“Practice is beyond loss and gain, and supports loss and gain.”
Since my computer is slow today, at least online, I’ll be writing this offline, on my word processing program. The first post is about “loss and gain.” But first, it might be good to talk about contemplative practice. What is contemplative practice? I’ve been a meditator for a little less than ten years now. I’m a Buddhist. My experience and inclination lean this book towards Buddhist sitting meditation practice. However, I think it’s very important to say that I think “contemplative practice” includes lots of things, including lots of possibilities. By lots of things, I mean many practices from different traditions- chant, prayer, yoga, and so forth. I tend to be biased in favor of more “traditional” approaches, but those aren’t the only good ones, or the only ones that work. By lots of possibilities, I mean that beyond more traditional approaches, there may be other kinds of “practice” that could yield good results. Two good examples might be the story of the sweeping man, and the Karate Kid. In a traditional story, the Buddha had a student who wasn’t very smart, but who genuinely wanted to study and grow. The Buddha instructed him to sweep the floors around the temple, thinking as he was doing so, that he was sweeping away his confusion, his negative thoughts. It’s said that the student did this, and his mind became stronger as a result. Of course, in the recent “Karate Kid” remake, Jackie Chan instructs his student to put a jacket on a hanger over and over. He tells him precisely how to do it. His young student slowly becomes a little more disciplined. Little does the student know that he’s actually learning a martial arts form indirectly, by doing one thing over and over. My point is that, although I have a connection to the practice of sitting meditation (saying “I like it” doesn’t seem quite right, or honest), I think a lot of other approaches are available, or workable. That being said, this book is about arguments for this kind of practice. I’m an American. I see lots of problems and lots of good things about America. One of the good things is what is called a “work ethic.” Americans, many of them, think working hard is good. I’m here to argue that, along with the work of earning money, having a family life, and all of the other civic things Americans (and others) consider worthwhile, spending a little time every day practicing is something valuable. I said this first part would be about loss and gain, and it will. Before I get to that, one quick note about what a practice might be. There are a few elements involved, I think. I want to revisit this, so I’m sure I will change my mind, and revise this list, soon. Here, as a rough sketch, are some elements involved in having a contemplative practice.
1. An intention
2. A form
3. A tradition
4. A teacher
5. The physical time and place
I think having an intention for your practice is good. In Buddhism, I’ve heard it said many times that this is important. Maybe it tends to broaden your practice (so it’s not just a completely personal thing you do for yourself). An intention to become more patient, or even to help others, are common. It’s not a self-improvement project, exactly, but wanting to cultivate virtue is probably a good thing. The form is what you do, the routine, the parameters- sitting, walking, saying a word, what have you. A tradition is unavoidable. If you choose to work within an established religion or school of thought, that’s one tradition. Avoiding that, you’re still in a culture, a time, and place. Rejecting tradition in various ways is, also, traditional- it’s been done before. Considering your place within tradition might be good. It’s said that a teacher is helpful. In Tibetan Buddhism, finding a “root guru” is considered important. I go by this, being a Tibetan (American) Buddhist, but I think the point here is not that everyone has to have a guru. I think teachers help transmit information. Good teachers do so strongly (even if they are quiet or gentle in demeanor). Just think about your teachers in school. Some of them must have said one or two things that have stayed with you, and shaped your life, in some way. That’s what teachers do. Having a practice is not completely personal and individual. It is strongly individual, in some ways, but in order to “get” a practice, having a teacher can really help. Finally, there’s a time and place. You need somewhere to practice, and a time. I suggest a fairly pleasant and orderly place, and a fairly quiet time (when you don’t have lots of interruptions, or obligations). Of course, there are innumerable “on the spot” practices one can do in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. But having a little time, even five minutes, set aside, to practice, is a great support for the rest of life (and for those on the spot, in the moment type practices). On to loss and gain. This may form just the conclusion of this part, although I intended for it to be the meat of it. Oh well.
Loss and gain can refer to the “ups and downs” of life. There are big ones, and small ones. Practice exists both outside of this, and in relation to this. If you’re a Buddhist, this sort of nondualistic, “having it both ways” logic is familiar. If you’re not, it may take some getting used to. I’m not one to argue that you need to “give up” “worldly life.” There are many traditions, I think, that support the idea that you can be a practitioner within the life of family, work, art, politics. Those are loss and gain. Practice is separate from those. You can have a week where you’re getting along splendidly. Things seem to be going beautifully. It’s very exciting. The next week could be depressing, confusing, or miserable. Having a practice means that, outside of those natural disasters of daily life, you have some time to get in touch with something (what depends on your inclination and understanding, I think). You have some time to tune into reality. The other stuff is just loss and gain. The practice keeps going in spite of that. Practice is a support for loss and gain. Yes, it is just ups and downs. At the same time, you want to be involved in your own life. Being a person who meditates doesn’t mean being quiet and unattached all the time. It’s good to really do it, to really work on what you think is important. A teacher once told me “never do anything half-assed.” That’s the basic idea there. These two opposite approaches aren’t really that opposite. You can have a separate practice, and keep coming back to it as time passes. That very practice is also a support for having a “fully assed” life. Well, I didn’t think it would head in that direction! Okay, that’s it for this one.
“The most fundamental goal is living fully.”
This one is about goals for living. The most fundamental life goal, is I think, living fully. Being a practitioner means that one is working towards this from the inside out. Developing a practice allows the sense perceptions to being to open, and sharpen. I remember noticing this when I started meditating, back in college. I think I actually started by trying to teach myself Taoist meditation from an audio CD. I’m grateful to the author of this work, which inspired me to keep practicing, and intrigued me as to the possibilities of contemplative practice. As it turned out, I got captured by Buddhism, and went in that direction, but one of my first experiences with practice was with Taoist meditation. I was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. It’s an interesting place. Their motto is, or was for a while, “We Believe One Person Can Change the World,” or something to that effect. They have an excellent musical conservatory. The student body tends to party a lot (as did I, as do probably most American college students). They do place an emphasis on community service and responsibility (at least in some sense). Anyway, studying there, I got interested in religion, and martial arts (oddly enough, but then I’ve always been pretty odd). They have a “Winter term” program there (every winter). Students get about a month to do some sort of individual project. They can design it themselves. I have “Yoga and Painting” as one of my Winter terms on my transcript (and, to this day, I have no memory of it, of doing yoga, or painting, that Winter). One year, I decided to try meditation. I was doing Tai Chi every day, at the time, imagining one day I’d become a master, like the guys in those Kung Fu movies, able to push people away with a single touch; I was looking forward to magical powers. I thought meditation would improve my Tai Chi. So that Fall, I had to look for a “faculty sponsor” for my project. I talked to people I knew, and they recommended a highly regarded Asian religions professor. I’d never taken his classes. I found him in his office one day and introduced myself, and described my project. My description was probably a little blunt, something like:
“I want to do Taoist meditation. I found a CD I want to use.”
I’ve since gotten a little better at being charming, when necessary (a little better). His response was that, no, this was not a good idea. I was shocked. He didn’t like my idea! I hated him from that point on, vigorously. An individual practice, he said he’d found, “…led to lassitude.”
Lassitude? Who talks that way? Actually, he was right. For a beginning meditator, trying to do a retreat on one’s own without guidance is a recipe for disaster. He recommended I find a group or monastery (and then he’d consider supporting me). Also a good idea, I have to say. I said no thanks. I was furious, and stubborn (which I still am, I guess). I walked out, fuming, and looked into other options. I heard that the campus Rabbi, a blind large old man with a scraggly white beard, would sponsor anything somewhat spiritual. This seemed to be the case. I found where his office was, talked to his secretary, and sat down with him, somewhat unnerved by his blindness. He was friendly, and immediately agreed to support my project. I said thanks, and was off. I don’t remember a whole lot about the actual “retreat.” Having done longer sessions of meditation, and some short retreats since then, I know it wasn’t very “deep” or intense. I remember creating a schedule for my days, including practice (but extremely short sessions, five or ten minutes each I think). I do remember that, listening to the author’s soothing voice on the CDs, trying to pick up on, and do what he was describing, I felt some subtle but very noticeable changes right away. My senses shifted. Things just seemed different. I remember coming out of a session of sitting meditation, and looking around, and seeing things differently, literally, visually. It was very interesting, and a little surprising, even a little scary. As someone who’d done plenty of drugs in high school, and then college, just sitting meditating a little seemed to effect my mind surprisingly quickly. It was weird. I was intrigued. I wanted to experience and know more. Of course, having these little experiences of the senses waking up convinced me that I was on the right track, and that, soon, I’d be a Tai Chi master. This did not turn out to be the case. I practiced Tai Chi for about seven years, and learned a few good things, but never became adept at destroying opponents. Too bad. After I returned to college, that year, I had to meet with the Rabbi again. I may not be a “people person,” and talking to people I didn’t know was even more unnerving then than it is now (still scary). Talking to the blind old Rabbi made me uncomfortable. We chatted for a few minutes, and he asked me how it went. “Fine.”
Then he asked me if I would go back there, to retreat.
“To my parents house?” (to my old room there)
But I knew what he meant; he meant if he would back “there,” that place of retreat, inside. I hated his use of metaphor here. It seemed incredibly cheesy.
“No,” he said, and explained. “Maybe, I don’t know,” I replied, despising his “teaching.”
I left then, and went back to my concrete dorm room. Years later, I’m actually pleased at his little teaching device. It was not super-profound, but it was good. I do go back to that place of retreat. Thinking of it as a place, almost waiting for you, is pretty good. And, of course, I have to think this man for allowing me to meditate, in my own stubborn, crazy, lassitudinous way. Without that initial experience, I may never have gone on to more serious practice and training. One need not go on retreat, although it does “deepen your practice” as they say, these days. A short daily practice is excellent. Among the other goals for living, work, and so forth, living more fully is the most important. When practice begins to enliven your senses, and it really can do this, you are able to live more fully. You don’t need to be a professor, a Rabbi, or a crazy college student to do this. All you have to do is practice a little, of something, every day.
3. “Practice can help you trust yourself.”
I’m going to talk about kinds of trust. There are different kinds of trust. Here are some:
1. Trusting yourself
2. Trusting others
3. Trusting in plans
4. Trusting in the natural order of things I’ll start with the first two.
Trusting yourself is important. I think everyone would probably agree with that, and I think most people would add some sort of caveat. “You should trust yourself, but be rational.” or “You need to trust yourself, but it helps to talk to your friends, too, to get perspective.” I’m not disagreeing with either of these ideas, exactly. What I’m saying is that trusting yourself is difficult, and complicated in some ways. It’s funny. In a way, it’s really simple. In another way, it’s not. I think that distinction has to do with how clear your head is. If your thoughts are really jumbled, at a particular moment, and you feel chaotic, it can be harder to trust yourself: where is the voice that you’d trust? This may seem a little obvious, but practice can assist with that. It’s not that you practice sitting down, get clearheaded, and then listen for some kind of internal voice. At least in sitting meditation, as I have been instructed, that’s not how it works. It a little more technical than that, and less goal-oriented. However, the mental chaos does tend to calm down a bit if you practice, and that can help you find that sense of what to trust, which of the multitude of voices in there to trust. You have to trust others, to some degree, I think, although it can be difficult. Maybe that comes back to trusting yourself, too. Everyone trusts in making plans of various sorts: what to cook for dinner, where to go to school, what kind of person to marry. These plans are necessary, up to a point, too. (Maybe you can tell that I’m not a person who’s good at planning, or especially enamored of it.) This kind of trust in plans ignores the facts, at least a little: things are always changing. Maybe a good plan accomodates this impermanence. I don’t know. Constant shifting does mean that you can never trust in plans entirely. Everything is subject to change. Finally, there’s a trust in the natural order of things. This one gets murky pretty easily. Instead of trying to outline this, which would probably involve me philosophizing in a sloppy way (even more), I’ll leave this one up to you. There are seasons. There seem to be certain natural laws. Things always change. Aside from that, is there some natural order that can be trusted in?
“Avoid or live: practice helps with this choice.”
We live in a world that is groundless. Things are always changing. Political wheeling and dealing always changes. Your body always changes. Your relationships with your friends and enemies change constantly. Sometimes someone you’d thought was a friend, or someone “neutral,” neither good nor bad, will shock you by doing something that shakes you up- insulting you, beating you, smiling at you. Another of my first introductions to spiritual life came in the form of a book by sixties teacher and student of Eastern philosophy Alan Watts. My appreciation for Alan Watts, like my Tai Chi practice, has mostly fallen away. Trying to reread his stuff a little while ago, I was not that impressed. He may be good in some ways, but he’s no Buddhist master teacher (and there are plenty of books available by those guys). This book is not one of those. Anyway, I read his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, and was blown away. It was amazing. It told the truth about how life is not safe, or secure, ever. I think, as a very anxious young person, a book proclaiming the value of insecurity also drew me in. I read it, and had some sort of little “peak experience.” My thoughts quieted in some ways. My mind felt sort of blank. It was nice at first, and then I got scared. After maybe two or three days of this different experience of thoughts, I felt compelled to bring them back, and with a bit of effort, started thinking again. (Now I think all the time, pretty much, with no effort at all.) People talk about the relative importance of peak experiences. The general consensus seems to be that they’re not that important. At this point, I would guess that, actually, the “peak experience” happens naturally for everybody, thousands of times a day, but we tend to ignore and miss it, due to bad mental habits (a lack of training). This is an aspect of what’s called “ordinary magic.” But enough about peak experiences. You may or may not ever have them if you practice. It’s probably more important to have a practice that supports kindness and compassion. After having read and thought about Watts’ book, my mind became more or less blank. This shows, in a nice way, the two sides of groundlessness: positive and negative. If you’re not ready for that sort of thing, it tends to be a little frightening. An experience of life as different, brought on by meditation, study, or different things, can be frightening. It may not actually be helpful to a person, or lead to an individual becoming a contemplative person. That’s the bad side. I should say that I’ve never heard of someone going crazy from just trying a contemplative practice (although I guess that might be possible). The good side is that it’s true. Life is groundless. You can make all the plans you want, but there’s no guarantee they’ll play out the way you’d like. Eventually you’ll die. Things are not exactly what you think. Luckily, many many very wise, awake people have “been there,” experienced this groundlessness, and come back to tell the tale: it’s not something to be avoided, destroyed, or strategized against. It’s actually both the way things are, and a good thing. Practice helps you develop an odd kind of stability, I think. Yes, the idea of meditation as making you more down to earth, or centered, is true (in a way). But really, it has more to do with being stable in the experience of groundlessness, being able to cope with the (often unsettling) experience of “losing ground.” Whether you practice some sort of contemplative art or not, you basically have two choices: work on facing and living with groundlessness, or work on avoiding it. Practice can help with this choice.
“Going beyond happens both with and without practice.”
People want to push themselves, a lot of times- to accomplish, to get stuff, to find a partner. “Going beyond” has some definite connotations in Buddhism. In the famous “Heart Sutra,” the phrase, “Gate gate paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha,” means, I’ve heard, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, may it be so.” This is a teaching beloved in Zen Buddhism (although some other folks like it too). Is there some connection between going beyond in the Buddhist sense, and going beyond in the sense of crossing some threshold, or pushing yourself? Hard work is important, I think. As many Buddhists learn, discipline and exertion are very important. They’re necessary components of virtue, being a good person, who can help others. In a really general sense, without discipline or exertion, it’s impossible to get anything done. The words may carry a sort of heavy feeling, in some contexts, but they don’t have to. For any project, minor to major, you need at leat some discipline and hard work. It’s the whole work ethic thing. A lot has been written about the Heart Sutra. I think the Dalai Lama has published at least one book on it. That’s a little hard to compete with. I doubt what I say can even begin to scratch the surface of such a practitioner’s understanding. Still, I’m stubborn and bold enough to try to add my own perspective (with a note that I appreciate any and all teachers who have written about this, and helped me understand it). The one thing in the Heart Sutra that I think I understand a bit is the idea of form and emptiness. People usually, I think, tend to be very form-based. They think things exist as things. The fact that things always change, and are interlinked with other things is often ignored or forgotten (even in subtle ways). The Heart Sutra deals with form and emptiness. Appreciating form and emptiness allows you to go beyond normative understandings of the universe. Those normative understandings, acceptable and real as they seem, are problematic, and actually wrong. A plant, for example, is really a bundle of living, breathing, morphing, swirling activity. No, I don’t exactly see it that way (although my experience of a plant is different now, and more appreciative than it was before I began meditating, and I don’t mean the kind of “plant appreciation” that involves a lighter and a pack of rolling papers). You can go beyond normative assumptions of reality. This is, again, living fully. There are no guarantees, as one teacher was fond of saying, but many people believe that this going beyond is the way to go. You can take a step into this new kind of understanding (which is an experience, it’s experiential). The relation to pushing oneself to get or accomplish is:
1. Getting and accomplishing always involve emptiness (groundlessness), so you’re going to experience that in some way, anyway.
2. Practice, whether five minutes a day, or an hour a day, can help “push” you, gently, into more experiences of this beyond. Number one is the idea that emptiness, that hallowed Buddhist term, is ever-present. If you get a new apartment, it will be beyond, in various ways, your expectations. It will not be as you expect. That could be good or bad. It’s funny how, even knowing that in some way, you don’t stop expecting things to turn out as you expect. Number two is the idea that, if this idea of emptiness/groundlessness intrigues you somewhat, contemplative practice can push you in that direction. It would be a little much to suggest that God and emptiness are the same thing. I’m not a Christian, and have little understanding of Christian theology. What I do want to say is that, although I’m speaking in Buddhist terms, when I’m talking about emptiness, another way to put it is that practice can put you in touch with other, very significant aspects of reality. What those are, and what you call those depends somewhat on your practice, and your tradition.
“Practice helps people’s minds become clearer, and this helps you to be honest with yourself.”
People deceive themselves and others in various ways. This is problematic. Ever since I was young I’ve been sort of obsessed with honesty. It’s not that I tell everyone I meet everything about myself, or that I’m totally open and honest. I’d like to be, but it’s a very scary idea. At the same time, I do think about it a lot, and try to be honest when I can. If being honest and being genuine are basically synonymous, then it’s a big challenge- not trying to be someone ideal, not trying to please everybody else, are difficult. Partly it’s difficult because you want to be an ethical person at the same time (and being ethical and trying to be perfect are sometimes confused). Part of deceiving others is not wanting to get into a mess. When I go for job interviews, I don’t tell them that I’ve been fired (numerous times). I guess I should. They often ask about the gaps in my employment history, but I don’t want to admit that I’ve been asked to leave various jobs. I’m afraid that I won’t get the next job. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be completely honest about why I’ve left certain jobs in the past, when I look for new ones; I didn’t do anything shocking, steal money, attack anybody, spit in anyone’s food. Mostly, I had trouble getting along with people. I had definite problems with authority figures, especially when I was younger. So I can’t tell anyone to be completely honest with others, although I won’t suggest that lying is a good policy either. I’d say avoid it when you can, as much as you can. On the other hand, honesty with yourself is safer in some ways. You can strive to be honest with yourself about lots and lots of things, and this can reveal a lot. Practice can help there. Being honest about what you feel and experience are aspects of perception, and as I’ve said before, I think practice makes your perceptions clearer. This may sound silly, but honesty is a process that you work on. Blurting out every passing thought to a loved one could easily cause damage. Even being honest with yourself is not a simple matter. There are layers of deception and fakeness going on in the mind. The idea is that practicing can help dissolve those layers of deception, like drain cleaner.