There’s a lot of discussion in both traditional and pragmatic circles about what constitutes hardcore practice: the art of really going for it. I’d argue that all of these formulations come down to the same thing, but it’s easily misunderstood due to the very delusions that cause the suffering practitioners are trying to gain awareness of. I’d like to talk about what these misunderstandings are, and how even they can be grist for the mill.
What is hardcore practice? The Pragmatic Dharma lot have done the most recently to explicate it in a way that is accessible and exciting to secular, geeky practitioners. There are particular obfuscations in articulating practice in their way, but that is inescapable, so I throw no particular flak at them.
Central to pragmatic approaches is the ‘lifestyle approach’: that practice is not something you do for fifteen minutes a day on a special cushion, but that there is a way to practice at any time, and in a way that is sustainable 24/7. The idea that you have to sit and go ‘ommmm’ to practice is the biggest barrier to progress in my opinion, and remains stubbornly there for many people who would otherwise start an interesting and fruitful practice. I’m not saying using a mantra or pulling off an envious lotus posture is bad practice; I’m saying there are a myriad of ways, and all you require to practice is the intention to.
The number of people still in the contemplation phase, deciding whether to practice, is in my experience huge. The idea that doing so would somehow be exhausting, remove you from normal interaction, and possibly turn you into a zealot is another barrier, though it is genuinely a danger if you grasp the practices the wrong way. The pragmatic dharma phrase ‘practice like your hair is on fire and only meditating will douse the flames’ points to the kind of self-motivation you need when it all starts off, and for anyone like me, it was both hard and not obviously beneficial. This attitude to practice points to it being more than a hobby or a therapy, but making practice the crux of your life, in the case of the pragmatic lot, to end suffering. From the perspective of the Dharma, what other goal could be saner?
Pragmatic dharma also, somewhat more implicitly, agrees very much with Theravada Buddhism’s more philosophical approaches that help to avoid the kind of metaphysical speculation that leads away from experiential practice and towards scholarly wrangles. The Pāli Canon clearly states that it isn’t that there is or isn’t a self; the answer is Something Else, and why are you wasting time writing about what that might be when you could be finding out? There’s a famous sutta in which the Buddha compares the person who demands to know all the answers before he meditates, to a person who wants to know what the bow that shot him was made of before the doctor patches them up. I prefer the wonderfully British phrase ‘the ins and outs of a duck’s arse’ for the occasional person who demands that other people convince them that enlightenment is real before they’ll practice. Any investment I have in doing so is purely self-serving, so I don’t ever argue the toss for something so personal. I’m pointing out that you need know basically nothing about scripture or metaphysics to practice well (though it can help), as insight doesn’t directly come from conventional discussion.
Therefore, what is more traditional than the person who, to take a more Christian formulation, worries less about reading sophisticated theological discussions, acts upon their faith, and just damn well prays in every situation it occurs to them to pray in? To bring in a tangent, this is another limiting factor to being hardcore- it not in fact coming to mind that this is the perfect situation to practice in, as weird or mundane, easy or difficult, as the circumstances may be. The concepts of faith and grace have become more important to me as time goes on, as I’ve come back around to the honest admission that a large amount of what I’m doing is based on belief without the kind of demonstrable proof that some would like. There’s a body of evidence that shows that meditating lots and lots and lots makes you happier, but there’s not really one for God. Getting over that dissonance has made me want to practice all the harder.
What are the ways in which you can think you’re being hardcore, but you’re actually just falling into the same traps, playing out the same selfing mechanisms? There are many, that can be divided into actions before, during and after practice. I’ve done all of these. Before practice, you could read a load of books to definitely, definitely be practicing the right way, and end up doing very little. You could spend time setting up the perfect circumstances to practice instead of just choosing a relatively quiet corner and getting on with it. Or, you could set yourself up to fail by setting yourself such a strict schedule that you actually can’t do it, and end up chucking the whole project in the bin. Taking the amazing stories of other practitioners and determining to emulate them, then finding you’re just nowhere near as gifted, motivated or even just lucky as them, is another way of losing all motivation. During practice, you can strain to make things happen, determining by force of will to become enlightened, or praying so damn hard that God has to sit up and take notice.
My lovely analogy is that straining to go to the toilet doesn’t make you have a healthy bowel motion- it just gives you piles. It’s the healthy lifestyle that makes it happen: the eating veg, drinking water, relaxing, maybe consulting your doctor if it’s a problem. To keep the metaphor going, that could be equated to reading a little motivating material, setting resolutions often, allowing yourself to enjoy your practice, and talking with a teacher. Jumping onto the cushion with the desire to ‘ace it’ is going to end in tears. Finally, after practice, you can sabotage your hard won space around the petulant demands of the ego by not following up with supportive practices and a regular routine, or arguably worse, go around telling everyone how hardcore a practitioner you are now. If there is any way of measuring how awakened someone is, it’s not going to be by how much they boast, because why would you give a crap about such laurels if you’re equanimous?
As I’ve gone along, what I need to be hardcore about has changed. It has always come easily to me to sit for long periods as I have a good pain tolerance, was always taught by my parents to sit up straight, am bloody minded, and so on. Therefore, it is not ‘hardcore’ for me to sit for two hours straight, on a cushion, or to note for hours. For me it was more hardcore to learn not to treat it all as a form of combat in which I was, for example, using the noting technique to overcome pain by aggressively noting it in a ‘I am better than you way’. It was much harder to let feelings of vulnerability, shame and fear express themselves full force when they erupted in meditation. I know a friend who is utterly incapable of sitting down for more than ten seconds without squirming and another who finds sitting in silence for that long unbearably lonely, but they are both naturally the type to express their worries and admit their aversion in a way that is honest and healthy, and so there is one less hidden limiting factor in their self-awareness. However, if they were to ask my advice about how to practice in a hardcore fashion, I might well immediately jump to that kind of restlessness as a perfect starting point.
This is because being hardcore in contemplative practice is about going where it hurts, doing what is hard, and what you don’t want to. If it does not fulfil all of these three criteria, it’s not necessarily bad practice, but it will not be cutting edge for you. It will either be contemplation on a theme that is comfortable, a practice that comes easily, or one that follows your preferences. Going against the stream of conventional comfort, ease and preference is pretty much the way to dig out the real craving and aversion in your life. Going too far and crashing out, though, is self-sabotage.
You can use these themes to squarely aim your practice in the right direction, turning what feels like a weakness into some hard won insight. To use some examples from my practice:
Do you hate zoning out in practice, feeling that it is a ‘waste of time’? Avoid all practices that aim to combat sloth and torpor, and instead just sit, using the pointer ‘This too, this too’. If frustration and anxiety about practice arise, boop them on the nose with the pointer rather than spinning out into troubleshooting. This can be made a 24/7 practice by accepting all forms of distraction with good humour- ‘there I go again’.
Are you a puritanical, minimalist, solitary meditator type? Make yourself go to a Tibetan Buddhist centre, full of bright colour and fancy hats, and pledge to yourself to give it your all. On the other hand, if you find you crave the beauty and interest of grand cathedrals and solemn rites, then stay home and sit watching your breath instead. Extra hardcore points for not discussing practice, avoiding religious music, and so on (or doing the opposite if you hate it).
Boredom is an amazing teacher. We all hate boredom. Do boring practices, all the time, ones that don’t make you feel good or even give you the excitement of strong negatives. Make yourself read that long-winded book your teacher has kept pushing on you. Avoid the novelty of new practices. This becomes hardcore when it really starts to piss you off and you begin fantasising on the cushion about all the things you miss.
Eat every meal really, really, really slowly. Only focus on the food. Note every sensation: touching the spoon, the feel of the spoon, the weight of the spoon as you lift it, the desire to just shove the food in your mouth, the craving for flavour. Half an hour to eat breakfast is a reasonable suggestion.
And others. There are lots of ways to practice in a hardcore fashion, but the mantra should be ‘consistency, not heroics’. There have been times that I have not known how to do this, and practicing very hard has helped me at times, but not very kindly (as I have pointed out many times before) and not in a way that has inculcated sustainable habits. At the beginning of practice, it seemed that an amount of strong effort was necessary, and this included a certain amount of striving and being mechanistic about it- in other words, it seemed that the more I focused, the quicker I would become enlightened. Now, it feels like it is having purer intentions that is important, recognising that drive to practice constantly but not expecting results, merely extending my willingness to participate into areas that I do not want it to invade. There is still the sense of some mechanism, given the conventional benefits of practice that the neuropsychologists are writing plenty about, but the sense that there is a leap to be made from the causal to the Absolute- well, that seems to need every ounce of submission I can muster. The good thing about it is that I only have to muster one instance at a time. Practice is not climbing a mountain, more going over speedbumps. I just don’t know how many there are and how long the road is.