I am not a particularly patient person. My house is full of books that I may never get around to reading, but I keep buying new ones, because I’m just a wee bit compulsive about having new books and also because I’m not patient enough to let a book stay at the bookstore (or at until I need it. Meditation is also a daily struggle with my own impatience at the intransigence of my monkey mind. Wait for a slow unfolding of my deep relaxed self? Well, that would be okay, except for the waiting bit.

Pretty much every time I go to confession I have to share with my priest, yet again, how I fail to observe the speed limit. My contrition is real, if imperfect: I’m sorry for speeding more because I know of the risks involved than because I don’t really want to speed. The speeding is a sympton-sin, symptomatic of how deeply I remain in a hurry, all the time.

So now that the first draft of my book is done, and I have a bit of a break before my editor gets back to me with recommended changes and alterations, I have a bit of time on my hand. And so every night I’m trying to spend a half hour or more with a guitar and a bass that I bought over the past year, while I was too busy writing to bother learning a new musical instrument. And so now I have two musical instruments to learn! I’m 48 years old, and have never seriously studied a musical instrument before (not counting hand drums, and I don’t think they should count).

There was a segment on NPR a while back about adults learning to play a musical instrument. It exploded a lot of the  old myths (“If you don’t start while you’re a child, don’t bother”), but one of the persons interviewed did make a point of saying that adult learners must be very patient, for it will take them longer to master new skills than it does young people, who are learning the instrument even as their brain synapses are still settling in. For us grown-up types, learning a musical instrument is an exercise in patience. For this patience, we are rewarded with tiny baby steps of musical accomplishment.

Needless to say, my desire to make music competes with the roar of my impatience; that part of me that feels like if something isn’t an immediate slam-dunk, it’s not worth my time or effort.  The electric guitar and bass might not seem to be particularly “contemplative” instruments. But the way in which they force me to work on being more patient — maybe better said, to allow myself to be more patient — has a direct corollary in my meditation practice. The more I learn to accept my imperfection — and my infinitesimally slow progress — with the guitar and the bass, the more these same skills can shed light on both the promise and the challenge of my spiritual practice.

At my age, I suppose learning to sit in a silent mind might take just as much long-term patience as does learning how to play a musical instrument for the first time.

Somehow, this is a comforting thought.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.