You’ve already started

The shameless clickbait title of this post aside, it’s entirely true: you’re already ‘on the path’.

What follows is probably quite prescriptive and opinionated, but I am more sure of it than most things in contemplative practice, and it is cause for joy rather than frustration in the end.

Everyone is ‘on the path’, you see. Even people who hate the idea of spirituality. It is your ‘real life’. When I hoped for transcendence of suffering and took the Buddhist Precepts, what else did I think my spiritual practice would be based on than my actual experience? Where would it take place apart from now, in this body, in this environment? The Buddhists say ‘samsara is nirvana’, which is to say there is no separate realm where enlightenment takes place. There is no real beginning to the spiritual endeavour, and the more I practice, I see that it is inseparable from the rest of my life. In actual fact, the more I see there is no difference between practice and more mundane concerns, not even the intent lying behind the actions, these days. Awakening doesn’t change the fabric of the universe; it changes you.

If you’re reading this with any vague interest, and you don’t yet practice earnestly, you’re simply more aware that you’re ‘seeking’ than most. ‘Seeker’ is a completely non-pejorative term I like to use for people looking to define vague spiritual aspirations. If you’ve piled through this blog and similar ones like it, and started to see the common thread, you’re merely a little further on. As Daniel Ingram would say, people who aren’t hooked into this stuff simply wouldn’t be bothered to read through it. All life, from the contemplative perspective, is this muddled walk towards God, a groping towards insight knowledge, the search for meaning- even if that manifests as a running away to begin with. If you weren’t bothered by God, why would you rail against Him so much? 

You see, there is no delaying starting practice, because everything you do is related to it. Why some people might read the first few lines of a spiritual classic and call it twaddle, while another might have a massive insight with bloody great energy blasts, an experience of the non-dual, or just a sudden thirst to find The Truth, who knows? In a much more mundane way, why do people take psychoactive drugs with the desire to have a good time, and end up feverishly writing about reality?

The Pragmatic Dharma lot talk a lot about a particular event marking the beginning of inevitable cycles of practice, following which which you will then experience ups and downs of a peculiarly spiritual bent forever. I’m not arguing the toss on this, because it does match up with my experience in some ways, but on the other hand, I look back and I see seeking behaviours in myself from as early on as I can remember. Formal insight practice is in fact easy to do accidentally. when I was a child I used to watch lights pass intently from the back of a car on night drives, which is an examination of impermanence. Other times, I watched my legs seeming to be walking themselves as I pottered along with the automaticity that the body has, which is an examination of selflessness. Any time you really examine your suffering, that’s really poking at what the Buddha was harping on about.

My definition of religious experience is quickly growing to encompass everything: lack of separateness is an insight a lot of teachers talk about. Suzuki-Roshi says that enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes us more accident-prone. So if there is no difference between practice and real life, and we can even do formal practice without realising, the implications are obvious. We are rolling the dice every day, waiting for our number to come up: an experience of divine emptiness waiting to pop up and ruin your morning coffee. Intentional and systematic practice is just like rolling a lot more dice. It’s a matter of grace, or bad luck, depending on how tough your practice feels at the time.

Now I really don’t want to force any kind of ‘you might as well practice then’ agenda on any casual readers, though that’s in some ways disingenuous because I have already mentioned there are no casual readers of this stuff, really. Practicing systematically is to consciously agree to stare your suffering in the face, and people try to do that to the degree that they are able to tolerate. That’s no judgement. But if you’re suffering already, and you’re starting to realise it can’t be stoppered up: what do you want to do about it?

Practice questions

  • Can you identify any of your previous pursuits as spiritual practice? What happens if you try them consciously?
  • Have you ever done a spiritual practice deliberately? How did it feel? Why was it spiritual?
  • Can you identify the seeking impulse in yourself? How does it feel? What does it want?