I have often vacillated over whether there is such a thing as ‘formal practice’ and whether this was more important than ‘informal practice’.
My definition of formal practice, reflecting on my beliefs as they arise, seems to be something very specific: it is time-boundaried, traditional, usually performed sitting on the floor, with a rigid form, such as anapanasati or a chi kung set as prescribed by the teacher who taught me it. It seems to be rather serious and intense. My definition of informal practice, therefore, seems to ‘everything else’; the ‘lifestyle approach’ to practice, whether that be noting sensations as I walk around, or a quick prayer on the bus, or just trying to live more humbly. The most important factor, though, seems to be that even this is different to ‘not practicing’, and that it is delineated by a certain mental posture: serious, intense, striving, effortful, directed. Weirdly enough, looking at it more, there seem to be things that I recognize as practice that aren’t this stressful: service work has always been interesting and happy to me, though even then a bit of that extreme attitude creeps in.
I’ve written before that I seem to have got too tight to perform breath meditation, and that mainly still stands, except for a little loosening up of the physically unpleasant sensations of knotting and loss of control that appear when I try. Thinking about it, that’s entirely because of this mental posture: one that makes contemplative practice a drama, serious business, and very me. I think this is highly analyzable, in that it seems to be an approach that really yearns to show God I mean business, but also in some way to make the whole business a grand struggle. How could enlightenment be anything other than a grand struggle? And how could I pat myself on the back unless I won that struggle and burst through to glorious gnosis?
I hope the gently amused tone comes through as I write, because as Ram Dass put it, I am becoming ‘a connoisseur of my own neuroses’; I’m more and more aware, in a thorough way, of the psychological barriers I put up to simply Doing the Practice, which generally is a very simple instruction to observe the breath or pray for nice things to happen to imperfect people. These are part of the greed, hatred and delusion in myself, and so ‘nothing to get hung about’. To put it another way, it’s all part of the process to recognize my processes, to remember that there are ‘no sensations that can observe other sensations’ (Dan Ingram). It’s helpful to remember this, because instead of getting fixated on whatever ‘personality flaws’ I may have, I can simply remember to step back and observe the flow of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that make up those habitual patterns. If you find yourself getting stuck on how annoying, embarrassing, nasty your patterns are, then just choose one and count how many times it comes up. It’ll soon become obvious that it’s just a thing that goes on regardless of your good qualities, and start to loosen up and dissolve. If you spin out doing this, getting wrapped up in analysis, just count how many times you analyse. Get it?
One of the things that I got caught on and analysed, was the paradox of effort. This intense ‘efforting’ that has led me to ache and fret on retreats is obviously an ego thing, and not very helpful. However, I always say that all character traits are double edged swords; every cloud has a silver lining. In my case, I humbly suggest that all this intense efforting is also the sign of a (twisted) wish to be dedicated. It seems deeply, deeply wrong to not care, to not take practice seriously, to just space out and say ‘it’ll all work out, maaaan.’ So, there seems to be a need to show my devotion, and to practice diligently, without turning it into a horrific slog.
Luckily, it really seems to be as simple as taking a positive approach to these characteristics and applying it. It seems hilarious that it has taken me so many years to basically start enjoying the ride when it comes to formal practice, but there you go. It immediately becomes obvious that these characteristics of stressful, gruelling, intense effort are aspects of practice that I’ve been taught I need to cultivate, but that I have been so serious and het up about that I have turned into terrifying, negative beasts that I needed to slay. We come to Dan Ingram’s ‘Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens’: the beasts we think we face are merely coming to us for attention and acceptance, that is kindly mindfulness. They’re derpy puppies, not awful monsters. And what bigger, badder, more undefeatable monster is there for me that Formal Practice, that prize that must be conquered and made mine?
So, as ever there is a Middle Way, a positive slant on each of these characteristics without simply throwing that characteristic out of the bathwater and replacing it with the other extreme, something that is basically avoidance of the need for actual spiritual practice. To reiterate the above example: instead of concluding that all the massive effort I’ve put in is unfruitful and so no effort is required for spiritual practice, I take the middle way. Now, you can’t put out fire with fire. No argument was ever peacefully solved by shooting your interlocutor. So the way I practice has to unconditionally reflect the goal I am attempting to achieve. This has been shown to me a bazillion times, experientially, in that good practice has achieved good results- that against my seeming belief that you have to headbutt a headache out of existence and make it your bitch, instead merely relaxing and having a glass of water while you wait for it to go away actually works better.
Now we get to the really amusing part. I think about all the slight tweaks to my practice that seem to make it better, and they are exactly the same as those qualities that I have found generally in life seem to make me happy and worthy of self respect. They tend to revolve around being calm, curious, trusting, dedicated- wait. Didn’t the Buddha talk about this stuff?
Good practice, good life, on the cushion or off it, means cultivating the factors of enlightenment at all times. And cultivating them as qualities in ways that reflect them. And that you can’t cultivate one without using, and cultivating the others.
Holy moley. I finally got the bloody point. (If you need to look up the Buddhist factors of enlightenment, do so now. Try not to get sucked into a wiki walk.)
My next post will explore the bojjhanga as I see them, how they feel in the body, how they relate to each other, and how I am making my practice the art of living by them in all walks of life as much as I can. Thanks for reading!