Muck into gold

The Unconditional is a bit intimidating, really. How on earth am I meant to use my pretty inexpert, imprecise tools to reach something that is, basically, perfect? Even the phrase ‘how on earth’ points to this sublunary imperfection. Luckily, the largest part of the deal is in fact grace, and reaching out towards God in the knowledge of one’s own shoddiness seems to do the trick. There’s also a fair few teachers who are good at reassuring practitioners poetically and practically about how to go about this without tearing your hair out.

Shunryu Suzuki uses a number of allegories that helped me to chill out a bit. He talks about the ‘worst horse’ to train, that needs a hell of a whipping before it gets the message that it is to run. His message is that the worst horse is the practitioner who learns the hard and thorough way. It is my belief that some of the ‘worst’ practitioners, those that find it hardest to make progress, make the best teachers. This is because they are slowly dragged through the process of enlightenment and so see every step of the way in excruciating detail. People I know who have had sudden insights seem to be more inclined to say ‘just let it happen’ and frustrate those of us who lack that ability. This might be sneered at as cold comfort for the spiritually inept, but perhaps struggling inculcates some humility which I sense is necessary to really hit the deep stuff. (Still working on the humility thing, meself.) If you are crawling through practice, take the time to notice the scenery as you drag yourself through it. Do practices like praying for patience, making resolutions to be equanimous, having compassion for your own struggle. These are not a means to an end; they are the end.

Another of Suzuki-Roshi’s allegories is of the garden full of weeds, a metaphor for the mind full of defilements. You could just say ‘my garden looks crap, and I don’t have the strength or time to pull up all these weeds’. Alternatively, you could roll your sleeves up, and start working. The work itself is the contemplative progress. The weeds, to continue the allegory, are ‘buried near the plants to provide nourishment’. If you thought your garden was fine, and would forever remain fine, you wouldn’t bother doing any work. Cue the slow encroachment of the weeds. It points to practice as process, ever changing, requiring renewal and responsiveness. Remember how I said it isn’t linear? If you feel like your mind is, as Duncan Barford so amusingly calls it ‘a sack of turds’, and forever will be so, then do whatever you can with it. Sit deliberately with nasty feelings. Thank God for the insight into your mind that you’re not doing so well in this or that area and can do better. Put aside parts of the ‘garden’ that you can’t seem to de-weed for now and focus on some of the nicer parts that you’re doing well at cultivating.

Daniel Ingram talks about ‘harnessing the energy of the defilements’, and Peace Pilgrim talks about using anger to get stuff done that needs doing- go and mow your entire lawn, or have a jog. If you can’t directly sublime energies in your body, then at least determine to use them for something else. I have a foul temper on me and I often excuse myself to go and do the washing up. The difference between this being a simple emotional management strategy and a contemplative practice is the consciousness that you bring to the redirection of the energy at hand. You’re not distracting yourself from your feelings; you’re being with them at the same time as you use the energy that’s come up to do something more worthwhile. The gold standard would be to go and sit and meditate every time you feel that panic attack coming up, but for those of us who have plenty to do, simple redirection is more pragmatic.

I’ve been mulling over the concept of ‘dignity’ today. Dignity is not something that is given to you, at base. It’s more of an approach, the dignified carrying of oneself and enaction of deeds. Other people can be right sods to you, but that doesn’t mean you have to stoop to their level, nor be passive-aggressive about your better behaviour. The Buddha described nobility as coming from actions, not from caste, and this was socially radical for his time. Stephen Batchelor talks about the ‘Four Ennobling Tasks’ rather than the ‘Four Noble Truths’ for exactly this reason; as I mentioned previously, the process of acting in as unconditional a fashion as possible (though this must be thought through carefully to avoid extremism) is the cultivation of contemplative practice. Consider imagining your spiritual teacher, or even God, is in the room. Would you act in this or that vulgar way if they were there? No. Would you see them as enlightened if they acted in ways that debased themselves and made others unhappy? I doubt it. Bearing suffering with dignity, even if you are bad at it, is a good start to developing equanimity. Again, this isn’t about distraction; it has to be fully bourne.

More practice suggestions

  • Consider the Tibetan prayer to ‘have as much suffering as is required to motivate me to practice’.
  • If you have a particular ‘defilement’ in the mind, make it the centre of attention in practice. Investigate and care for it.
  • Reconsider the purity of your practice. Are you practicing with humility or are you practicing to feel good?