When practice runs dry: Returning to respect

Let’s start with how I’m failing in so many ways. First, pandemic brain mush set in about a month ago. Familiar things lacked names. Everyday acts seemed inaccessible. Words? Well, let’s just say I’ve discovered a joy in speaking as if possessed by a raging 3 year old. And how are you? Please tell me you are doing better than I seem to be at navigating this endless series of rapids and whirlpools.

Practice helped at the outset of this misadventure, as I’m sure it did for you. Time once spent commuting or working late might have been channelled into a sitting or two. Not every day perhaps, but a bit more regularly. Oh, I’m sure also that there are many of you who have maintained steadfastness in your practice. Happily, I’m not one. And I say “happily” because it’s in those times when my thoughts override the intention to sit that I see how a “daily, disciplined conversation”1 with myself is crucial. A wonderful mindful bell to reset, but not a habit to cultivate as a regular practice.

This “go-no go” aspect of sitting daily is familiar to all of us and the bane of most teachers who are asked: How do I sit regularly? What should I do when I just can’t sit? [note bene: Just do it and just do it anyway!] There are articles, books, and tomes about getting butt to cushion regularly. They detail why to sit regularly and what happens when one does/does not sit regularly. Most teachers give these preset reasons why we don’t sit: (1) avoidance, (2) lack of discipline, (3) avoidance of lack of discipline, (4) avoidance, (5) avoidance of avoidance, etc.

And all that is true. Mostly. And it’s only true if we begin with the premise that sitting is simply training a skillful behaviour to overcome an unskillful one.

In reality, that approach only creates a never-ending process of mental whack-a-mole making the mind a battle ground of pounding unskillfulness into extinction. So, let’s take a step back.

Sometimes practices go dry; the mind field freezes over, enters a drought. Pick your weather system.

And a tempered waiting is all we have.

The storehouse where we collect the energy to sit, to cultivate awareness of the breath-body-feelings-creations of mind is the same storehouse of all we enact in our lives. When it is overwhelmed with the demands for intense attention, the fears of sickness and death, learning new patterns of living, transforming patterns that once sustained us, it is highly likely to shutdown. Dry spells in spiritual practice are common, more common than anyone is likely to admit. There was a three year period when I simply could not sit or practice in any way whatsoever. There was actually nothing happening in my life that would explain that absolute absence of presence. (Or so I think.) It was painful, not because it was happening, but because there was no way to describe it to my teacher. One tentative attempt to explain my situation ended in a frustrated injunction by the teacher to stop being afraid of sitting. Well, he was right … and wrong. Another teacher said it was samadhi. Enjoy it! She was likely totally wrong.

I knew it was some of these things and not any of them. There is a moment in our body/mind system where withdrawing is the only option. It has been especially so in this past year where we’ve been confronted with the essence of the First Noble Truth or Reality: we are of the nature to grow ill, die – and not necessarily after growing old. There’s only so much this mind field can tolerate in the imbalance between the heat of suffering and the lack of nourishment. And dryness is the only outcome.

It’s trite to say “just sit with it” because if we could, we would. I’ve found that giving up is a good option. Give up trying to find the cushion. If you do find the cushion, give up trying for insight into what’s happening or worse, transcending it. In fact, give up all mental exertions aimed at fixing, adjusting, accepting, and trying to launch yourself out of this frozen state. Respect yourself as you are in each moment whether it is an easeful one or a struggle.

This frozen state will thaw and

the moisture released in the thawing will soften the earth,

breath by breath.

In the meantime, give up needing to be the one who fixes this. Respect who you are in this moment. Start there. Don’t start with the breath; start with noticing the not-breathing. Those moments when you’re holding back, clenching in the nostrils, throat, abdomen. In that split second of noticing, release the belly, let the diaphragm drop. Sip your tea. Raise your eye to the distance. Let the breath do its work without micromanaging it. Fail at all this. And fail again. Be original in failing, over and over. Persevere until there is nothing left to fail and then fall in surrender to the cushion. And stay there.

Tat Tvam Asi
You are this

1 David Whyte, Crossing the unknown sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity. Riverhead Books, NY, 2001

A tad nippy out there today. The weather networks say it’s only -10°C but my body says they are messing with my mind. This brings me to note that my mind is very messy these days. We’ve just ended the lease on our office in the city and will be working from home for the remainder of our debt load reduction. That may take a generation. It’s hard letting go of 25 years in one place, meeting and sharing the sorrows and joys of everyday life. I’m practising it as preparation for that final letting go. Grief, not for the object lost but as an adjustment to new surroundings.

Thankfully practice has been a buoy in both these calm and turbulent mental states. But practice has fallen off the edge since Pandemic 1.0 began and I’m becoming aware that I’m immensely talented at avoiding the cushion because it holds far more than my well-padded butt. Another awareness is a seed I planted about a year ago about exploring the intersection of the core suttas and their impact on my life. No, not a biography; more a series of prompts – the suttas and/or the events – to dig deeper into skillful practice.

It’s also a commitment to write, to breathe, to open the hand of thought and release clinging to that single moment when all will happen the way I want it to.

In a recent interview with a cherished colleague, I was asked how I came to the space of advocating for ethics in mindfulness based psychological interventions. What was the path that made this aspect of mindfulness so important to me that I would devote my work and practice to it? The question woke up deep memories of the people in my life who planted and cultivated the seeds of the Buddhadhamma and how they lived sila.

Daw Khin Myaing – Yangon

This is my grandmother. Daw Khin Myaing. A devout Buddhist who was also a cheroot-toting, wooden slipper-slinging mother of a wild band of children including my father. She was horrified by my parents’ Sunday afternoon poker parties and would sweep me off to Botatung pagoda. There, we would feed the turtles and chant the suttas with the monastics. A powerful seed that began to sprout decades later when, in stressful moments, I would hear the chants as an inner voice. But this was so long after we had immigrated that they were merely syllables with no meaning.

More years passed until out of curiosity – and a bit of anxiety that I was “hearing voices” – I discovered what they were:

Buddham saranam gacchami
I go to the Buddha for refuge.
Dhammam saranam gacchami
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go to the Sangha for refuge.

The lineage from the Buddha to my grandmother is unbroken, as it remains unbroken for all of us who remember what our commitments are.

Wake up and all beings awake with you.

The next few posts will explore the key suttas (sutras, stories) that have enriched my life practice (hopefully but no promises!). I hope you join me in this exploration of living skillfully in difficult times.