Is Your Practice Working For You?
I was a dutiful Buddhist. I meditated daily, followed my teacher’s instructions and attended retreats whenever I could. After ten years of prostrating, chanting, bowing, singing, and ringing, I began to question: Is my practice helping me? Am I happier, less hot headed, and broken hearted? What is the point of all of this? My sitting practice felt ritualized and monotonous. I was blindly going through the motions and spacing out. I looked at my shrine, books and pictures, and felt like a big phony. What does all this stuff really mean?
While considering going on a long retreat, I noticed that my motivation had more to do with getting away. I knew something had gone awry and it was time to shift gears. I cancelled the retreat and privately committed myself more deeply to my life and all of its mundane confusion. Isn’t the point of our practice to embrace the fullness of life with the same openness and peaceful curiosity that we experience on retreat? My mind was caught in duality, splitting the two realities into polarities. In the midst of my questioning someone said to me, “If you want to see if your practice is working for you, take a look at your intimate relationships.”
I’m starting over and going back to the beginning of my dharma journey. I want to do it right this time, fresh and alive. Here are 5 things I know now that I wished I’d known then. They might be helpful to you.
If you grew up Catholic like me, be careful not to substitute one belief system for another. Many of us unconsciously project a fear based, theistic, and dualistic view onto the Buddhist teachings. However, Buddhism is a non-dual wisdom tradition. It is about studying our mind and developing awareness practices that enable us to relate more deeply to ourselves and others. We take responsibility for ourselves and stop blaming other people for our unhappiness. Because we are the ones who create our suffering, we are the ones who can turn things around. There is nothing outside of us who can save us.
Many of us turn to Buddhism because we want to transcend our pain. However, Buddhism is not about getting away or being saved from anything. It is about being present with what is, experiencing our suffering more directly, until we learn to stop the momentum of our habitual patterns. If we don’t get this essential point, we are vulnerable to spiritual bypass which means using our spiritual practices to avoid dealing with our personal, relational, psychological and emotional issues.
Discipline in the Buddhist tradition is not about following a set of rules or punishing ourselves for doing it wrong. It means we look more closely at how we got ourselves into this mess. It means learning to slow down from acting impulsively when you’re angry or passion driven. Renunciation is not about giving up things we enjoy and accumulating merit is not about saving up good karma points to get into Buddhist heaven. You need to live your life fully without holding back to see if you can experience the things you love without holding onto them. That is how we know we are free.
The whole point of the Buddhist journey is to be free. Personal freedom is not dependent on any external conditions. It comes from within and is unchanging through the ups and downs of life. It means being totally content and relaxed with who you are and at peace with the way things are. There is no holding back, self consciousness, or doubt, and therefore a capacity to relate genuinely with other people. Without the constant worry about not having enough or not being enough, you can stay open, loving, receptive, and available to life.
The point here is to bring all of your conceptual ideas into your experience. The way I understood emptiness was scary to me. I imagined it was like dying, as if my body would empty itself out of me, but in a painful sense like being annihilated. I meditated for years trying to understand, but it wasn’t until I started dancing that I got a taste of what everyone was talking about. Now I use my dance practice as my testing ground to contemplate emptiness. I dance every Sunday and because the class starts early in the morning, I’m always a little bit grumpy and self conscious. However, after just a few moments of feeling the music in my body and letting myself go, I experience the same ecstatic bliss every time. When the music gets very intense, I like to jump and spin and look out at the people with whom I’ve known for years. There are friends, enemies, lovers, and people I’ve never talked to. I feel a boundless love for all and an inner power that is pleasurable and bright. I feel joyful, present, totally non-selfconscious, and free.
Absolute Truth, Relative Truth
Don’t sit on an absolute chair with your relative body. Mind has both relative and absolute aspects. Relative mind is our ordinary dualistic sense of self and other. Absolute mind is like the blue sky free of clouds, clear and bright. There can be a danger when we confuse relative and absolute reality. Why bother working on yourself when the self is illusory? If we don’t recognize absolute truth, we expect ultimate happiness from our imperfect lives and relationships. If we ignore relative reality, we the feelings and needs of both ourselves and others. My feelings are just clouds in the sky so I don’t have to take them seriously. This mistaken notion is what leads to spiritual bypass. We work on ourselves to be genuine human beings, open, available and able to relate to others. We need to experience life fully to realize the two truths, merged and inseparable, like the wings of an eagle.
They are not the same. To be non-attached is to be free. To do this, however, we need to let ourselves be attached, express our need for love, and receive it. Healthy attachment and bonding is what helps us grow up into mature and developed human beings. It helps us relate to our emotions, and relate to others in a healthy and beneficial way. To be un-attached means we are ignoring and avoiding our interdependence and basic human needs. Many people are drawn to Buddhism because their failed attempts to bond to unavailable or abusive parents was painful. We were left to grow up on our own. However, if we try to jump from un-attached to non-attached, we avoid dealing with our psychological and emotional wounds. This is why it comes out in the shadows of our life, post retreat, and in the messiness of our intimate relationships. To be non-attached we need to let ourselves be attached. This is how we become able to connect with others and this connection is key to the happiness in our lives.
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