“Confidence and fear go hand in hand.”
Confidence is important. You need a certain amount of confidence to practice.
This means facing fear. That doesn’t mean jumping off of a bridge on a bungee cord, or trying terrifying new foods, necessarily. Fear exists in anxiety. In order to practice, you have rein in your anxiety a little bit, and take the time to do something a bit different, and separate, from the rest of your activities (which have at least a little anxiety in them).
People push themselves to do things, and others. I often feel pushed around by others, who want their own stuff, have their own individual agendas (which is natural). This pushing has, I think, a lot to do with anxiousness. Being pressured tends produce anxiety.
Of course, practice can help reduce anxiety. The image of a yogi in spandex, so elegant, or someone closing their eyes and getting “balanced” are not uncommon in TV ads today. But practice isn’t exactly some guarantee that your life will balance out, and that you’ll calm down.
It seems that confidence and fear are pretty complex in some ways. It’s a big tangle. Practice can be part of this tangle. It’s not at all a quick fix, but I do have a lot of faith that it is a positive way to address these issues. I have experienced this firsthand.
Quite possibly, it’s better to say that fear is necessary to practice. Which is better? Is it that you need the right balance of fear and confidence in order to start, and continue practicing? In the Buddhist tradition, it’s said that you need the right balance of pain and pleasure in order to consider becoming a practitioner. If life is too pleasant and easy, you won’t bother to try to become more sane and compassionate. Things are good already. If life is too miserable and hard, it could seem hopeless. Why even bother? The right conditions for being inspired to try meditation or prayer are being stable enough to have some sense of dignity, and sanity, but still experiencing enough chaos and unhappiness to feel the need for help.
So if you need a certain amount of confidence to practice, that must depend on the individual. You need to have at least a little faith in the method being used, prayer, yoga, mantra, whatever. You need at least a little faith in yourself, as someone who can work with yourself, on your stuff. You need, too, some awareness of your own terror and fear and anxiety, bubbling under the surface, which seem unpleasant and problematic, shameful, even, and which you want to somehow engage with. Obviously, the multitude of good, bad, and amazing lineages out there have a multitude of “cures,” and definitions of the nature of said cures. I’ll leave that, for now at least, to other people.
“Practice provides a way into fear.”
Fearlessness is something that caught my eye when I first start studying Buddhism. I’d read Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala years earlier, with a sense of boredom and confusion (and a few little highlights of interest at certain phrases). However, when I picked up some Pema Chodron in the Oberlin College library, with its silly egg-shaped chairs, its blocky and monumental concrete slab architecture, and its incredible vast rows of books, something clicked. She wrote about fear, and not fearlessness per se; she talked first about the experience of fear as something natural and universal.
I loved it. There was something deep and yet gentle and humble there. Having studied just enough Western Philosophy and Theology to have a head full of “clever” ideas, finding this writing, this speech, which was both infinitely profound, and completely down to earth- this was something remarkable, and incredibly lucky for me. Being a “heady” person, and someone who’d taken a certain amount of pride in this, in being intellectually clever, in spite of the pain it cause me, and others, I could very easily have lived an entire lifetime in my head, without having the heart of the teachings change my life at all.
It’s a little scary to sit down to practice at all (or stand up, maybe for yoga). A number of my teachers made a point of saying, during meditation workshops that it was remarkable that we’d taken some time to sit with our own minds. It’s not exactly easy, and it can nerve-wracking to have to listen to yourself chatter away, even for five minutes. I guess that means that you should feel good at having accomplished that. Some people never can. The idea of sitting quietly and doing very little, for even a minute or two, is too terrifying for some people. They’re terrified of the “silence,” or the noisiness of the silence, or something hiding there. I know, personally, that I try to take some time to sit in quiet, and do nothing, or lie down and do nothing, with no radio, TV, or internet activity. But even this is really really hard a lot of the time. It’s easy to get involved in projects and distractions (from?).
I’m not at all expert in fearlessness. I get nervous sitting on the bus and trying not to make eye contact with people. I get nervous talking in front of a group. I am working on it, though, and that’s something. Actually, that’s a decent point: working with fear does not mean that you have to try bull riding or do something terribly dramatic. Those things might be good, but working with fear can happen in regular life. Obviously, I’ve read Pema. If you have too, you know that I’m basically stealing from her as I write in this way. It’s true, though.
Fear is both subtle and overwhelming. Practice is not at all guaranteed to make you fearless. It does, however, provide a good way in.
“Slowing down serves a number of functions. This includes creating more control over pacing and synchronization.”
Slowing down is often a good thing. Maybe this has always been true to an extent. I have a feeling that things are in many ways a lot faster than they used to be. Automation, computers, electronic technology have supported this. I won’t lie- I like the internet, I like computers, and I am grateful for having access to the Western medical system. I do, however, think that the consequences of a speedy life can be negative, at least in some ways. This is not an original or especially sophisticated view (but it is true, I think).
“Speed” has become something of a negative buzzword in some Buddhist groups. There are reasons for this. I don’t think it’s just that being slow and mindful of life going on around you are necessarily good. Slowing down can make you more in tune with things, turning the volume down a little on the mental chatter. However, my thought is that slowing down does something to you. One thing it does is it allows you to become more aware of your body and mind, and how they are synchronized.
Having a synchronized mind and body is not always easy, but it is a good goal. I have trouble imagining a situation in which being awkward or confused or uncoordinated would be helpful. I am that way plenty of the time, but I don’t need to cultivate it. Practice certainly cultivates various kinds of synchronization. Often, practice forces you to slow down. This seems to make you more aware, in a way, and to “let off some steam” oftentimes, to release a bit of pent-up energy. It also brings awareness to speed itself. This means that you start to get more control over how fast you’re going. That is very useful. That moves you in the direction of meditation in action- being able to be mindful and aware as you go through the complexities and textures of navigating a workplace, the street, and so on.
Finally, speed seems to be tied in with anxiety, and a process of covering over certain dissatisfactions and painful experiences. It’s natural to want to escape from pain, and speed is usually involved (speedy movement, and/or speedy thoughts). Slowing down gives you access to that area of pain, which can be a good place to work.
“The world changes, although people are still people. Speed is something you can work with in your life if you look into its effect on body and mind.”
Slowness lets you access the process of escaping and speeding. Slowness gives you context to synchronize yourself within. Slowness is an introduction to the dance of meditation in action.
I think there’s something to be said for a “slower lifestyle,” in general. I do think that the frenetic pace of contemporary media and entertainment, along with the general ramping-up of efficiency, in various work environments, and transportation, has some serious negative effects on people’s minds and bodies. However, I think it would be overly simplistic to say that speed and efficiency are bad. My prejudice tends to go in that direction, but I don’t that’s exactly in line with some of the larger ideas in Buddhism. I think, properly done, speed and efficiency could be used to help people and make things work. Again, it would be simplistic and even backwards to say “slow is good” and leave it at that.
Slowness is a skillful means. It’s a very intelligent technique for achieving various compassionate goals.
I don’t think that practice should always be slow. Sitting meditation is super-slow, in a sense, but that’s not the only legitimate practice, and even within Buddhism, there are other practices that are more dynamic (such as visualization, or chanting). Then, of course, there are the many other traditions that offer genuine liberation in their own contexts.
As practitioners, we live in a fast world. One thousand years ago, practitioners lived in a different sort of world. That’s the way things work, obviously. Most traditional practices are, I think, much the same as they were a long time ago. (They’re traditional.) Sometimes I think people get uptight about how correct their form is, who the teachers are, the lineage, and so on. I’m not espousing that at all. You don’t have to go overboard. It’s interesting, though, that some traditional practices, like sitting, worked well thousands of years ago, and work well now, in spite of the “change in pacing.” This suggests that people’s minds haven’t changed too much in that amount of time. Maybe it suggests that, even in spite of some significant changes in people’s minds, the techniques are sophisticated enough to account for that.
The story that people are crazy these days, and things were a lot saner fifty, or one hundred, or a thousand years ago is suspect. Personally, I think things are pretty fast in a lot of places. Still, people are people, and minds are minds. A good practice lets you work with that mind, whether you have a very spacious day, or day saturated with activities. Many people have some say over how busy they are. If you begin to practice, it does make sense, I think, to evaluate how busy you want to be, in terms of responsibility and money, and how this effects your mind and body.
“Slowing down reveals problems: movement, pain, and distraction.”
Slowing down can reveal various things, especially your own movement, pain, and distraction. At this point, I’m talking generally about slowing down. (I think what I’m saying could apply either to practice or to the ordinary life experience.)
People often remark on how much they’re thinking if they try out meditation. More intermediate folks like myself can laugh condescendingly at such beginners- your mind is always like that! You’re just discovering it.
Slowing down tends to show just how busy and worked up the mind is. Somehow, it’s very easy to not notice that. Sometimes you’ll meet someone who seems really loud, or neurotically busy, or both. I think everyone’s met a person like that once or twice. Maybe you’ve been that person. For the purposes of this discussion, don’t worry about that. You’ve probably met a noisy person like that, and, depending on your mood, they might amusing, frustrating, or even disgusting. It seems like this kind of person lives in cities, but maybe that’s not a very accurate assessment. In any case, there are people like this. Of course, noisy folks can be compassionate, generous and so on.
My point is that everyone is like those people, just to a lesser degree. If you slow down a bit, you start to hear yourself thinking, and see yourself fidgeting and moving around. I think most people are more like that over-the-top loud person more than they’d like to admit.
Sitting still is not easy. Pain is something else that slowness shows you. The mental activity and noise is both somewhat unpleasant most of the time, and covers up feelings of anxiety and discomfort. I would guess that they’re a deep-seated fear of the below-the-surface pain, underneath that mildly chaotic chatter, and that this fear is a big reason why people avoid practice (or practicing for very long).
Distraction also shows up when you slow down. Everyone knows that the mind is a powerful thing. Consciously, it has created great art and science. Criminals use it to devise ingenious schemes to rob banks or swindle people. Unconsciously, the mind seems endless, or close to it. Our memories are stored there, along with fantasies, philosophies, desires, and more. The mind that doesn’t practice is often really unsteady and distracted. It might be helpful to become less distracted. Clearly, this connects back to living fully. It’s not that you should expect to become 100% clearheaded all the time, but that, if you practice, you can work with your own distraction, as it happens, and as a result, experience more, and more deeply.
“Mindfulness is the natural ability to move the mind gracefully.”
Although slowing down “on or off the mat” highlights various seeming problems and deficiencies, it also leads to what is called mindfulness.
This thing “mindfulness” is magical, powerful, and mysterious. It has been written about a lot in recent years.
I would describe it as the natural ability to move and open the mind gracefully. Basically, you can take your mind and put it on something. This involves, for better or worse, some slowing down. It doesn’t have to be a lot, though, and it doesn’t have to be grindingly painful (at least until you try to practice a little longer, then it often gets a little painful). But mindfulness can be practiced on the spot, without a whole lot of preparation or training. You just pause for a tiny bit, and put your mind on something- your body, your breathing, a sound outside.
There isn’t much more to say about that. It’s simple, and magical. It’s an element of practice that, for me, seems astoundingly simple, impossible to understand, and yet right. It’s easy to miss, but completely natural.
“Body, speech, and mind are avenues for mindfulness.”
In Buddhism, we sometimes talk about “body, speech, and mind.” This is one of those Buddhist systems that can be more or less complex, and incorporates many different ideas.
In a simple way, though, it can refer to one’s body- flesh, bones, organs, blood- words, and mind. These are things you can be mindful of. Just like becoming mindful for a moment often shows interesting things, in the form of a gap, or space, becoming mindful of the body, speech or mind does this too. These are basic elements of existence. You have a body. Often I want my body to work more smoothly, or to look thinner. There’s a lot of self-consciousness. That’s a certain kind of awareness of body, but, the issue of being self-critical aside, it tends to be pretty limited.
This kind of body awareness is limited in that it just measures the body against certain ideals and images, at a surface level. You’re not thinking about your liver when you look at your belly in the mirror (let alone feeling what your liver is actually like). The thought of feeling the internal organs more fully might seem odd, and unneccessary. Maybe it is. In general, though, becoming more aware of the body experience is a rich area for investigation. If you’re interested in developing mindfulness, then the body is a big continent to explore.
Being mindful of speech is interesting, in part, again, because of self-consciousness or criticism. I think this one gets more into the area of ethics, though, because if we’re looking at speech as expression to another, that interaction tends to bring up ethical questions.
Buddhism has, of course, many guidelines for “right speech.” A lot of them are both common sense, and common to most world religions. Without going into a lecture on what good speech is, I’ll say that can be worked on. You can become more mindful of the sound of your voice, and the words you use. Sometimes they’re kind, sometimes harsh, often habitual (based on habit, and not so much on spontaneity or genuineness).
It looks like I’ve somehow snuck in some Buddhist guidelines for right speech. Ah well. We Buddhist can be pretty sneaky that way. Really, though, it’s up to the individual to look into and work on that for herself. You may be more or less mindful of your speech, and if you like, you can become more mindful. It’s not always easy, but I think it helps people live ethically, and work to create healthy society.
Then there’s mind. That’s the hardest one. Oddly, though, you work on it whatever you do. Right? The process of becoming mindful- of body, of speech- in themselves involve the mind, so you’re already doing it. This is a tried and true line of argument- you always use your mind, so you might as well get to know it a little better, and start using it well.
“Practice is hard work, but that’s ok.”
People work hard at various things. These days I live in Thailand. Coming from America, with various attitudes toward work, and living in a place where attitudes are different has been interesting.
Maybe I’ll write about that later. I’m neither a scholar nor someone with a lot of knowledge about Thai culture, so maybe my thoughts would be too vague.
In very general terms, people work hard at things that are valuable, things that are neutral, and things that are negative. What is worth putting effort into is actually a big question, I think. I spend a lot of time thinking about that personally. Some examples might be becoming a more friendly person, helping your family, or not losing your temper. Examples of neutral things could be working at a job that is neither especially wonderful, or especially horrible, something like working in an office. You’re not saving the world, but you’re not actively harming people either. Examples of work hard at negativity are easier- working to stay angry at someone, trying to make others feel small, not being as kind as you could.
Okay, enough of that particular guilty area. I’m not trying to guilt trip anyone, really, but trying to point out that even people who don’t especially buy into the virtue of hard work, or a work ethic, do work hard at some things. I think hard work is actually 99% unavoidable. People are conscious beings, so they’re always doing something, and making certain choices about how to direct their energies. So we’re always working.
Maybe that sounds unpleasant or strict. I guess it could go in either direction: the unavoidable nature of work could be a serious responsibility, and that could be good (unless it gets too self-serious). The unavoidable nature of work could be something other than a serious responsibility. It could be something more playful or enjoyable, I guess. I tend to be a “serious person,” so I’m really guessing as to that one.
You’ve probably seen the obvious direction of this argument. I’ve heard it said a number of times that, in terms of visualization practice, we’re always visualizing, anyway (a new house, being admired by an audience, definitely past injustices). So why not put that to use in a positive way, some of the time?
We’re working all the time, at various things. Developing a practice, a bit at a time, is a valuable way to work, a valuable investment of time and energy (and it does take some time and energy).
Two possible obstacles: the loathing of the constraints of hard work, and the expectation of a clear quid pro quo (this for that). Maybe due to previous experiences of harsh discipline, being forced somehow to do things we didn’t want to, or things that were ok but in a mean way, the idea of hard work can seem horrifying. I would imagine that, for people with already busy family and/or work lives, adding more hard work to the schedule could seem insane. What’s the antidote? I’m not sure, but it probably helps to: 1) See practice as something that can help you find sanity in the midst of that already busy world 2) Find a practice that is the right mix of effort and gentleness 3) Start out with just a little.
So, briefly: practice can help you work with your own body and mind, which will spill over into the rest of your life (not as a direct 1:1 relationship, not always predictably, but it will, in its own way). It’s not exactly that you should find a practice that is easy or gentle, sometimes a demanding practice can fire you up, or cross some sort of boundary that sparks something good. This is a matter of (careful) experimentation and trial and error. Finally, if you’re stressed and busy, you can just practice a little, if you like. It’s not either have a normal life or be a monk. Mindfulness can be mixed into your life, like chocolate chips into cookie dough.
I haven’t accomplished very much in this life. I’ve talked about goals before, and how I think living fully is the biggest and best goal. That’s pretty convenient for me, I know, as someone who dropped out of college, hasn’t had a really solid career, and has always had trouble being happy and getting along with others. In spite of all of that mess, and failure, I think I’m right- experiencing and living fully are the best goal to have.
Practice requires some work, and it helps you get in touch with living fully. The equation is remarkably simple, although not always that easy: practice leads to fullness, and practice requires work (so it makes sense to work towards fullness).
I think it’s possible to be both overly ambitious and not ambitious enough in practice, and this is not really a problem. Many people, including me, wish for enlightenment. To a non-practitioner, that probably seems crazy, unrealistic, or meaningless. What is enlightenment, anyway? Having a lot of money or security is easier to quantify. It’s definitely overly ambitious. Maybe that’s good- that high expectation makes you work, and practice, and that tends to lead to some results (not enlightenment, yet, for me, but good changes, a little more patience, a little more generosity). In spite of that extremely high expectation, there’s a level of low expectations, underachievement, which is a problem. Writing that makes me think of Bart Simpson. When I was a kid, there was some controversy over t-shirts saying “Underachiever and proud of it” with Bart Simpson on them. This was somehow really shocking to some people, really dangerous.
Anyway, in spite of wanting enlightenment, I still have a long way to go in terms of being a good, decent, virtuous person. I still have a lousy temper, not enough patience, and when I buy gifts for my wife, it’s so hard to not spend more money on myself at the same time. I think that’s a problem to be worked on. That striving for some kind of higher being, awakening, whatever you want to call it, can’t happen while you’re miserable and mean. Both have to be worked on.
Of course, if becoming realized or awake seems unrealistic or weird, that’s fine. Practice can help with becoming significantly more sane, and nicer, and you don’t have to worry about enlightenment too much (and you’ll be approaching it anyway).
I was so excited when I discovered Buddhism. Actually, my history with it goes way back to my childhood, trying to read books on Zen my parents had on their shelves, and setting up an odd little sand and rock garden in my room. My real start was in college, though, and it felt distinctly different. There was a lot of joy. I started telling my friends and family I was a Buddhist, and it was a little scary to say this, but I knew it was true. Something had happened. Yes, I had said that I was a Christian a semester or two previous, but that proclamation lacked the heartfelt joy this later one had. Maybe both expressions were a little silly, actually, I’m sure they were in some ways. Why tell anyone? Who cares?
I was a teenager long into my twenties. But I became a Buddhist, and it was very exciting. I felt thrilled and full of happiness for months after making this discovery. That high wore off, of course, but it was nice. It was a nice glimpse. As I mentioned earlier, I had that other experience reading Alan Watts and having my mind stop a little bit.
You get some glimpses at the beginning of the path. I think that’s probably pretty common. They’re inspiring, and they are highs (so, temporary, possibly addictive, and not totally realistic). They can be good inspirations to practice, as long as you don’t expect that practice will get you high all the time, or somehow maintain that kind of inspiration. Uplifting yourself, finding some center, connecting to something divine or positive, these all seem healthy to me. Glimpses of vastness can inspire to do this through practice, whether solitary or in community. It’s important, though, that practice is not a guarantee of extraordinary experiences, a high, or something better.
Coming to meditation after having gone through my heavy pot-smoking days, after having decided to quit, the idea of practice as an addiction was in my mind a lot those days. I had the insight that, for people dealing with addiction, which is everybody, of course, you can begin to practice, and that slowly becomes your new addiction. You get addicted to something positive.
That sounds a little creepy, perhaps. It makes practice sound as if it’s a crutch, or as if it has similar pitfalls to being hooked on something, such as a drug, or sex. Buddhist practice deals with this in various sophisticated ways. Obviously, other traditions do too (I just am not familiar with how they work, since I do Buddhist practice). The difficulty of actually sitting still for a while, and trying to focus on something subtle and unstable (like the breath) makes it difficult to wallow in that addiction (contrary to the way it’s relatively easy to wallow in other addictions).