In ordinary life you have activities. Practice could be one of those activities. Others could include hobbies, such as music, maintaining friends, having some sort of family.
Having the discipline of a practice in your life changes things. This happens in many ways. One interesting way is that you need to set aside time to do this thing that find important, and you need certain conditions for this to happen. You need a place that’s conducive to practice, a setup where you won’t be bothered for the time of the practice, and a body and mind that together enough so that practice is possible. As far as the latter is concerned, this means getting enough sleep, enough nutrition, and not having a body buzzing and confused with various substances.
I like sugar (and coffee). Plenty of yogis and meditators find these things problematic. They may be right. I doubt I’ll give up either thing anytime soon. It’s enough that I’ve stopped smoking weed and doing LSD. I’m not going to go the full health food yogi route.
That is important, though- if you’re drunk, or high, or really really buzzed on caffeine, it will be impossible to meditate. I discovered this when I started to become interested in physical practice (kung fu and tai chi). I was still into drugs at that point. I knew I had have time for my (admittedly weak) practice during the day, before I partied (“partying” usually consisting of myself, a bong, some pot, and some sort of entertainment). As I started experimenting with kung fu, eventually finding a teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, I found that I felt compelled to practice. I would see my teacher and group on Saturdays, more or less, and they could tell that I hadn’t been practicing. My teacher, a man who called himself “Junior,” told me to practice. If I had, I may have become a much better kung fu person. As it was, I was too caught up in my routine, my friends, my habits, to do this. The idea of having to practice in my spare time also seemed offensive, even silly. Why would someone do that? It was only a hobby. Plus, I had this feeling that I was so special, such a genius, that whatever I did, I didn’t really need any discipline or effort. I would do it when inspiration struck, and my own special characteristic would somehow pull things together. But I did try to practice a bit, every few days. I knew that on Saturdays, I wanted to have practiced some, at least.
I practiced with that group, learning Wing Chun, and some other Chinese stuff, for less than two years, about a year and half, I think. That was one way I started to practice. I saw then that my lifestyle affected my practice, and that I had to carve out some time and space for kung fu.
This is how it works. One reason certain ethical rules are in place is that, if drink too much, for instance, you won’t be able to meditate. It’s just not possible. The discipline of meditating, and the discipline of having a decent life seem to go hand in hand. I’m sure this happens naturally for everybody. If you want to meditate, you need to create a “container.” This means trimming back certain things in your life, in order to support that experience of meditation. You may find that the things you trim away actually needed to go anyway.
I still love coffee, chocolate (I didn’t mention that one) and sugar. I do avoid having lots of candy and sweets, but that’s probably mostly because they make me fat, and I don’t like feeling fat. Every practitioner has to decide how far they’ll go with changing diet, and caring for their health. It is quite possible to become a good meditator (or yogi or pray-er) without converting to all brown rice and seaweed.
Since I’ve been talking about things said that come back to you later, here’s another one. During my four years or so in New York City, I had a meditation teacher. He was not what you’d call a “guru” or meditation master; this distinction has mostly to do with the commitment the student makes, and therefore the seriousness of the relationship. Meditation teachers do not have the same sort of bond with students that gurus do. Meditation teachers come in all varieties, and can help a lot with practice.
I think I may have decided to “get a meditation teacher” out of competitiveness. I heard that it was possible, and I knew some other people would get one, or already had one (at the meditation center I was frequenting then). I decided I wanted one, was entitled to one. I requested one by email, the official way to do it there, and heard back about a month later. It might’ve been three weeks, I don’t remember. I set up a time to go meet my teacher, and found a man named Jeff. He was in his early thirties, clean cut, and friendly. I had expected someone older and more mystical-seeming. I’d been hoping for one of the old meditators I’d seen around the center, people who’d been practicing for decades, who’d known and studied with great masters. I was a little disappointed, and definitely arrogant; this guy Jeff was almost the same age as me!
I would meet with my teacher every once in a while, on average about every two months, and I’d see him around the center from time to time. After talking to him, and getting to know him, I came to respect him, and I’m grateful now for his being my teacher for that short time.
One thing I remember him saying on a few occasions was that it was important, sometimes, to gather yourself. When he said this, he’d usually draw his fingers together as he pulled his arm to his body, as if gathering the air. Now, this kind of instruction seemed silly to me at first. Meditation, as I saw it, was not so much about gathering, as resting in a moment, doing a technique. These days, the idea of gathering and collecting yourself seems very reasonable, however. He was right. I think, in general, Jeff was talking about practice in everyday situations, the importance of gathering yourself when being out in the world (as opposed to meditating on one’s own).
At least in one sense, practice is about being self-contained: you have to go somewhere, whether on your own or with a group, and do the technique, and just keep doing it. Often, it’s easy to get off track get into various daydreams and trains of thought. You’re supposed to gently keep returning to the object of meditation (often the breathing). You fly off into space, again and again, and you bring yourself back to earth, again and again. This is self containment, and it is definitely a kind of gathering.
Maybe one reason that people start a practice, and quickly abandon it has to do with expectations; people might expect too much from practice, especially in terms of quick and/or easily results.
Partly this is healthy and natural. Why practice if there is no expectation at all? But then again, to expect to sit down and breath for five or ten minutes, and then have the rest of the day go swimmingly, or have all of one’s psychological kinds ironed out immediately is not realistic.
This is tricky point, I think. Some expectation is required, just in that you need to have a reason to practice (and practicing just because your parents told you to, or because it’s traditional, or because you feel some pressure to, is probably a terrible idea). Nothing against the suggestions of parents, but one should practice because it’s understood to have some value, not because someone told you to.
So some expectation is required, (there has to be a reason), but too much expectation will easily short circuit the process. I think, as I’ve experienced it, having some psychological turmoil can be a good impetus. At the same time, feeling that there is something intangible, beautiful, and real about practice can be a good motivator. I don’t know how to express this last point. Maybe I will be able to someday. Maybe it is as simple as knowing deep down that my nature is awake, not confused. Somehow, there’s an instinct for practice.
It can be painful and boring. To this day, I resist meditating with groups of people, because it brings up all (or maybe just most) of my issues with other people, social interactions, and so on. Maybe the instinct for practice helps sustain me through that stuff. I wonder if those unpleasant experiences somehow also inspire the rest of your meditation. Obviously, getting to the point where meditation is comfortable, and you’re feeling some benefit from it, is a good thing. On the other hand, maybe having those painful and boring experiences, at least a little of them, can somehow inspire you as well. Those are small accomplishments, but accomplishments nonetheless- sitting a little longer than usual, going to a new place to try it out, talking to a teacher you don’t know. Practice can become routine and lose some spark, sometimes, and it seems like pushing yourself a bit can help renew the practice (once it’s been established).
Having tremendous expectations can backfire, but practice isn’t, in my opinion, supposed to be a grueling and painful thing all the time. If it becomes that, then it might be time to adjust things somewhat.
This one is about arrogance and meditation.
Arrogance is tricky and odd, because in so many ways, it causes problems, but it seems to be somehow very addictive and hard to shake off. In the Shambhala tradition, arrogance is seen as an obstacle; it makes sacredness hard to connect to. I also remember a teacher in the Shambhala tradition saying that arrogance “poisons communication,” which I have found to be true. When I’m arrogant, it makes it that much harder to listen and really speak with someone. One part of that dynamic is simply that if you’re arrogant, you won’t think you need to listen- you’ll assume you already get all there is to get in a particular interaction, and that you have nothing really to gain from paying (more) attention to the other person.
Of course, meditation itself can crush arrrogance. If you try sitting for a bit longer than you’re used to, your mind tends to resist, your body might get a little sore. In so many ways, sitting meditation practice is a brilliant “skillful means.” This term, skillful means, is a traditionally Buddhist one, although the idea is basically human- doing things in a skillful way in order to achieve results with ease, and efficacy. From that description, it sounds sort of like a business concept. In reality, it feels either practical, magical, or very subtle. That’s my experience of it (and not at all a systematic description). Practical would be that it’s skillful to set up systems and schedules to get stuff done. Magical is the most exciting, probably. For this to work, usually you need a student or students, and a teacher who’s trained for a long time, and attained some realization. There are many stories about this kind of teaching, where language or action is used in a surprising and unusual way to wake people up.
Subtle is a subcategory of magical. It’s subtle, so it’s less shocking or surprising. I can think of lots of examples of this one. My root teacher, Konchok Sonam Ripoche, told me, when instructing me in a particular kind of meditation, not to move my feet too much. This was said in a very easy, casual way. By the way… I barely noticed it, and mostly forgot about it until months later, when I was practicing. That’s not entirely true. I did remember it, but it was in the back of my mind, and seemed so inobtrusive that I paid very little attention to it. Then I decided, well, I should probably do that, since he said it, and I tried it. I won’t go into detail, it seems a little wrong to “sell” this, but it was a profound teaching for me. It changed my day to day experience deeply, and continues to.
Arrogance has a lot to do with “discursiveness,” or having a very active and somewhat chaotic mind. Having this kind of mind is not a problem, although it’s not easy. I think skillful means are used by teachers because people often have problems with arrogance, and have very active minds, so just saying things with words often doesn’t sink in enough. I think a lot spiritual verities are basic and universal, and appear in love songs and movies, but partly due to people being arrogant, and taking these basic concepts and mixing in lots of ideas and complexity, the truth, or the meaning, gets obscured.
This means that working with arrogance, transforming it, is part of the path. This is something I’ve been working on in particular for the last few years. It’s amazing how it keeps coming back, how it’s like a weed that takes over extremely quickly. The other side of this is being friendly to yourself. If you try to tackle your own arrogance, while not being kind to yourself, I think the result will probably be that you will condemn yourself (maybe eventually giving up on the whole deal, because it is difficult, and arrogance is a formidable foe). They say a sense of humor helps, too.
There are upheavals in work and everyday life, and meditational experiences that feel similar, meditative upheavals. Attending a retreat, or workshop can inspire this kind of experience. It doesn’t feel especially pleasant at the time. It actually tends to feel painful and crushing. After the fact, however, good things can happen. This is one way arrogance gets pruned away.
I can’t promise practice will improve your life, but I do have faith in it. The result of such pruning could be an experience of richness- the richness of the world. Richness, in this case, doesn’t mean having financial security, because I know from experience that having enough money does not equal being happy, or experiencing sacredness. Obviously, having money to pay for housing, food, and take care of your various responsibilities is a requirement. But beyond some basic kind of foundation, money is not richness. Richness is the fruition of practice and study.
Basically, richness, as I understand it, has a few components. It has to do with not being hurt by desire. It has to do with the experience of the liveliness and interest of life. It has to do with some real experience of sacred world.
Desire is like: being pulled by strings in various directions, all the time, being intoxicated by poison, being pushed by a crowd of people. In Buddhism, it is one of the “five poisons,” the five basic emotions (which can be either problematic, or take on an enlightened form, when handled properly). Experiencing the beauty of the richness of life has to be connected with desire. It’s hard to experience things clearly and enjoy them if desire is pushing you around, if your mind if consumed with it. It really does feel like something poisonous in your system, if it gets intense. That kind of experience makes it difficult to relax and enjoy sense perceptions, which is something people should do. Why not? They’re there, and they’re naturally beautiful and interesting.
Having practiced, and found some way to not be buffeted by desire, you can experience this beauty and interest. This goes back to mindfulness, which is a taste of that experience.
Once this keeps going, and deepens, it becomes an experience of sacred world. Sacred world is not some imaginary kingdom, a druggy high, or a fantasy. It’s actually the experience of sense perceptions clarified and deepened. Often, early meditation experiences plug you into this. Sounds and sights suddenly perk up a bit. This is not because practice is some trick, but that practice is a profound skillful means that actually has the effect of waking you up. What you’re woken up to is the experience of sacred world. This world is not Buddhist, or Catholic, or Muslim; it’s available to anyone, especially real practitioners (in any tradition). It’s a real experience, too, and this is important. Once you’ve gotten a hint of it, or are willing to admit having gotten a hint of it, since this seems to happen almost constantly, it gets easier to distinguish between real experiences of sacredness, and imaginary ego games, self-deception.
Distinguishing between the two is a big reason for practice. I used to try to practice Western “magick” in high school, in various ways. Actually, I started in middle school, browsing at a local occult book store, which seemed so cool and mysterious. I’m not putting down this tradition; I think it’s valid, if taught well. I never sought out a teacher, though, and that aspect of transmission, receiving a teaching, often makes all the difference. My point, though, is that I tried my little spells and incantations, and read (too much), but nothing seemed to happen (and that’s a problem especially in magic, where you want to be able to get results). It was make believe. Again, I’m not putting down Wicca or other such traditions. Some more recent experiences with practicing witches have shown me that these paths can open people, and give people access to energies normally unworked with. I’m saying that the big difference is between make-believe and real practice. Sorting this out takes some time, and practicing with others can help. Somehow that group dynamic helps teachings be transmitted, or passed down. Practice traditions do tend to work that way. They’re passed down, and not through books. I realize it’s funny to write that. Books are wonderful, but they can’t replace things being passed down through groups, and teachers. I know this from experience, as well. I read tons of Buddhist stuff before I ever received in person instruction on meditation. That reading was helpful and inspiring, and changed my life in some ways, but my practice experienced changed very noticeably once I received instruction.
It’s about the heart. We all have hearts, and in your heart, you know fakeness from realness. Luckily, sacredness is real. Luckily, practice can help tune your heart in that.
Here are some ways to find richness, having worked hard to meditate a little, having made some room in your life for the practice.
Now, the idea of richness is positive, pleasant, and basically universal. It’s an idea that shows up in lots of ways and lots of places. The cliche phrase, “He is the richest man I know,” applied to someone who’s not well-off cash-wise, but has a good life, gives you the idea.
I’m going to spin this in another direction, but will come back to that “richest man” idea shortly. In Buddhist thought, there are the four “brahma viharas,” or the four limitless virtues. The “brahma” in “brahma vihara” is related to the Hindu god Brahma, so the idea of deity, or heaven is in there (not exactly that you’re worshipping a god through this practice, we have other deity practices, but that there’s something profound and heavenly and maybe supernatural about these qualities). They are: equanimity, compassion, joy, and kindness. I’m going to talk about equanimity. There are many good books about all of these, and the specific practices associated with cultivating these virtues.
Equanimity has to do with not being biased. There’s a sense of steadiness, or fairness, I guess. It’s really difficult. Try not being biased when someone cuts you off in line! Try not being biased if you think someone is lying to you, or, for that matter, if someone catches you in a lie.
Richness and equanimity go together in that life is full of practice opportunities. I had a teacher in high school who talked about tests as “opporunties.” We did not get along. I did not find this amusing, let alone wise. Now, I see the logic behind it. Life is full of chances to practice on the spot. What you’d like to practice is really up to you. That’s one take on richness. We’re being bombarded, even overwhelmed by moments of practice-availability. That’s an aspect of sacred world. Whether it’s a matter of perspective, some kind of divine force, both, or something else doesn’t really matter.
This involves some work and discipline, but it also gives you freedom. You can approach situations and learn from them. The bottom line is that realized people don’t have to complain or be depressed, because they can handle situations beautifully. Can I do that? Of course not, not yet. Realization seems very far off most days. But that’s the bar.
There is cultivated virtue, and basic goodness. In Buddhist terms, this is an expression of the relative, and the ultimate. Ultimately, life is good, and people are not fundamentally, evil, or even fundamentally animal. Of course I have trouble maintaining this view sometimes. If people really make me feel awful, my faith in goodness can get shaken, but I wouldn’t just say that “some great masters have claimed that life is basically good.” Living as a practitioner sometimes means thinking in terms of perspectives that you haven’t exactly realized.
That’s a matter of faith. I don’t expect others to buy into this idea, not right away, and not without some questioning and thought. But back to cultivated versus natural. You can cultivate virtuous qualities, like kindness or generosity. However, that’s limited if you think that people are essentially crazy, evil, or run on their instincts. It might be a mission that is destined for failure. If people are nasty by nature, then why bother to try being good? You’ll eventually slip up, and underneath all that work and discipline is the feeling that you/people in general are not good. That seems unpleasant.
Practice can help cultivate virtue, and introduce you to the uncultivated, the ultimate. These are said to go hand in hand. Becoming a more virtuous person supports experience and incorporation of the highest truths. I think the logic there is pretty clear. If you can be a good society person, get along, help others a bit, then your mind will tend to be in a state of readiness (for whatever you’d like to call it). If you’re out there causing trouble, being a generally not so nice person, then your mind will tend to be less open to experiences of awakening.
Perfection is something interesting. The idea of basic goodness is really perfection. If things are basically good, then they are perfect. Working to become a better person is trying to be perfect, or it can become this. Maybe the greater perfection exists, in part, to help support the failings that naturally happen when you try to be a good person. Even when you fail to be kind, or patient, things are still basically good.
You are born, and if you’re lucky, you grow up, have friends, get an education of some sort, and get a job and/or career.
Being born in this kind of situation is a good opportunity (again, thanks for my Science teacher for that one). This could be a “precious human life,” or it could be merely “a human life.” The idea of the precious human life is that you’re making good use of it (and, for a Buddhist, practicing and studying the dharma). See how I’ve been sneaking “practice and study” in there? How did that happen? Often those two go together, and are seen as an essential pair for the person on the path. I think practice is more important to talk about, generally, because I think in my culture, study is relatively easy. Books and articles are widely available, often for free or for a very low cost. You can read and think and discuss to no end, with little investment of real heart, with little real commitment. Of course it’s extremely valuable to study, but in this day and age, study tends to be easier (and can even become frivolous).
Frivolity is something I want to write about here. So this life could be a precious one, or a wasted one. In very general and vague terms, preciousness has to do with how much meaningful activity you get involved in. This leaves it up to you as to what the meaning is, and how you accomplish it. The various traditions have formalue regarding what meaning is or should be.
Just like you’re always practicing training your mind on something, visualizing various things, people are also always training. You can train in various disciplines. You can guess what I’m going to say next: practice is a worthy discpline to pick up.
I’ve learned various things in this life, so far. I can play the guitar. I played obsessively in high school, playing for hours a day, getting in bands eventually, taking classes. I learned to draw and paint, not that well, but I can enjoy myself doing it and make some pictures that please me (although probably very few others). You get the idea. Those are pretty good things. They gave me some happiness, and a feeling of accomplishment. You could train in really really frivolous things, though. People watch movies so many times that they memorize the dialogue in them. Maybe I’m just jealous, since my memory is so horrible. No, that is pretty silly. People gamble and waste tons of money just to have questionable fun. People fill their closets with clothes.
Fun and looking good are fine. But life is short, and you don’t want to waste it. Practice means mixing sacredness into your life in an earthy, no-bullshit way, and this is surely worth more than the million and one hobbies you could devote your life to.
Having a hobby is fine, in my opinion. But if it takes over, and is frivolous, then that’s problematic, I think. It’s not a matter of me being pious and judgmental, although I frequently am, as you can tell. It’s more that life has a lot of potential and value, and throwing it into time-wasting and play trains people in having less mindfulness, and implies, in a funny way, that life is meaningless. It can be hard to break the habit of doing stupid shit. My approach has been to start off with a little practice, and expand it, slowly. I’d recommend that. I’m still not at the point where I can meditate constantly. I do watch too much TV. Practice is taking over my life, though, and that is a pleasant surprise, and a relief as well.