Following on from recent posts about ethical concerns in contemplative practices, I wanted to redress the somewhat philosophical content and get a little bit more nuts and bolts. Luckily a quick and dirty model of how insight and virtue practices can intertwine put itself together in my head.
I was considering how to simplify my practice when I was getting a little too bogged down in wanting to do everything at once, and remembered Peace Pilgrim’s phrase: ‘This is the way of peace- overcome evil with good, and falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.’ Peace, love and truth: these are cornerstones of practice, correlating roughly with the three enemies of Buddhist practice: greed, hatred and delusion. It struck me that working on each of those a little a day, goes a long way. Each of them feeds into the other: be honest about what you need, rather than being greedy, and you might find yourself more loving; express your kindness peacefully and your motives cannot be secretly a desire for power or pain. If you only work on one of them, you risk lacking the foundations for deeper development in it that come from integrating the rest. There are a multitude of practices that fit under one or multiple of these headings and simply doing one of each would, I reckon, stop any one from overshadowing the others.
‘Truth’ is such a loaded word, often used in sectarian argument, so I avoid it frankly. But honest expression seems a little more grounded in the expediencies of life. Being honest is to lack repression and artifice. To be honest is to be trustworthy and to not worry about being found out. It implies, to me, the wish to participate in the removal of delusion from my mind- how can I expect to have huge fundamental insights into the unconditional if I am incapable of admitting how I really feel, what I’ve really done, whether others like it or not? It seems to me that as above, so below; get into the practice (the contemplative practice) of being honest. Get your brain used to working in straight lines, and perhaps it will start to untangle the bigger issues. This does not mean bluntness or idiocy, as that would be lacking kindness; it does not mean expression with anger or manipulation as that would be lacking peacefulness.
More intricate practices including Buddhist concepts of Right Speech are very applicable here: knowing the right time and place to say things that are difficult, not saying things that aren’t remotely helpful. Insight practices such as vipassana, centering prayer, koan recital and the like are designed to remove delusion, and so the courage to stick to them is the desire to see clearly- to see honestly. Honesty socially, vocationally and relationally can also involve not performing actions that hide mistakes, resisting peer pressure, standing up against prejudiced remarks, and questioning one’s own motivations to make sure they are pure. It can include formal confession in the Catholic tradition, or maybe just a prayer to God in a more informal way. In a more self-reflective sense, it can include honesty about how much energy and time you have to devote to formal practices, and about when you’re hitting a brick wall and need guidance. Never underestimate self-awareness.
I would prefer to say ‘love’, really, as that puts across the purity and flavour of the unconditional care for others and oneself this involves. However, it can also be the case that, when I forget the basics of practice as it seems easy to do, I try and force the emotions that I associate with love to arise out of a desire to feel good and to skip to the end. The concept of kindness, instead, is easier to manage. To be kind is to do harmless things. It is to refuse to escalate a bad situation, to decline to be vindictive. What would be the point of insight if it wasn’t the perception of how negativity isn’t necessary, how there is no fixed self that can be damaged and needs defending? This does not mean repression, as that would be lacking honesty; it doesn’t mean ‘being cruel to be kind’, either, as that would be lacking peacefulness.
Practicing kindness formally includes meditations on the illimitables: metta bhavana, the cultivation of loving-kindness on the cushion; mudita, the cultivation of sympathetic joy towards others’ successes; karuna, compassion for others having a rougher time; and equanimity, radical acceptance of circumstances that is a basis on the lessening of suffering. Ceremonial generosity towards monastics and prayer asking for forgiveness are similarly formal. Less formal practice of kindness hardly needs elaboration, but it’s very worth talking about kindness towards oneself as well as kindness towards others, kindness towards people we really don’t want to be kind towards, and kindness when there seems no point in being kind. There is always a point and it will always lessen suffering. This is at least a large portion of your motivation to practice, right?
This one can be difficult, at least for me. How can good be done completely peacefully, when others seem to ignore the peaceful and so much is at stake? Again, here trust that peacefulness will always bear fruit is pointing towards the unconditional. Training the mind to relax, to pause before fighting back, helps me to cut down on some of the knee-jerk impulses that I have that I regret afterwards (oh gawd, so embarrassing). If you are peaceful, you know that whether you had the right or wrong idea afterwards, you were blameless. You’ll know your kids are being taught the right approach when they’re watching your reactions. You’ll know you’re expressing what you want for the world. Peacefulness doesn’t mean passivity, as that would be lacking kindness towards oneself; and it doesn’t mean avoidance, as that would be dishonest. Bearing in mind peace is not the same as enforced tranquillity, there is something to be said about motivation here.
Practicing peacefulness can include formal prayer on this theme, samatha (‘tranquillity’) meditation that helps to calm the mind and suppress the hindrances, various mantras on the topic and so on. Informally, thinking before speaking, precepts forbidding violence, giving oneself a bit of time to relax every day, being the first to apologise, and a million other things can promote peace.
Example practice routine
Using one practice suggestion from the above three, a suitable combination could be:
- Honesty: Use the Ignatian Examen to work on telling the simple truth, morning and evening
- Kindness: Do 15 minutes of metta bhavana every morning
- Peace: Make a list of people you have meaningless conflicts with and try and resolve them.