By Dan Webster
How is your practice going?
Are you sure?
Tibetan teachers often remind us Westerners that a Buddhist task is a long term one, and we must be patient. Also, we should be careful not to apply Western ideas of progress and achievement to our meditation practices. We can fall into “spiritual materialism”, as it was so vividly explained by Chogyam Trungpa.
There is a converse argument to all of this too, however. A strict translation of Buddhism might be “Awake-ism”, but it could just as easily be called “Check-ism” or “Test-ism”, so important is Buddhism’s stressing of checking the validity of teachings to your own circumstances.
If you have been meditating for a few years, and haven’t seen many noticable results, changes may be subtle, working on deeper levels, and may become worse before they improve. It may also be the case that you are just on the wrong track. (This can be especially the case in the West, where practice is often disjointed, translated through many cultural veils and assumptions, solitary, and done amongst a very un-Buddhist lifestyle and culture).
It might be the time to take a reality check. The risk is, continuing your practice as-is, you may expect the same results as you have from the previous ones.
As always, a trained meditator or teacher will be the best place to look for advice. You might need a tweak, or a complete overhaul. Having taken aim at your practice, it will be the time to think about possible remedies.
Firstly, your Dharma might be spot on, your Buddha rock solid — but how’s your Sangha? The Sangha, or “Spiritual Community” of supportive fellow practitioners is one of the “Three Jewels” most likely to suffer in our busy daily lives. It is easy to underestimate the importance, encouragement, and feedback others can bring. Try setting a time in your week to head to your local Buddhist centre, and make it rock solid, and see if it makes a difference.
Other slight alterations you may make to your practice might be switching to mantra over mindfulness mediations, or visualizations over mantra — depending upon your interest. For many, walking meditation is just the ticket to rejuvinate a tired meditation practise. It can be done instead of, as well as, or within, a sitting practice — try getting up for ten minutes of walking meditation to give your sitting practice a boost.
It may also be that you require a more drastic change. Perhaps only meditating in the morning isn’t for you. You might achieve more for your compassion through “active compassion”, helping out in a nursing home, hospital, community centre, or abroad doing aid work. Remember that such changes should always be taken as part of a balanced practice, that includes regular sitting work, teachings, and education.
You might also wish to re-examine your previous spiritual traditions in times of spiritual difficulties. The Dalai Lama has indicated that leaving a Christian faith, for instance, is less useful often than remaining within that faith and incorporating what you find to be true from Buddhism. Search your innermost thoughts and beliefs? Are their any secret resistances to Buddhism through past religious teachings? It may be helpful to remind yourself that theological differences between spiritual paths are more likely to be social (due to the differing social contexts, histories, orthodioxies and emphases), rather than “objectively true”. Perhaps you should re-examine your spiritual beliefs in light of the teachings on Emptiness.
There may be other clues, or wisdom, you can draw from other traditions. You may wish to visualize Allah, Christ, or Mary in your meditations — such a connection to deep seated beliefs may provide you with an impetus to your practice an “orthodox” view of Buddhist practice (if there ever was such a thing) could not achieve. Church or a Mosque might bring you solace and focus, as might talking through your spiritual journey with a Western psychologist, psychiatrist, or other source of objective criticism.
Finally, we might ask what the true contemplative spirit might look like, and if formal sitting meditation is the only way there. The hindu tradition of Ayurveda is older than Buddhism, and many of its teachings would have formed the cultural world that helped lead the Buddha to enlightenment. An Ayurvedic master might downplay the importance of a single meditation session, and instead counsel a “whole of life” approach to spiritual practice. Starting with a routine that is set for a certain time of awakening, and progressing through prayers, cleansing rituals, exercise and eating, and including periods of “non-meditating” or escape from ambition through quiet rest, Ayurveda can lead to a contemplative and calm state of mind like few other practices can. you can find an example daily ritual, and a printable example timetable, at AyurvedaTreatment.org.
Whatever new directions your practice takes you, it may turn out that your obstacles, and your reality check, were the best things that could of occured.
What about your thoughts? Have you done a reality check? And how do you judge how “successful” your practice has been?