Back to basics

I’m on a month’s holiday after a long long year of hard work, and it’s given me a chance to review my practice. Frankly, I felt a bit lost and a bit stalled after what felt like an important shift in practice at the time. After stepping away from it all, doing a bit of reading, and letting it mull itself over, it felt like time to go back to basics.

I recommend going back to basics for anyone who gets into this muddle in practice. It all seems so complicated, especially if you have read widely and discuss practice widely, with different people giving you varying advice, and the devil using the massive array of possibilities to paralyse. A little proud voice did tell me that I was beyond the basics, but that reminded me that the means are the ends, and that I’d got bogged down in treating contemplative practice like a mundane goal. There are similarities, but in the end, it has to come down to the unconditional.

Ajahn Manapo of the Thai Forest Tradition once described the three Buddhist trainings of virtue, concentration and insight to me as a metaphorical cake: you need a base, a centre, and then a top to crown it, or you can’t claim it’s a cake. I would go further and say practice is like a pyramid. Virtue practice is the foundation of stability. You could focus on concentration practice to create that stability, but the content of your thoughts will still be problematic without work in virtue. Similarly, insight practice is intensely agitatory without the stability of concentration. You can jump straight to it and land right in the middle of the battle in your mind, but that’s definitely not easy or pleasant. Let’s apply the model I used in a recent post: that the practice of kindness, honesty and peacefulness in equal measure can provide some balance to practice.

In the last week I’ve applied honesty to virtue: trying to keep commitments, keeping the five Buddhist precepts in as open a way as possible, not deluding myself that little naughty lapses don’t matter, apologising for my foul temper. Quite apart from the conventional benefits, this creates the bliss of blamelessness: the calm that comes from mending fences with others, and the healthy self-respect from doing what one knows is right. I’m not into masochistic practice at the moment, and combined with the practice of dignity I spoke about in my last post, honesty seems to be a dignified way of approaching not only others, and not only God, but also oneself- without getting caught up in egotism. Respecting the self is to respect God’s gift.

That pleasant content is evident in the body. Focusing on those pleasant sensations is grounding and further tranquilising, forming the ‘peacefulness’ element of the practice. When thoughts are bloody frustrating, sometimes I find it fair enough to just let them go, especially when they are taking me out of the here and now. Thoughts are not felt as pleasant or unpleasant in themselves, after all. Noticing those pleasant sensations, dwelling in them lets them brew up- a dharma pal who learns from Rob Burbea pointed me in this direction. This is further encouraging as I want to be present in this pleasantness, not disappear into thoughts that inevitably lead to a more mixed content.

The meat of the practice of noticing craving and aversion is in the body, if you’ll pardon the crap pun. Having done plenty of vipassana, inevitably getting back into the body means that I get into investigation of the sensations that make up my experience of it. Since attention jumps around so much in the body, and I’m not feeling too one-pointed right now (I sense a load of blog posts on samatha training beckon), the most anchoring practice I know is noting. Naming the sensations of the six sense doors – seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, thinking – is extremely grounding as if you’re noting, you’re not dreaming. It is not the same thing as pondering or abstracting if you simply name the experience you are having in bare terms. All day today I’ve been noting as I’ve been travelling about and doing my tasks: ‘feeling’ the clothes on my body, the ‘pressure’ of my feet on the ground, the ‘touching’ of my tongue on the roof of my mouth.

As recommended by Kenneth Folk, since it all seems a bit fraught recently, I’ve been noting ‘release’ to anything rough. This inevitably leads to notes of ‘relief’ as I find I don’t have to fight off the unpleasant, against the strongly held conviction that I have to solve problems. I’ve experimented a little further and allowed pleasant mind states to be included, but left all neutral and negative mind states and thoughts aside: curiosity, calm, gratitude, love have all popped up to say hello, and sometimes even out of seemingly nowhere. I especially have taken pains to include the sense doors that are sometimes neglected: smell and taste are very evocative and can produce pleasant emotions easily. It encouraged me to eat my food slower, savouring it, savouring the company of my partner as I ate it. And there you go- it turned out to be kind towards us both. Peace, kindness, honesty; virtue, concentration and insight, all in what was conventionally a very mundane day.

As you can see, various practices have inertia all of their own and intertwine to produce creative directions and unexpected results. The final lesson of back to basics has to be: if you learned one thing in your practice today, it was worth it.

Practice suggestions

  • Go back to the most simple version of your practice that you know of, but without expectation. What happens?
  • Go back to the body, or to now, which are pretty much the same thing.
  • If you’re having a rough time, give yourself permission to do a pleasant practice.