballade, Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is, compose a double fugue, or learn to play jazz standards from a Real Book, take time to break down the steps needed to attain that goal, listing them alongside a realistic plan of how long each step might take, what might be involved, and what help you will need.
Be kind to yourself, and set easily achievable targets. And if you are unsure about your plan, discuss it with more experienced players or a teacher. As Deng Ming-Dao goes on:
“To taste the fruit of perseverance requires maturity and experience. We need to cultivate patience, planning and timing. We build our resources even when circumstances seem to be against us. We don’t neglect anything we have set in motion. If we nurse our plans through good times and bad, our plans will eventually succeed with the inevitability of fish caught in a net.”
I have had plenty of plans in my life which, for various reasons, I didn’t follow through – or which didn’t come to fruition.
Seeking more wisdom about how to persevere, I consulted the I Ching (The Book of Changes) and arrived at hexagram 48, The Well.
The Well is the place of constant replenishment.
We might ask ourselves, what is the ever-present reservoire that we draw from, and how can we realise its potential when persevering with our goals and plans?
The Chinese translated here as The Well is the word Jing, a word also used for our essence in Chinese medicine and qigong. What energy can we draw on, what is the essence that provides the foundation for our aims?
The expert I Ching teacher Hillary Barrett writes:
“You can transplant your centre and change everything about your life, except for the source you draw on to sustain it all. You cannot own this source, nor carry it with you; wherever you move, you will need first of all to dig a new well to reach it.”
Hilary Barrett: I Ching – Walking Your Path, Creating your Future (2015)
Those who have set themselves new year piano resolutions might consider:
- Are my essential core skills strong enough? How can I develop them, and build on them in order to fulfil my resolution?
- What are my favourite aspects of playing the piano?
- Are there specific songs or pieces which I would love to add to my repertoire?
- What aspects of piano playing do I excel at?
In answering some of these questions, we can identify the essence of our own playing, and draw from The Well as we approach new challenges.
Have you noticed that many great pianists focus on performing the music of just a handful of composers, the essence of whose music they most strongly identify with? It is good to try a new direction, but also to play to our strengths.
Those of us who are privileged to be teachers should also look to identify the musical essence of our students – the composers, styles and works in which their playing comes alive, apparently drawing from deeper, invisible resources.
As Hilary Barrett goes on to observe:
“You need never doubt that you have these resources, or that they are enough. The real question is whether you have the means to reach into such depths, and a steady hand to bring the water up into the real world without loss.”
It’s here, perhaps, that a sensitive teacher or piano buddy can offer much in the way of guidance and support. But drawing from The Well must mean, among other things, being true to our essential nature, interests and ability.
At the heart of Daoist philosophy lies the yin-yang symbol that has become as almost as familiar throughout the Western world as it is in the East:
This symbol is rich in meaning, but at its most basic it shows that change is a perpetual cycle. As Yin energy (dark, earth, cold, passive, feminine) reaches its peak, it gives way to Yang energy (light, heaven, hot, dynamic, masculine).
But even at its height, The Seed of the one is contained, living and breathing within the other. Though polar opposites, neither exists independently of the other.
The cycles of change can be genuinely terrifying, as can the hiatus of taking on a new challenge or fresh resolution. But we can determine to go with the flow, roll with the punches, and understand that The Seed will surely geminate in the fulness of time.
Ultimately, any new year’s resolution is not a statement of immediate mastery, but simply an acknowledgment of The Seed, and a commitment to nurture it in the coming months and years.
So this is perseverance: not a pretence that change has been immediate, but an ongoing decision to plant and water The Seed of change and renewal until it grows to fulness.
I hope that some of these old ideas, images and principles – which I have only been able to scratch the surface of – will prove helpful and productive as you approach the challenges of the coming year – both those you have resolved to take up, and those which less expectedly come your way throughout the year!
- Have a Plan, including small, realistic steps and measurable targets, celebrating each incremental success along the way;
- Draw from The Well – your essential nature, interests and abilities;
- Focus on The Seed of change rather than demanding instant results.
Above all else, stay optimistic. Remember –
Progress is a Process!