March 19, 2012

When Not Practicing is the Practice. ~ Neil McKinlay

For three days I haven’t meditated. I haven’t even looked at my cushion in this time and I feel guilty as hell.

While revealing in a great many ways, this is not a particularly helpful attitude. Feeling bad about my recent lack of practice, the fact becomes something I want to hide. I want to put distance between the two of us and have already come up with several strategies that might achieve this aim. ‘I’ll meditate more than usual,’ I tell myself. ‘Make up for lost time.’ I also think about framing this stretch as a dismissible aberration. A third approach has me rationalizing the situation away. ‘After all,’ I justify, ‘it was a weekend.’

The trouble with each of these instances — the problem posed by my feelings of guilt and their resultant desire to hide — is they push these 72 hours away from the cushion to the periphery of my practice life. More accurately, they remove any time without meditation from my practice life altogether. It is a ‘line in the sand’ way of seeing things: ‘This is practice and this is not.’

As I understand it, Chogyam Trungpa offered a view quite different from this. Certainly he encouraged his students to practice. I have seen many of his videotaped lectures end in precisely this fashion: “Dedicate yourself to sitting practice. Please.” At least as much as this, however, he encouraged us to live — fully.

This is one possible motivation behind the decision he made to remove his robes and live in the way of his Western students: he wanted to show us the human journey includes alcohol and cigarettes, passion and aggression, children and partners, heartache and joy, meetings and three-piece suits.

The journey includes all of this — it includes everything— and our task is to gradually train our arms to open in this kind of embrace.

Big Mind Zen Center

From this perspective the journey of this lineage — of the practicing tradition of the great meditator Chogyam Trungpa — includes the fact that I have not meditated for the last three days. Put another way, the practice life of this lineage is big enough to include the fact that I don’t, at certain times, meditate at all.

What does the practice of not practicing look like? It’s much more inclusive than the attitude above, for one thing. Inclusiveness brings with it a sense of relief. I no longer feel vexed by the guilt that was present when I started this piece. I have not done anything ‘wrong’ and consequently feel much more at ease with myself.

Not needing to keep the whole situation at arm’s length in order to preserve a comforting sense of being ‘good’, I become willing to actually look at the experience of not meditating: I haven’t practiced in three days, what’s that been like?

Life in this time has been hard. Really hard. The weight of depression has been considerable. It presses down on the body, as usual — a kind of emotional gravity that has me sinking, shrinking. It also pushes hard from one side. This is not something I’ve felt before. Awareness has been shoved to the right and lays packed against the shoulder, the ribs, the hip. The rest of my body feels numb but for the spasm running much of my spine, clenching tight enough at times to draw tears.

Writing this a couple things happen. First, I realize I haven’t just ‘not’ meditated over these last several days. I have been avoiding practice. Sure there have been external constraints — it was a weekend, after all. I could have sat down for a few minutes in spite of these, however. The truth is, I didn’t want to go anywhere near the feelings above. This was not a conscious act of turning away. It was deeper than this, more fundamental. More like a body knowing that I was not yet ready. I couldn’t go anywhere near these feelings and, ever predictable in this regard, meditation would have asked precisely this of me.

The second thing that occurs in the process of writing is I begin to relax. The fight I’ve been waging against feeling so lousy begins to diminish. The distance between us lessened, I am able to raise one hand and touch my emotional life. There’s sorrow. There’s anger. There’s hopelessness and that damnable backache. There’s the numbness I mentioned. Not exactly numbness, it seems, but more like a low, dull hum.

Curiosity is piqued by this last observation. What, I wonder, would this hum say if it had the opportunity to speak? “There’s something here, Neil. Something needs attention.”

The hum now becomes more like a cloud. I am seeing a star cluster, the Milky Way viewed from way, way off. There are feelings, experiences, moments of insight. There are pulses of energy; one has just burst behind my eyes. There is also space, a whole lot of open space.

For the first time in I don’t know how long my shoulders release. It feels like they’ve been pressing against my ears in an effort to keep something out. The chords in my neck are soft and vulnerable after this release, and this feels good. A scene arises, replayed from the weekend just passed. Myself, my wife, our daughter. Them more or less present to our time together. Me not so much. I can’t be. I can’t be and this brings tears again. For myself. For my family. For anyone who has ever felt so much they have had to pull away. For everyone who has ever loved a person who just can’t be there.


It feels like Trungpa Rinpoche is smiling now. Imagine we are in a television show, a legal drama in the vein of L.A. Law. The defense, lead by this little man from Tibet, is questioning its primary opponent. In the process of answering these inquiries I have made their case, proved their point. A sense of this sparks electric in the air; everyone feels what has just happened.

Lingering at the jury box, Rinpoche lets one hand rest on the wooden rail before him.

His belly presses against the vest of a three-piece suit. The suit is pale blue, his shirt paler still, his tie navy. His thick, dark hair is neatly combed to one side. He’s enjoying this moment immensely and let’s it hover among us for some time.

“So,” he eventually asks, “is not to practice not to practice?” All eyes turn to where I sit on the witness stand. I squirm under the attention, uneasy at being the focal point of so many gazes, uncomfortable with the words I am about to speak. “Not necessarily,” I answer. “Is there any reason, then, to push these last days away?” I swallow. “No.” Rinpoche slams an open palm on the jury box and begins to laugh.

Years ago I bought a book entitled Never Turn Away. This was written by Rigdzin Shikpo, one of Rinpoche’s students from the latter’s time in Great Britain. I’ve never read the thing. I have looked at the back cover, though, and here we are informed of the origins of the volume’s title. “Trungpa Rinpoche’s great saying,” Shikpo asserts, “was, ‘Turn toward everything.’” Feeling anxious? Turn toward. Stuck in a lousy job? Turn toward. Love someone so much you fear your heart might burst? Turn toward.

And what of those occasions when we don’t meditate? When we feel guilty about this and want to banish our transgression to the murky netherlands of awareness?

Now I am seeing all the students I have spoken with over the years who have struggled with this. “How’s your practice?” I ask. They begin to shuffle uncomfortably. Their eyes drop to the floor. “Not so good,” they confess. There’s a sense this has now become the last place in the world they want to be. If it were possible, they would bolt from this room and never come back. Not, at least, until they had a more respectable meditation practice to discuss.

I want to say to these people — and through them, of course, say to myself — it’s okay. It’s okay not to practice and it’s okay to feel bad about this and it’s okay to want to get the hell away from the feelings of failure, disappointment, self-criticism, and whatever else might swirl about a spotty meditation record. It’s also okay to embrace all of this.

It’s okay to look at our lapsed meditation practice not with an eye toward fixing or changing or sugar-coating anything, but with the intention of just seeing. It’s okay to talk about this with our teachers and peers. It’s okay to discuss this, if we are in such a position, with our students. It’s okay to practice not practicing when this opportunity arises. As with every other circumstance in our lives there’s a lot there. It’s discovery, as always, asks us simply to turn toward.


Editor: Hayley Samuelson


Neil McKinlay is a meditation teacher in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa. He is also a personal coach and an intuitive consultant, offering both guidance and healing to those who are seeking. His website can be found at www.neilmckinlay.com.

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