This Sunday, being the last of the month, is our ‘tea party’. There’s no set topic, we’ll show up and see what we want to discuss and share. It can be even a simple opportunity to get to know each other a little better.
I offer the following for your consideration this week (adapted from Frank Jude Boccio)…
A common question we hear is how to carry these practices in daily life, how to Make Practice Your Whole Life. This topic even comes up in those who are doing ‘teacher training’! You’ve probably heard, from others or from yourself!, that they don’t have time for practice.
If practice is simply an item on one’s “To Do List,” even if it’s at the top of the list – though generally it’s more towards the middle or bottom! – it seems difficult, even to be an onerous chore, and when feeling pressed for time, it’s the first thing to be dropped from the list!
So it’s interesting if we can shift our understanding so that practice is not an item on a list. It is not a task or chore that we need to do. It is, rather, how we do what we do! How many breaths do you take during the day? It doesn’t take any more time to make three of them conscious when your phone rings, for instance. Our mindfulness practice is all about doing whatever we’re doing wholeheartedly, fully present, intimate with our experience using the activity we are engaged in as the meditation object, coming back again and again and again to “just this, just now, right here.”
Even the formal practice of sitting meditation – which certainly seems to take up time you could be doing something else more productive – takes less time when you realize how much time can be saved when the mind is calmer and more concentrated.
Norman Fischer suggests that probably the biggest challenge, he says, is “that we don’t take ourselves seriously enough.” Though we may think practice is a good idea and that liberation and self-transformation is possible, we don’t fully accept the possibility that such liberation and transformation is possible for us. Or, again if we are honest, maybe we actually don’t want to transform. After all, we may be rather comfortable with the status quo, even if it’s unsatisfying because at least it’s familiar!
As the seasons change it’s a good opportunity to review our motivations for practicing. We may find they are rather mixed. We want to break old habits of thought and behavior. AND, at the same time we don’t want to do so. And so we are less than serious about our practice.
How can we strengthen our motivation? Consider the Five Strengths.
- Strong determination
- Seed of virtue
Strong Determination; it’s just what it sounds like. It’s about feeling as if, whatever our shortcomings, we have within us the potential to accomplish our buddha way. That we really, truly want to do this!
What is it that you wish to accomplish in this one short, precious life you live? If you’re like me, you want to love and nurture your family, and to accomplish something in this world, to leave some ‘mark.’ Why? So that you feel your life, once it has ended, mattered. We want to feel that we have fulfilled our highest human potential.
The truth is, we may have these noble goals and ideals, but the daily grind grounds us down and we lost touch with them; we forget them. To practice strong determination is to resolve to stay connected to our higher goals and to remind ourselves that we have made the vow to do what needs to be done in order to manifest a ‘noble life.’
Familiarization comes with repetition. We repeat our practices again and again and with repetition come new habits. Unlike the old unconscious habits of conditioned reactivity, these new habits are ones that come from conscious intentionality; they are habits you have consciously chosen to cultivate. They are creative responses rather than conditioned reactions. Familiarization is the repetition of teachings and intentional practices for the specific purpose of establishing new pathways of thought and behavior. These ancient buddhist teachings and practices predate what neuroscience now validates: the brain/mind is plastic. Our old, dysfunctional habits are not our essence or nature. They are not immutably fixed and necessary. The brain and mind changes with repeated inner and outer activity. Change your actions and your mind changes. Change your mind and your actions change.
With familiarization, these new ways of thinking and being become automatic. When someone asks for your name, or address or phone number, you don’t need to think about it. There’s no need to reflect or consult with someone else. Because you are familiar with it, the information is right there, immediately available. Through repetition, this information has become a “part of who you are.” The same thing happens with practice: repetition makes practice what you are; repetition is the heart of practice.
Seed of virtue is the simple recognition of our human heritage. We have a rare and precious human birth. The heritage of human life – of human being – is that we can manifest wisdom, compassion, and awareness. We can fulfill our highest human nature. A human nature which has been passed on to us from our ancestors, and which we share with all human beings past, present and future.
To be aware of this heritage means we can also be perfectly aware of our many hindrances or faults, which, after all, are also natural. They may lead to unfortunate consequences (just like faults in the land create earthquakes) but they are to be expected. Practice means we can learn to hold even them with wisdom and compassion and to anticipate their movements into our lives. When we can do this, we may be better prepared for the consequences, thus minimizing the damage.
Take a moment to recollect someone you feel admiration for; some teacher who exemplifies sincerity of heart in practice. Maybe it’s the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or someone else. Then reflect upon how our admiration isn’t really about the person. What we are attracted to is the potential within our selves that they simply mirror and exemplify. This attitude is the third strength: Seed of virtue.
Most of us are overly reproachful of ourselves and of others. We are quite practiced at being judgmental and hypercritical. And we know that to be judgmental is ‘wrong.’ I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard that in various yoga classes I’ve attended over the years. And yet, the practice of this fourth strength, Reproach, is that we be judgmental! So the question becomes how? In what way and with what attitude and purpose should we practice reproach?
Based upon Strong Determination, having cultivated Familiarization, and touched our Seed of Virtue, we have a much more affectionate, kind, loving relationship with our imperfect self. You can look at yourself and your foibles with a generosity of spirit that you might have with a young child. Reproach is the practice of integrity, honesty… of having the love and courage to admit we have a lot of bad habits that keep popping up again and again, despite all our good intentions.
But why not? Look at our crazy parents; look at this fucked up world and its twisted economic values! It is the most natural thing in the world to reflect the twisted nature of the world we humans have created. AND, because we know that underneath it all we have that Seed of virtue,we can acknowledge and correct ourselves without the brutality and aggressive emotional violence we usually launch at ourselves. “Hey! There you go again! Cut it out, eh?” All while keeping a sense of humor and balance.
And here’s the crux of the issue: usually when we criticize ourselves or others, we are judging based upon the delusion that we are judging our (or their) essential character. And so we feel guilty, or full of contempt. But with the understanding of anatta, we know that what we are reproaching is not some essential nature, but simply a conditioned bad habit. It is this habit, not ourselves (or another) that we are judging. This is what’s behind the “Hello Habit Energy” practice taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. For instance, when envy or anger arises, we can say, “Hello Habit Energy!” or “Hello Mara! Here you are again! You sly, devil, you! Many times you’ve taken me in, but not today! I see you!” There is no need to identify with the envy or anger as ‘self,’ so we can reproach it without falling into self-loathing.
The fifth strength is Aspiration. This is simply another way to point to the power of vow or commitment. In all traditions of buddhism there are vows, or aspirations made that are seemingly or literally impossible!
Core among them there’s the ‘Boddhisatva Vow’ – which can be said many different ways – but in short the speaker vows to save the world, liberate all beings, remove all suffering. A beautiful rendition from Shantideva is:
May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.
Very impractical, arguably impossible. But why not have such impossible aspirations?
If impossible, there’s never any justification for getting down on yourself for not fulfilling them! Yet, to make any less lofty aspirations is to sell ourselves short. The purpose of such aspirations is to hone our efforts in the direction of fulfilling such aspirations but not to think or expect that you will ever actually complete the job. Rather than be discouraged by this fact, we can be encouraged by it. There will always be more to do. There is no end-state. Rather then fixating on some end-state, we keep our attention on the moment at hand.
Norman Fischer writes about how we admire people who are wealthy, famous or skillful in some way, but reminds us that it’s not difficult to be like that. All it generally requires is to be born with some talent, a little luck, and to know the right people. He says it’s much more difficult – and wonderful – to be a bodhisattva. Not someone that is famous, but someone who can spread happiness and confidence wherever she goes:
“What a vision for your life, for your family, to be a light for those around you! To think of everything you do, every action, every social role, every task, as being just a cover for, an excuse for, your real aspiration, to be a bodhisattva, spreading goodness wherever you go. This requires no luck (even if everything goes wrong in your life, you can do it), no special skills, no need to meet special people and get special breaks. We can all do this. This is the aspiration we should all cultivate for training the mind.”