The most useful insights often seem so simple afterward it is embarrassing to relate them. My day job is in the Finishing Department at a company that builds wind turbine blades – very large wind turbine blades. We sand, prep and paint a blade 45 meters long, weighing 10 tons. Moreover, because this is a new contract, and we are a relatively new company, a 150 foot long paint booth has not yet been built. Therefore, the blades are painted by roller to keep the operation within environmental regulations. It is quite a task to paint a 150 foot long wind turbine blade with a 9” paint roller.
I'm one of the lucky few who often have a paint roller handle in hand. Not long ago, I was painting a blade with a partner who is a little quiet, reflective even. We do just fine in conversation, but we will occasionally go for long stretches without much talking; which is just fine, it turns out, with both of us. Painting starts at the blade's tip with a team of two on each side. After the first several meters, the blade gets tall enough that the other team might as well be in another building.
We were painting along in silence. The paint we use is a heavy paint for ship decks imported from Germany. In our routine, the first painter slops a lot of paint on the blade with a roller just sopped and dripping. The second painter re-rolls the surface with a slightly dry roller, smoothing it out and catching any defects. As the second painter, I was doing this clean up and had nothing on my mind but watching the effects of my partner's painting, and re-rolling the blade's surface. At a certain point, I was completely lost in the gentle, undulating rhythm. I'd pick a spot, about a half roller width off of the previous strokes and reach way down under the bottom of the blade to start a long stroke toward the other edge, sometimes as much as 15 feet high. Up, and then reaching down again, I simply watched the texture and coverage of the soft grey paint as I rolled.
As we neared the other end, what we call the root, I realized that I had been humming along for half an hour or more without really thinking about anything. I had practically become the paint roller itself, not existing in any essential way outside of the function of the painting. Before we began cleaning up, I stopped and stared at the long blade. It is more like a bird's wing than that of an airplane. From the muscular root, it curves upward and crests to flow down again toward a graceful curve, like the wing of a Swallow. The other guys, had they noticed, would have presumed that I was admiring our work. Actually, I was reflecting on the ease at which I had blissed out. My concentration had been such that all else had disappeared. Sure, thoughts came and went like usual, but I had not grabbed hold of them. The thoughts became fleeting gossamer wisps rather than the first scatter of pebbles before an avalanche.
This Paint Roller Nirvana taught me a much easier way into my meditation. Even the most basic instructions will tell you that 'thinking about not-thinking' will get you nowhere. Concentration is prescribed as the solution. I've spent the last several years trying to develop this “single pointed concentration;” so called Samadhi. For the most part, this vague goal had escaped me. I'm not saying that I've always got it now, but it is definitely easier to enter after the paint roller.
Using my breath while meditating was not concrete enough for me. I kept seeking concentration separately. Counting my breath was something that I did while I searched the caverns of my psyche for some concentration. Just as the Buddha taught, however, we are already complete. We already have everything we need. The paint roller taught me that I already had the concentration I sought. If I just did the breathing as a task, like painting, I would find it right there waiting for me.