Parable # 26: Progress and Plateaus

A Parable by Donald Lee

(This week is the 29th installment of the book, “The Band Director’s Lessons About Life”, which TCRN is publishing as a series during 2020. This week, band director and spiritual author Donald Lee relates a parable about “not staying stuck”. For a complete listing of previous episodes in this series,click here.)

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.
BRUCE LEE (Actor, director, martial artist, and philosopher)

“That’s beautiful, Emily, but right now we’re here for band. Can you please get out your trumpet?”
Emily ignored me. She had been the first grade-nine band student to arrive. Instead of following the usual procedure, she’d sat down at the piano and started plunking out a tune. More students wandered in, everyone else following the procedure: get your music folder from the shelf, your band instrument from the storage room, sit down in your assigned chair, and get ready for the rehearsal. I walked over and sat down on the edge of the piano bench beside Emily.
“You like the piano better than the trumpet, don’t you, Emily?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said coyly and continued to tinkle. “Last year I really liked the trumpet, but now . . . I don’t know.” Emily shrugged her shoulders and kept her eyes fixed on the keyboard.
“You play the piano well. Who do you take lessons from? I asked.
“Mrs. Morneau.”
“I hear she’s a good teacher. Do you practice regularly?”
“Yeah, pretty much every day.”
“That’s good. And do you feel like you’re making progress on the piano?”
“Yeah. I’m working on grade five this year. The music is pretty tough, so I really have to work at it.” Emily started to open up a bit.
“The music does get tougher at every level but more rewarding, too. Don’t you think?” I added.

“Yeah. I like this Schumann piece I’m working on. The Bach is neat, but you really have to get your fingers to work independently.”
“That’s certainly a challenge, but there’s nothing like Bach.” I paused.
“I don’t think you’ve taken your trumpet home to practice for a long time, have you?” I finally came around to the point she wanted to avoid.
“No . . .” Her voice dropped off.
“I think you are on a plateau with your trumpet playing. You haven’t really been making progress lately. You know, there’s a feedback loop with our practicing. You are practicing the piano regularly, so you get better. You feel good and can play more interesting music, so you want to practice even more. More practice, more reward, more motivation, more practice. We call it a ‘virtuous cycle,’ an upward cycle.” Emily continued to tinkle on the piano.
“On the other hand, the opposite is also true. When you don’t practice, your skills decline, you feel discouraged, so you don’t practice. No practice, no reward, no motivation, no practice. We call this a ‘vicious cycle,’ a downward cycle.
“So you have a virtuous cycle going with your piano and a vicious cycle going with your trumpet. An interesting thing is that we can start or restart these cycles at any point. When we stop practicing or start practicing, the cycle changes. When we lose interest or take interest, the cycle changes. When we avoid a new challenge or accept a new challenge, the cycle changes. But when we’re on a plateau, we do have to change something in order to move on.
“You are a fine young trumpet player, and you have a keen interest in music. If you are able to keep your interest up, I know it will be rewarding for you throughout your whole life. Next week we are going to start working on some challenging festival music. The trumpet parts will be difficult for you. Maybe that’s something that could restart a virtuous cycle for you and move you up from this plateau.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Everyone else is ready for class now. Can you also get out your trumpet, please?”
“Okay,” she said as she slipped off the piano bench and made her way to the storage room.

Sometimes we find ourselves on a spiritual plateau. We’re saying the same prayers, doing the same meditations, going to the same religious services, but nothing’s changing. We’re just holding steady at ten thousand feet, so to speak.
In any part of our lives, a plateau means that whatever we’ve done to get this far won’t take us any farther. We have to change something. We need to create ourselves differently. We do that by changing our thoughts, words, and actions.
None of us completely understands spiritual reality, yet we tend to cling desperately to whatever spiritual understanding we have. Maybe we need to let go of some of our old ideas and let new ideas in—ideas that better suit who we want to become. Maybe the words we speak no longer reflect that version of ourselves we want to express. Maybe we need to do something different. Maybe we need to see differently.
Nicodemus was shocked when Jesus told him he had to be born again (see Jn 3:1–8). He didn’t get it. Jesus was trying to tell him that he must see with spiritual eyes. When we see ourselves as spirit, and we see the world through spiritual eyes, we see clearly. Sometimes, to get off a plateau, we need a better vision.
Perhaps new and challenging music will jolt Emily off her trumpet plateau. For you? Maybe go on a spiritual retreat, or join a Bible study group or a meditation class, or start reading spiritual books again, or going to church again. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.
Plateaus are a normal part of the spiritual warp and woof of life. But if we have landed on a plateau or fallen into a vicious cycle, we have to pull ourselves out of it. As Bruce Lee said, there really are no limits. There is always a grander vision, a higher spiritual peak, another leg upward on our spiritual journey. Change yourself. Create yourself anew. And let’s move beyond this plateau.

Life’s journey has uphills, downhills, and plateaus. To get off a plateau, we have to do something different than what got us up to the plateau.

Donald Lee is a spiritual author and speaker. This article is part of a weekly series for 2020 in which TCRN is publishing his inspirational book, The Band Director’s Lessons About Life: Volume 1 – 50 Parables on Life’s Performance Cycle, in serial form – one parable per week. You can learn more about the author at his website:, or order a copy of his complete book on Amazon, or get his free mini eBook and sign up for his weekly blog. Follow Donald on Facebook.

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