The Buddha described engaging in two very distinct methods of practice before and after his experience of enlightenment. The first was a kind of gung-ho hard-core meditation, which he did for quite a long time, almost starving himself. This was a type of mortification practice, where one specifically denies the body any kind of ease, pleasure, rest, or sustenance, in order to pursue rarefied meditation states. The idea is to somehow transcend this bodily realm and get out of here into some other, more refined, realm of experience. 

Buddha did that for a long time, mastering some of the absorption practices of his day and practicing with two reputed meditation teachers until he found himself weak and tired, exhausted and discouraged. 

Then, Sujata, a wonderful local young woman, came and saw this poor, skinny, exhausted yogi collapsed under a tree and she gave him a bowl of rice pudding. He ate that rice and was restored, and he realized that this hard-core ascetic way of practicing hadn’t been so helpful—or, at least, it may have been very helpful, but it wasn’t anymore.

In this newfound energy and clarity after eating the rice pudding, the Buddha recalled snoozing under a tree as a teenager and watching some people work in the fields. He recalled being both very relaxed and simultaneously very attuned, really noticing the play of sunlight, maybe the smell of the grass or the trees, or the sound of the people working in the fields. 

He realized that these two states crucially support each other: relaxation and attunement. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and yet a real sensory aliveness. That transformed his practice. 

Then, famously, the Buddha sat down under what’s become known as the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, with that resolve to sit, walk, live, and practice in the way described above: relaxed and attuned. 

Maybe you’ve had that kind of shift in your own practice. Maybe you started out with a practice that was helping you try to get to some specific state—peace, bliss, stillness, clarity, or something. But maybe you moved into a practice more centered on actually being where you are—rather than trying to get somewhere. A practice that’s more about relaxing into where you are, attuning to what’s actually happening in awareness right now. 

Sometimes we take up practices in a kind of deluded way because we’re meeting it with the same mind state that we’ve been meeting all the other stuff of our lives. Sometimes we engage with practices in an intense, busy, and ultimately unhelpful way. Then, at some point, we may realize, “Oh yeah, I’ve been going down a blind alley.” If that’s the case for you, you’re in good company, because that’s what happened to the Buddha.

When we read about the Buddha describing his own journey of awakening, leading up to and beyond awakening, we have the opportunity to take that on as a way to keep our own questioning alive: What do I practice? What do I emphasize in my practice?

Sometimes we get the idea that there’s a best practice, a right practice, a most powerful practice. But different practices and different qualities or nuances of practice might be most appropriate for us at different times as our practice, understanding, and recognition of what’s helpful, needed, or skillful evolves.

How has your practice changed over time? What did you start off practicing, and what are you practicing with now? If your practice has some longevity of months, years, or decades, it’s helpful to trace that evolution. It’s a good way of recognizing the way that your sensitivity, understanding, and attunement have evolved over time. It’s a way to recognize what’s helpful and to have the capacity to drop something that no longer serves you for something that does serve you.

It’s like the Buddha’s image of the raft. The raft is a really good thing for crossing a river. But once you’ve crossed the river, the raft is useless. Once you’ve gotten to the other side, don’t pick the raft up and take it with you. It’s going to be heavy. Leave it, and then maybe you want some hiking boots for the next part of the journey. Finding a practice that fits where you’re at, knowing that where you’re at is a changing, evolving, and deepening process.

Adapted from Martin Aylward’s Dharma Talk, Evolving Dharma: How Practice Transforms.

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