One of the great reliefs in practice for me is when I realised I’ve been pushing a door marked ‘pull’ for a while, the desire to push through out of stubbornness subsides, and a gentle novelty resumes as I do the exact opposite of what I thought needed to be done.

This is a function of delusion, of course; to think that against overwhelming evidence that something isn’t working, against the intuition’s voice quietly saying ‘give it a rest’, to persist out of bloodymindedness. I am certainly a blood-minded kind of bloke; what some would call willpower is easily stubbornness in the wrong context. The louder the racket I make trying to force things to work, the more intuition’s voice is drowned out. Intuition refuses to shout; that would add to the problem. This issue seems to come up again and again, and it would be frustrating if I didn’t know to wryly note the frustration, and say to myself, ‘silly bugger; it’s just a habit’. It could well be the whole problem: that resistance to what is, that refusal to let go. It can seem counterintuitive to me when I’m not cultivating the humility to be wrong, the patience to know getting things wrong is often a step along the way to getting things right, and to listen as deeply as possible to the whole of what the voice is saying.

Contemplative practice is full of classic examples of this, so much so that they’ve been categorised in more methodical approaches. You sit down on the cushion; your mind won’t shut up; you draw the conclusion that you’re not spiritual enough, you’re having a bad day, you’re doing it wrong; you get up and do something else and the hindrances have won within seconds. Or, maybe, you’ve had a nice first few experiences, but then you seem to be full of pain and frustration that you can’t control and can’t get a handle on; you decide it’s the fault of the form of practice, which doesn’t suit your specific needs and neuroses, and you go to do a different one (and this happens every time you change practices); what is called the Insight Knowledge of the Three Characteristics in vipassana. The solution here is to keep going despite superficial frustration. You may not be used to this level of mental suffering being so explicitly shoved in your face, and I mean this without patronisation; the unexpected starkness of it knocked me for six as I just didn’t expect it from a lovely hippy practice.

The greatest experience I’ve had of this was on retreat, when I seemed to be coming up against a brick wall again and again, the pain and suffering just kept mounting, and I kept going. For days. Bloody-minded, remember? I didn’t know what to do, so I kept trying to practice as best I could, noting what was going on, trying to be meticulous, and so experiencing every bit of suffering in minute vipassana detail. Luckily, I was on retreat, and there was nowhere to run (though I did almost leg it once). Eventually the mind exhausted its ability to fight, and fighting I had been, because I collapsed into tears of relief as the fight went out of me and just being here was special enough. It took multiple retreats and even practicing non-stop during full-time work before I realised that what was happening was that acceptance was being forced on me; as soon as I didn’t have any fight in me, there was no fight to be had. This rather nasty lesson has stuck with me and I have more of an ear to say: what am I missing out? I became much more able to meet suffering with an immediate surrender, willingly, once it had been demonstrably proven to me there was no winning.

I have read many traditional teachers who say that theirs is the only way, and I would like to say with my usual tact and charm that this is a big bag of bollocks. Not that you can blame them, when often they have been brought up in a monastery since the age of 13 and applied their practice every day with a diligence that is amazing to me; but the advantage of being a lay practitioner or even a teacher with the Internet is that you can spot where other people are pulling that door open easily while you’re still pushing. It is possible that you can smash the door open by pushing, but I suspect it is more likely that (as in my case), as soon as you stop leaning on it with such force it creaks open quite naturally. Specifically, I have seen many teachers and practitioners move from one form of practice to another either fully or partially, or to take minor practices from other traditions and use them to pep up their own.

For instance, vipassana is a very head-oriented practice, as everything is channelled through the understanding, through perception; but Tai’Chi recognises that the energies you are awakening in your practice will move where they want to whether you understand them or not, whether you like the concept of ‘energy’ or just prefer to note the sensations in your body. While my own Buddhist practice has taught me viscerally that everything is impersonal and causal, I still am drawn to a personal God, just as many Buddhists are drawn to the pantheon of Tibetan Boddhisattvas that have faces and stories. Most importantly for me, abandoning simple practices of kindness and service to spending too much time on the cushion was a spiritual bypass of my very real problems at at least one point, and it was that service that re-engaged me into the world to solve them. I have come to trust spiritual traditions that do chanting and ceremonies and funny postures and whatnot because I recognise them to be supportive of the whole person’s development. Paradoxically even surrender can be a wrong turn: what if some effort is required to pull you out of a rut, to shake you out of apathy, or to introduce you to a new phase of practice?

This process is often frustrating to me because I like to have a sense of doing the right thing, which boils down to a selfing mechanism in the end. Not a bad, evil thing; just a habit, again, with some good intention. When I have been told to take a certain approach, and I find myself being inexorably led along a unique road as I reckon we all are, it can be anxiety-inducing and can riddle me with doubt. If I zoom out a little and notice what I’m being taught here, it helps: to relax, to be flexible, not to try and control the process, that I am not being called to be anybody else. The trick here is not to let myself float between pleasurable practices and then leave them when they become difficult, but to recognise where I’m being legitimately drawn, where it feels right to explore. My teacher says that God will pull you this way and that, until you are malleable enough to bend with the gentlest of His touches, ever ready to do His will without any resistance at all. If you don’t like that idea, chew it over for the rest of the day. What does it say about you and your practice? Have you decided where it goes and how it ends already without the direct experience that contemplative practice is all about?

For me, this means a little paradox as I find myself still bouncing around in my spiritual life and not even capable of establishing a daily routine of devotions amongst the rest of my busy life, but with a slow drift towards a more traditional, focused approach. But again, take the big view: God is challenging every consideration I have here about how things should be. I can only intend as far as I can to go with the flow.

Practical suggestions

  • What is missing in your practice? Is it in thoughts, feelings, behaviour, intentions?
  • Does your practice serve to hide a lack of effort in a particular area of spiritual life?
  • Have you always wanted to do a certain practice, but somehow rationalised yourself out of it?