One of the reasons I started practice was because I was becoming very aware of how little control over my own mind I had. This is both an early example of a growing awareness of anicca (radical impermanence) from the unconditional side of things, but also a positive and motivating realisation that made me want to see if the corollary was possible: an ability to move the mind.
Happily enough, it turned out that it was possible. Much has been made of the practice of mindfulness to give the practitioner the space between stimulus and reaction, and that’s true enough. But the other corner of the dharma triangle is dukkha, the suffering that is disatisfactoriness. Any amount of space to choose between option A and option B can’t make both choices imperfect. Practice became increasingly frustrating, I can see in hindsight, when the enactment of it failed to conquer this disatisfactory nature of things; and that belief in transcendence is what differentiates the mystical or religious practitioner from the pragmatic and scientific. I had been told, and didn’t disbelieve, that the real reduction of suffering came as a result of insight dropping on my head given diligent practice; but I also knew that practice doesn’t, weirdly, mechanistically create this insight. There has often been a sense of trying to drag my practice wherever it feels I will have the most control, given my knowledge of different practices: trying to surrender entirely to the moment, or trying to do spiritual battle against habitual impulses, in order to control the whole thing.
The trouble with this is that practice has a life of its own and slips away, entirely as a lesson hammering home the three characteristics of existence: that you can’t control practice, that it isn’t owned by you, and that you can’t perfect it yourself. I spend a lot of time not getting the hint and trying to squish these frustrating feelings that result from treating practice like a Rubik’s Cube that needs solving. Unfortunately, letting go of that control in the right way is really hard to learn and even harder to teach, because it always seems to imply some sort of passivity that is only the flip side to activity. There are lots of ways of describing practice I’ve read that, to my unsophisticated mind or perhaps just due to my predilections, seem to say ‘beat yourself into complete compliance, you useless worm’ or ‘there’s nothing you can do, whatever you do will be useless’. To strain to ‘not do’ something is the same as straining to do it, but not doing anything at all clearly hasn’t made a lot of Buddhas.
Luckily, the solution (for now) is right there, when I relax a little- and the ‘relaxing a bit’ is much more important to my practice than you might think. Firstly, it really has required for me an acceptance of the imperfection of my own practice! Why would practice be anything else than imperfect? For someone who really wants to skip to the end and be that perfection, be that permanent, be in control (like me), it’s weirdly hard to even temporarily drop that delusional sense that those are all possible things whilst still seeing myself as a conventional self entirely. Untangling psychosocial identity issues suddenly seems much more important than many uncompromising approaches might imply, as my last couple of blog posts mentioned.
Once that conventional layer of fraughtness is out the way, even if just for half an hour of sitting on the cushion, then the real pragmatism of practice can be clear. Yes, the mind can be, at least from my perspective, partially controlled: there are mental responses I can force, such as surrender, curiosity, focus. No, I cannot make them jump to match every blow that dukkha inflicts. That is not the point of learning to control the mind for practice. Instead, there can be the posture that accepts everything as a gift, positively and with mindfulness, but beyond being merely receptive, acts on it, goes with it. If I’m angry, I’m angry. If I’m relaxed, I’m relaxed. The suffering comes only from pushing against. The posture, the intention, is not the same as a reaction, because it does not form the response, only guide it.
This is different to before, because the nature of the self has been more clarified. In the previous two blog posts, I looked at whether it was better to build a self (even a flexible one) or whether it was better to try and live in the moment entirely without one, knowing that unconditionally it doesn’t really exist. The answer is that there is a self, but that is entirely appearance, and so always changing. ‘Who am I’ becomes a koan, unconditionally, but ‘what shall I do?’ becomes the question conditionally. And my answer is, always at the moment: find out. See where the rabbit hole goes. Again, it requires trust, because it requires a healthy respect for both anger and calm, happiness and sadness. They’re both leading somewhere.
We do not say ‘I made an inspiration’, but say, ‘I had an inspiration’. Inspiration to act can be seen as the guidance of God, the whisperings of hidden Buddha Nature, or simply as the innate goodness of the universe performing itself. Somehow, going with the flow makes the energy that’s in the body of much more use, and it seems to catch on the little hooks of my psyche less. I am able to say that I don’t know who I am, but that it is fun finding out each new ‘me’ as it emerges creatively and uniquely. My part in it is to want to receive this inspiration, rather than think that I need to make my own from whole cloth. In a world where it’s easy to feel so deprived when there are a thousand imperfections, suddenly there’s rather a lot being gifted.