Over and Over


Sermon #11 (5th October 2014 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

In our culture, in the modern world, repetition has got a pretty mixed reputation. Consumerism pushes the message that ‘variety is the spice of life’. There is a certain pressure on us all to be on the lookout for what’s new, to valorise novelty, change and innovation, even to be on the move in our personal lives and never stay put in the same place for too long.

In the next fourteen minutes or so I’m going to try and redress the balance a little bit. I’m going to echo the question we heard from Jeffrey Lockwood (he of the Deluxe Avocado sandwiches) a bit earlier, and ask: ‘What’s wrong with regularity?’ Or to put it more positively, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on the valuable role that repetition has to play in our lives: in the arts and the creative life, in our worship and spiritual practice, and as we all go about our everyday business.

Here’s an interesting phenomenon for you to consider: A number of people who are known for being very creative have chosen to order some aspects of their personal lives in such a way that they are extremely repetitive (in ways that others might regard as very dull). The popular science writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote ‘The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ and many other fascinating books, eats exactly the same things every single day. And has done so for many years. Every Monday his housekeeper gets in enough supplies to see him through the week: ½ a gallon of soya milk, ½ a gallon of prune juice, about a gallon of orange jelly, 7 tins of sardines, a big bowl of tabbouleh, 7 apples, and 7 oranges. Additionally, each day he goes to a fancy chocolate shop up the road and gets exactly one dollar’s worth of broken 72% chocolate. He says he never gets bored and he ‘enjoys it with equal relish each time’.

The co-founder of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs, was known to have a wardrobe full of identical clothes, and he used to put exactly the same thing on every morning.   He once found a particular black turtleneck that he liked the style of, and promptly bought a hundred of them, as his own personal uniform. He said: ‘That’s what I wear. I have enough to last for the rest of my life.’ And so it was. In both of these cases, what I think is going on, is that these creative people have decided that there is just too much to think about in life – too many choices to be made – and they want to save their creative energies and their choosing power for the things that REALLY matter to them, such as their creative projects. For them, deciding what to wear in the morning, or what to have for tea, is something they’d rather not have to think too hard about.

Frederic Brussat, co-founder of the excellent ‘Spirituality and Practice’ website, has written about this as he’s of much the same temperament, he’s another one who would be very happy to have the same thing for tea every night. He says ‘the rest of my day is spent in inquiry and exploration, new information and experiences, and by dinnertime I’ve had enough of the new and the varied and just want something familiar and predictable with no surprises.’ 

So this is one of the virtues of repetition – it can simplify our lives somewhat.

Repetition is something I also associate with comfort, a sense of security. Think of the way that little children love to her the same bedtime story again and again. Having certain set routines and patterns can give our lives a familiar framework – ‘dependability, safety, and assurance’ – which might provide a strong foundation, a necessary base of stability, for those occasions when we DO want to venture out and try something new. As Jeffrey Lockwood said, ‘through constancy of people and places we shape a sanctuary in a chaotic world.’ A sanctuary. If we have invested the time, energy, and patience, committed our hearts and formed our habits in this way, we build a sanctuary to go out from and come back to when we DO feel like being more adventurous.

Repetition is also at the heart of many spiritual practices and religious rituals. I expect that many of us are familiar with meditations which focus on breathing, those practices where you follow every breath you take in, and out, over and over. Or walking meditation, where you pay attention to each step, and the next, and then the next. The repetition of some simple pattern or ritual can provide a focus which may help us to escape the relentless chatter that often fills our minds and may provide temporary respite from the wordy, critical headspace which I suspect is familiar to many of us present here this morning.

In the reading by Marlys Brinkman, the one that Caroline gave for us earlier, she offered a typical internal monologue, what might be going through the head of someone who tries chanting for the first time. Those stages of anxiety, boredom, and resignation might well be stages you recognise. Not just in terms of chanting but in terms of any repetitive practice or ritual. Firstly, anxiety, and maybe a bit of embarrassment: ‘Am I doing it right?’… Then perhaps boredom and resistance: ‘Yeah, OK, I’ve had enough now thanks’… Maybe you’ll move on to resignation: ‘Oh, well I suppose I’m going to have to see this through’… But if you hang on in there, you’ve got a chance of breaking through into something else. It’s the point at which your resistance cracks and you give yourself over to just doing the reps – whatever the practice is – when you come out the other side and into deeper, richer territory. As Marlys Brinkman says, ‘the tenth time is the beginning of the work, not the end.’

One of the challenges of the spiritual life is the repetition of practices over and over. It is our tendency to become tired and impatient with this process, wanting novelty instead.’ So says Frederic Brussat.

And to echo the words of Deng Ming-Dao from our mediation: ‘In spiritual practice our progress may be dull or spectacular but we must accept both. What is repeated over and over again can become enduring.’

Personally, I find that – particularly in a time of crisis or high anxiety – I want to return to familiar rituals which will bring me comfort and steadiness. At times when I have been ill or in pain – physical or emotional pain – or, say, sitting by a hospital bed or waiting for an important phone call – I tend to repeat one of a handful of short but powerful prayers I have learned by heart. If you haven’t got such a prayer in your repertoire I recommend that you seek out one that calls to you so that you have it there when you need it most. And it’s not just for moments of crisis: you might find it helpful to have a very short sacred phrase, or mantra, something that you can repeat day in, day out, as you go about your business, to help keep yourself aligned with your best intentions to live well everyday.

The Jewish storyteller Yitzhak Buxbaum says: ‘The repetition of a holy sentence, phrase, or name can be used during work, when walking, even when you  are otherwise occupied. It is relatively easy to do, and is therefore of particular value at times when you are somewhat fatigued, or when other, more demanding religious practices are impossible.’

In many other religious traditions repetition is a much more explicit part of worship compared to what we do here at Essex Church and in most Unitarian congregations. I’m thinking of the liturgy in Catholic and high Anglican churches in particular, the rhythm of the mass, indeed the year-round rhythms of the liturgical calendar. Or the daily routine and practice of ‘praying the hours’ in certain monastic communities, where everything stops at set times throughout the day, every day, for the community to come together and say set prayers. And it’s not just about the repetition that we do ourselves – it’s also repetition down the ages that is important – there is continuity that exists within a religious community – and the knowledge that many generations before you have participated in the same practices and rituals adds to their power.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re missing out, somehow, on the depth that such repetition can offer. But then I realise that our freedom of worship as Unitarians includes the freedom to positively choose repetition. Over the last five years here we’ve experimented with setting up two new regular services: ‘Heart and Soul’, our contemplative spiritual gathering, which takes place one evening a month and also Small-Group Communion, which takes place after the service once a month. With both of these services we started with pretty much a blank canvas to experiment. We could do the services completely differently every single time if we wanted to. But it turns out that even us Unitarians quite LIKE a bit of repetition and regular ritual. With ‘Heart and Soul’ in particular, the shape of the service is now pretty regular, with a chalice lighting, a prayer ritual, musical meditation, and time for sharing, but within that holding framework there is great freedom, both in terms of the choice of theme, words, and music, and in terms of the energy and the contributions that the gathered individuals bring to the shared space. We have cake every time too – repetition – but it’s always a different cake – freedom!

And the same goes for our Sunday morning services, more or less. The structure is much the same from one week to the next but we can be as adventurous as we like with the content. There’s another observation I want to offer in relation to my experience of Sunday worship. I don’t know about the rest of you but I find that I don’t necessarily HEAR something the first time I hear it… if you know what I mean. I’m not sure how much of any new idea I really absorb at the first encounter. Maybe one or two fragments from a typical Sunday service will stay with me. (and I should say that I think that’s OK! I feel I’ve been lucky if I get that much). When I first started coming here, fifteen years ago, everything was so new to me that it was all a bit overwhelming. Every story, every reading, every idea was new. So many factors need to align for a new idea to go from being just part of the endless stream of information I encounter each day, to being something that I’ll pay attention to, to being something I’ll reflect on later, which will stay with me long-term, and in the best-case scenario that will change me in some way and become integrated into my self, who I am, and how I live. One thing I did when I first came here was to revisit the services online, reading the sermons over and over again, allowing time for the ideas to work on me. I do the same with books and podcasts these days as well. Once is rarely enough.

And if we go back to the same material yet again at a later date, we might be surprised to find something new in what we thought was familiar, something that speaks to our condition in a fresh way and resonates with us in the state that we find ourselves in on the day – at the moment – that we revisit it. Think of the old saying from Heraclitus: ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’. No experience is ever the same when you try to repeat it – there’s always something new to be gleaned when you revisit it – as you have changed, the situation has changed, the world has changed.

Repetition is a key part of learning pretty much anything – people can be dismissive about rote learning – but this method of fixing ‘the basics’ in our memory through drills and repetitions (whether it be memorising times tables, going over musical scales, practicing a golf swing) is the foundation for greater things and (hopefully) the first step towards mastery of an art.  I believe that learning things ‘by heart’ is, again, a stepping stone to something deeper. Once some new knowledge or skill has really become part of you in this way you are in a better position to call on it in a heartbeat when you really need to use it.

Some of you know that I’ve recently taken up ballroom dancing and so at the moment I’m in that stage where I have to think quite hard about where my feet are going and what way we’re meant to be turning and what I’m supposed to be doing with my face. Karlfried Graf Durkheim said: ‘The more we have mastered some relevant technique, and the smaller the amount of attention needed to perform the task satisfactorily, the more easily may the emphasis be transferred from the exterior to the interior.’ I can’t wait for the point at which I’ve done enough practicing that all those technical things have become second nature and I can just give myself over to the beauty and flow of the dance.

For all this praise of repetition and routine, of course we still need to remain open to the new – to expanding our boundaries and broadening our horizons – to learning and growing, increasing the scope and the breadth of our lives. But I reckon that repetition and routine can help to provide a valuable foundation and stability out of which to be brave, be adventurous, and reach out into the unknown. Repetition can enable us to grow in depth and to engage more  meaningfully with ideas and practices that we might only superficially grasp on our first encounter with them.

I want to finish with a few words from the Zen teacher John Tarrant – a slightly expanded version of the quote which is on your order of service. He says:   ‘Repetition is narrow and, if undertaken mechanically, stifles us, but it can also allow us to go deep. In meditation we repeat ourselves day and day, coming back to stillness and the breath, and again and again realize that we haven’t yet experienced it completely, that it is ever more subtle. Repetition, when done right, drifts almost imperceptibly into vast, new realms, but with a slowness that allows for deepening, beauty, the appreciation of the neglected moment. It stabilizes our relation to eternity.’ 

May it be so, for all of us, over and over.



Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: