Cycles of practice

There are many different frameworks for how progress in contemplative practice works, as well as those which reject the concept of progress entirely. Some intricately describe how different phenomena identify discrete stages, while others emphasise wholesome qualities gaining ground, or shifts in perception that can be described. I’d like to talk a little about these frameworks since they seem to be of such reassurance to beginners, and later on have gotten a little more confusing to me.

First off, Daniel Ingram discusses the use of models extensively in his Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, so I have no interest in merely reiterating his down-to-earth comments and exhaustive discussion of the kinds of frameworks that there are. However, what many practitioners will agree on is the sense of practice as a cycle, or more specifically a spiral dynamic. Old themes are returned to again and again, touching on new areas that were previously unconscious or compartmentalised, bringing a whole new flavour to experience. It is frankly hugely enjoyable to see new life breathed into areas of my life, even when that change is sudden and panic inducing. For instance, there seems to be an new emphasis on the body in my current practice, with more subtle body awareness guiding my actions and grounding me in the present, as well as bringing up some of the tougher emotions to have a bit of tender loving care applied to them.

I spent a large portion of time desperately trying to replicate the phenomena of the Buddhist Vipassana Ñanas through some kind of force of will, which was a bloody stupid idea. Trying to squeeze my emotions down to calm them, hunt down specific experiences out of my sensorium and generally manufacture transcendence mainly gave me a headache. It taught me painful lessons about the illusion of control, about practice being a setting up of conditions at best, and of course, surrender. It made me more willing to simply notice various stages as they sailed by, which is especially useful when they’re difficult and I need to remember to accept them as utterly as possible. It also brought up gratitude, as I am quite aware of areas of my life I deem problematic or muddled, and insight into them dawning is relieving and helpful.

On the other hand, there are the spectres of saying in a lofty way, ‘no effort is required’, merely concentrating on the virtue side of things without injecting any contemplation into it, or assuming that all that is necessary is that you follow the breath as much as possible during the day and everything will melt into place- ideas of progress be damned. None of these seem to be the case with me. Much effort has been required, even if that is becoming more subtle as I am more capable of accepting subtle hints from teachers and my own experience, and require less anvils to be dropped on my thick head. Piling massive amounts of effort into service is great and generates focus, self esteem and love, but somehow sitting down after that quietly but curiously pulls it together. Similarly, only doing noting all day brought me up against some nasty perceptions that I wasn’t ready to simply sit and be with, and back to the therapist I went.

In these situations, the sense of cycles of practice can include the sense of moving from periods where virtue practice seems more pressing than insight practice, rather than simply a phenomenological approach. If you see all life, in the end, as practice, then things like life events, changing priorities, changing opportunities to serve and the like all seem woven in and each teaching lessons around accepting changes to circumstances and self gracefully. Sometimes sudden insights have made these changes in me feel quite stark, for example a sense of feeling utterly stuck sending me off to spend much of two years on retreat when I was in what was otherwise a stable and immensely satisfying job. In the same vein, there have been situations where the cycle of practice has brought me back to very simple things, like self-care and the stability of body and mind that creates in order to push into new and unfamiliar contemplative territory.

One view I now see as incorrect was of seeing practice as wholly linear or wholly a cycle. In fact there are various ways of looking at it, and the lens I use makes different changes, challenges and possibilities clear. For example, having a period of bliss and sudden eloquence in writing about spiritual matters can feel like a new opening- has something opened up that will integrate itself? Is there a sudden change in perception that can be qualified? Or is it in fact a bit of a test of whether I can not disappear off into indulgence? They can all be true, and I have to rely on my gut to tell me what to do next. The Soto Zen lot quite sensibly tell you not to worry about interesting experiences or insight, and to just bring those qualities of awakening to every moment. How else would a person be known as awakened but by their actions, is the argument?

When I saw practice as purely linear, I felt like I was ‘falling back down’ at points: ‘oh no, we’re going back to the same old crap around intention. I thought I’d done this? Perhaps I’ve not been meditating enough and I’ve lost some of my m4d skillz.’ Looking always, always at process rather than getting too bogged down in the content, one can imagine that there is a deeper lesson there: is the ego forming around the idea of being at this level or that level of practice? Are you simply second-guessing yourself and the right response is just to smile wryly and say ‘here we go again’? Is that falling-back simply part of the process? Falling from grace is in fact an accepted part of certain models. Getting too bogged down in this stuff generally tells me that I need to go back to basics, such as just being aware of the body or asking God for a hand. (Little hint: in the end, there are nothing but the basics.)

I think the most fair model of cycles of practice is the following. Based on the causes and conditions, some kind of insight starts to dawn. This can be very pleasant and even rapturous, bringing great concentration, inspiration and the like: the positive aspects of contemplative practice of creativity, novelty, progression and freedom being foremost in experience. On the other hand, it can be pretty grim, with the flip sides of these aspects being most obvious: endings, fear, confusion, clinging, irritability and the like. Either way there has to be some kind of desire to surrender to these as they are, rather than subtly misinterpreting them as something to hold onto or something to push away. If I’m not set up to do this with good grace, then I either bounce off the insight and it doesn’t really take hold in a deep way, or it sits in a hole I dig for it psychologically, repressing what I know now to be true but can’t face.

Either way, the pressure will mount as the dissonance between what I think I want and what is simply undeniable builds. This can take seconds, or, I suspect, years. In the end, either I bow to whatever the insight may be, or the ego gets exhausted and there is suddenly a lack of resistance to it. There is eventually relief, calm, a sense of the whole battle being a bit of an unnecessary drama, a sense of happy normality, and this is equanimity and integration. God gives a bit of breathing space. The insight gets thoroughly masticated and swallowed. And then we’re ready for the next spoonful and the next horrible metaphor.

This is, again, paradoxical. None of this is in fact under my control. My effort does not create the insight; what is more honest to say is that I’m learning to hold back my own habits of pushing them away. But even deeper than that, I’m not in control of the learning. It’s fundamentally not-me. I can’t decide whether I bow to insights or not. My sense of willingness is merely a sense. However, the rule here is to act as if you do have a single choice: to fight or accept. It’s similar to the goal of most vipassana: to create a still centre that watches the rest of the drama. It isn’t the truth that this centre is completely detached, wise, unconditional; but it is the closest thing to it. The rest, as I like to say, is grace. The willingness becomes more automatic, which is good, because as things get deeper that resistance is going to mount unless you’ve developed that reflex to bow to it.

I think my advice, if you want it, is this: be aware of models, and let them give you some confidence that you are doing these practices for a reason. If you are drawn to be eclectic or syncretic, notice the parallels and use them to practice in a way that seems to help. If you are drawn to faith, they can simply give a bit of a sense that we’re all similar and you have compatriots doing the same kind of work. Don’t get too caught up in trying to trick the system and find the quickest route to enlightenment, and certainly don’t get obsessed with tracking your progress via the model that seems superficially most appealing.

Practice suggestions

  • Do you seem to keep ‘coming up against a wall’? What is your reaction to this?
  • Read up on a model from a different tradition to yours. Does it give you advice you don’t like but feel is important?
  • Can you put aside all sense of wanting to get somewhere for a day? How does this feel?