As a result of impermanence our lives go from unpleasant situations to pleasant situations to neutral ones, on and on—sometimes on a small scale, sometimes in a dramatic way. The point is, we have a choice. Every difficult or unpleasant situation can be used as further training for our aversion, anger and hatred or as training in our dharma practise. Any pleasant situation can be used to further our training in attachment, fantasising and possessiveness or to kindle attention and exercise our capacity to open up and let go. Neutral situations can be used as further training for our boredom and confusion or as training for the practice, as another way of learning and relearning how to kindle the flame of attention. This means that within this painful situation, we have a choice which is very promising in terms of freedom.
The more we practise, the more we become aware of this choice. As a matter of fact, one of the first important fruits of the practice is to start remembering that there is such a possibility. I am not talking about applying it, I am talking just of remembering the possibility. For example, we may be in a situation where there is a fleeting moment of thinking to ourselves, ‘Halt! I could be mindful in this situation, couldn’t I?’ Then we proceed in total, unconditional forgetfulness. But we had that flash. And this is something new. This is something that did not happen before. It is like a new energy which stirs within us. It has taken us years of practice to get to this point; it literally might take years before we occasionally remember to practise in everyday life.
So, it takes a basis of practise to progress in the practice. A retreat is an intensive time of something which should be happening all the while; it isn’t an occasional workshop. Maybe we go from one retreat to another for years without ever practising outside of those retreats. It reminds me of a thermostat. When the water gets cold, the thermostat clicks on. So too something within us clicks and we know it is time for us to go into another retreat in order to bring the temperature back up again. Then the temperature falls again and click—time for another retreat. We should consider, perhaps, how come that in between retreats we forget about the practice. There is something happening there. On the other hand, a retreat is often the beginning for everyday practice, or it strengthens everyday practice. Then we find ourselves in a position of having practice as a daily companion, plus the special retreat times.
After years of committed practice, what also tends to happen—and this is absolutely crucial—is we experience a growing interest, sometimes a growing passion for applying the practice to the situations of daily life. This interest is an energy which is responsible for a greater response to any hint or instruction we might get. If that interest is not there, hints and instructions do not find fertile ground. I think we should keep this in mind and reflect on the dynamics of practice as well as the complexity and joyous commitment at its core. ‘Commitment’ can sometimes be interpreted as something grim, but ‘joyous commitment’ is real commitment to the practice.
I think we should also reflect on the fact that a meditative culture—and I think all of us are called to build a meditative culture—is different from the culture we are surrounded by. Take, for example, the sense of time. I conceive of a sense of time in a spiritual culture as something in tune with nature rather than in tune with neurosis. A concept of growth would be like, say, the growth of a tree, the growth of some living thing (and we should also perhaps remember that a tree with deep roots takes more time to grow). We don’t usually have this kind of sense of time in mind when we think about our practice; we don’t have a pine tree or an oak tree in mind. We might have thoughts like, ‘I’ve been practising for four years and I shouldn’t have this reaction after four years.’ Now, what is four years? What do we think we have done in four years? We’ve been training reactions that we don’t like for maybe thirty-five years, day in and day out, and now we are wondering how come that after four years of practice those reactions are still there?
There is obviously some confusion here. What is our yardstick? Perhaps we are thinking of the time it takes to learn a language or something like that, but that is a different dimension. We are spiritual seekers but we are also children of our age, and our age is a culture where the crucial values are achievement, excitement, work for the sake of it, having and accumulating. These are the central values.
Now, in terms of our inner posture, so to speak, this fact has far reaching implications. It boils down to the fact that human nature is being perceived as being worthless unless things are done, acquired, unless credentials are piled up, and so on. Human nature is conceived—consciously or unconsciously—as nothing, as a sort of deep hole which needs to be stuffed full in order for us to feel decent, worthy. There is a very strong and painful assumption—you can feel it in the air—that basically human nature has no intrinsic value unless one does something, assembles something, puts something together. Then there is a sense of value. But it is quick to go away. You have to hold onto it, add more, pile up more. This is an enormous source of anxiety, of insecurity and crazy behaviour like getting busier and busier, going to more and more places, collecting inner items, as it were, even collecting in terms of the practice. Going on retreats can become another form of collecting, like collecting medals—spending two months in the Himalayas, doing six three-month retreats at Barre, one three-year retreat with the Tibetans, and so on. ‘I feel impressive and I place the value of myself on doing these things. I am lonely and sad, but since I’ve done all this, there is some value, surely, there should be some value in my life!’
The spiritual vision, the dharmic vision of human nature, is very different from this vision. According to the dharmic vision, human nature has an intrinsic, immeasurable value. The question is how do we allow this intrinsic value to manifest? How do we help it to shine through? The idea is not to take on more burdens, not to acquire more baggage, but the opposite.
Spiritual practice is no more or less than the gradual understanding and realisation of the extraordinary fact that there is a core luminous nature which wants to come through, and our life task is to allow that. So, letting go, understanding compassion, understanding simplicity—this is the practice. The practice is to help the manifestation of our nature instead of doing that which makes it more difficult for this intrinsic good nature to shine through. It was this thing which brought us here; it wasn’t our culture which brought us here; it was something else, something strong and clear.
How do we go through everyday life in terms of practice? There are many possibilities. We may have a regular daily sitting practice, but perhaps our tendency is to forget that once we get off the cushion. Or, we may have developed valuable extensions to the sitting practice, so to speak, like training during our daily bus ride to work so that more of our day is used for practice. Maybe we practise breath awareness or metta [loving-kindness] in our commuting time, and we begin to enjoy it. After training ourselves to do it, that ride becomes very different from the way it used to be. We live according to different principles, dharma principles, while we are riding on that bus. We might look at the people in the bus without falling into our habitual judging attitude, ‘This one is okay; this one is hopeless; this one is . . .’ and on and on. Through the practice we learn to greet human beings in a different way, ‘May you be happy.’ We say the one important thing and drop the rest as being idle, useless and toxic. We also become tolerant. There may be a big crowd, people everywhere, and we accept it all. Then we get off the train and often, to one degree or another, switch from being Dr Jekyll to being Mr Hyde, literally. As soon as we open the door of our home or work place we start living according to different principles, ego principles.
More continuity of presence during the day is the idea, as in a retreat, though in a different way. A lively interest in cultivating the practice from all viewpoints helps and makes this continuity more accessible. Also, a spirit of devotion develops, devotion towards the religious quality of awareness, towards the sacredness of the present moment and for the way it is in its utter simplicity without wanting to add or take anything away.
We can develop creative ways of helping this continuity of practice. Many people use awareness of the breath, or metta, or the posture and movements of the body, or what I like to call mini-pauses when working—especially intellectual work—a pause of just a few seconds or a minute. In those seconds we remember the practice. It can be a refuge or a dharma reflection. Unless we have a deadline to keep, there is always the possibility of having a few seconds to pause. We all do it anyway; we look out of the window or just look around. If you have ever experimented with this, you might have experienced some resistance just at the point of that moment of reflection, like remembering we need to do something more urgent, ‘I could stop for a few seconds, but . . oh! I must do this, I must keep going.’ We think like this from habit and for no other reason. We have three hours of work in front of us, say, and if those three hours contain ten or fifteen minutes of remembering, of waking up, they have a different quality to them. It isn’t the same as being on retreat or in a monastery, nevertheless we have infused that work with a different quality.
We can also practise pure listening, that is listening in acceptance independently of what is being said. We tend to listen with a variety of attitudes. We listen in one way if we’re interested in what is being said and in another way if we’re not (we basically don’t listen in that case). I remember—this was revolutionary for me —applying pure listening to students going through their exams. In my country most exams are oral, so you listen a lot if you are a teacher. At one point I remember noticing that I would more or less like the student who knew things and dislike the one who didn’t. I was struck by the fact that I had this attitude and it was pretty gross. I was totally dependent on the flow of words coming out of the mouth in front of me—getting excited if that flow was of a certain kind, and more and more depressed if it was stammering nonsense. Then I woke up to the fact that I was strangling myself in this incredibly limited field. I then practised pure listening, listening because of listening. This was a very different experience which I appreciated more and more. I saw a human being in front of me with eyes and hands, someone who was probably undergoing some form of anxiety. I began to enjoy listening to that person whether what was being said was correct or incorrect. This wider perspective is a very different experience. Previously, I would become tired after a few hours of non-pure listening, of judging listening, it was a strain, but now I was far less tired. One human being after another—different bodies, different minds, different tones of voice—all this is available if you are engaged in pure listening, but unavailable if you are listening in that judging way.
We do have a choice, and practising is learning more and more about that choice. Once the continuity or practice picks up a momentum that will help manifest the dharma in our lives. Sometimes we get stuck as practitioners. The central problem, it seems, is planning—planning retreats, the level of our samadhi, how much time we will sit every day, the level of our reactivity, and so on. This has its place, has its importance, but much more is possible through the practice itself, through the continuity of the practice and the spirit of devotion to it. To me, manifesting the dharma means experiencing life at every corner, increasingly making that choice, increasingly having wisdom and compassion as the aim in whatever one does. If wisdom and compassion are our aims we occasionally find ourselves being compassionate and wise—manifesting the dharma rather than just counting our hours of concentration and so forth.
Again, manifesting the dharma means a fuller life, being more with what we do. Once we start tasting that fullness, that nonseparation, the more it becomes an extraordinary motivation for continued practice. Manifesting the dharma—and I think this is the right word—is resting more in what is pleasant and unpleasant. Awareness has peace at its core, and whenever we are fully aware, we rest into things whatever they are; we just rest in what happens. So, the core of awareness is peace and the core of human nature is peace, unconditioned peace which wants to come through.
First published in the August 2005 Buddhism Now
More posts from Corrado Pensa