Pleasantly surprised

It is probably obvious from my previous posts that any progress in my practice recently was being hard won, and was an abstract concept at best. I was in a hole that I couldn’t scramble out of, and I knew it. I had good advice from a teacher, but I couldn’t apply it. As usual it simply took some time to work itself out.

What’s happened really is just what always happens. There isn’t any way out. You can’t ‘fix’ anything spiritually. It’s all Grace, this enlightenment lark. But there is the urge and the need to practice, for me, because I still experience myself as a separate being with agency. I was attempting to skip ahead to the way that people practice when they have experienced the cessation of that sense of agency- very formlessly.

Instead, what I had was had a mishmash of experiences tumbling through my head when I tried to meditate, with no clear direction, and no clear sense of whether I was helping or hindering myself. In fact, I ended up quite stressed out for a long period. Along with a very difficult job that brings me into contact with needy people in extremis every day, and all the ethical and emotional quandaries that brings with it, I started to get very angry and very hopeless. I also got a stinking flu.

As I merrily tripped with a high fever at home, it felt like the literal symbol of the nihilistic corner I found myself in. I’d been told by one teacher that it was when you were in a corner that you made the most progress, but I couldn’t identify that sentiment with the sense of spiritual failure and aridity I felt. When life literally started to lose its meaning and I begun to hate the people around me, I didn’t know I was in a spiritual crisis, because the world didn’t seem very spiritual any more. I thought I needed to find some aggressive solution.

But as usual, at the height of that, I had a little epiphany that lifted my spirits. (Huh. I never thought about that phrase before, and what it implies.) In my mind’s eye I saw the flickering flame of faith, tiny but completely impossible to extinguish. I knew it was my hope, and I identified with it completely. It had been gifted to me, but it was part of me nonetheless, and nothing could take it away. It said that whatever had happened in my life, I had always believed that something better was possible, that something better was inevitable, and it was so cheering that I immediately relaxed and fell asleep.

It took a bit of pondering – of course, the thoughts coming of themselves – to work out what to do next. Unsurprisingly, it’s everything I’ve been writing about but not really applied to myself. A surrender has to occur. I have to accept some very conventional truths about my limitations and who I am, little crazinesses and all. I have been trying to identify with the highest contemplative practice I can, but this is not where I am. As I said, I’m not yet agencyless, centreless, equanimous. I came to expect to dwell in some inarticulated formless realm of practice and yet all I faced were knots in my stomach and the hindrances running riot. So, I need to practice where I am, with those knots. Practice needs to occur here to be integrated in a far more grounded and pragmatic sense for now than I thought. And connection with other people who can help that grounded and pragmatic practice is essential.

This is in some way feels frustrating because I’ve been taught that the highest form of spiritual practice is without any reward, inexplicable, unconditional. The kind of practice I’m going to be doing for a while feels to be an attempt to balance energies in the body, with all the hippy implications that has. (There are a couple of blog posts missing where I started to talk about clinical mindfulness practice that I wrote and didn’t post, that would make my turn of thinking much clearer). I can see I am out of whack and of much less use this way. This is clearly reward-based practice, but it’s what I need right now- because I am not anywhere near as ‘far along’ as I think I am. I’m going back to the sīla and the samādhi, in the sense of caring for myself and stabilising myself, because that is my way of helping other people right now. I have spent a lot of time on service practice that was starting to fall off into martyrdom and self-escape. Lesson learned.

Another interesting element is that I started to see all insight practice as needing to be this unconditional, inexplicable thing. In fact, insight practice creates visible benefits. This is because there can be no link of a causal practice to the acausal. Sorry, but your meditation isn’t actually making you enlightened; and if your definition of enlightenment is what conventional practice gets you, however hardcore that may be, it definitely differs to what mine is.

The benefits of this shift are already really clear to me. I’m inclining towards relaxation instead of urgency. I’m less impelled to go for that hit of pleasure because I feel less like I need it to stave off all the horrible things I’ve been feeling. I’m starting to like people again. Music, art and culture are feeling more significant and beautiful and I’m wanting to get involved in them again for more reasons that just finding ways to transcend them. I’m thinking the object of becoming a calm and connected member of humanity is not a silver medal. I’m wanting to play to my strengths. I feel less aggressive.

So. You can expect more discussion of the basics of practice as defined as things that cultivate good states of the body and mind at the moment, which could well be useful to beginners, as the real experts don’t like to talk about this stuff any more. I think I’ll get back into some really slow, mellow noting Shinzen Young style and maybe even hit the jhānas. I even suspect a bit arrogantly that some of the really mystical stuff will start turning up again now that I’m not trying to smash the door to enlightenment. Watch this space, it’s going to be fun and technical and playful again.