In last month’s post, I wrote:
“Spiritual practice acts like a mirror, and sooner or later, you find yourself looking in that mirror. For me, the only question that counts at that point is ‘Do I work with what I see, or do I turn away?’”
One person tweeted, “How do you work with what you see in the mirror?”
Before I start to answer this question, I want to be clear that my wording wasn’t the best. I did not mean that you necessarily work explicitly with the stuff you see. I meant that you do not turn away from practice, no matter what you see in the mirror.
In spiritual practice in general, and in mystical practice in particular, the view that you should always be working on something explicitly may reinforce the felt sense that you are separate from what arises in experience. I have often criticized the use of the word observe in the context of meditation for this same reason.
As for what to do or not do, here are three points that have been important to me.
1. Hacking doesn’t work
Practice throws up all kinds of stuff. The stuff that comes up is usually the result of patterns that have been operating for a long time. A common mistake is to think you can do something about this stuff right away—a mind hack as some people say. That approach is deeply problematic. If you don’t have a sufficient base of attention, you end up playing whack-a-mole with your mind. You might be able to change how stuff arises for a short period of time, but usually that effort masks a subtle or explicit repression. The effort doesn’t change the underlying patterns. When the patterns throw up stuff again, you are usually in worse shape than you were before, and you will also be discouraged. In other words, this approach reinforces a sense of “I” and an illusion of control, and it undermines your efforts.
Related: Releasing emotional reactions
The irony is that when you look in the mirror of practice and see that stuff, something has already begun to change in you. The best thing to do at this point is to keep going, stabilizing the base of attention until you can experience what you see without checking out or being consumed by it. I learned this from my own teacher. For a long time his response to everything I took to him from my meditation practice was, “Not good, not bad. Keep going.” I learned that flashes of insight or understanding were not that meaningful and that practice was about something subtler and deeper.
2. Let practice work on you
Work at a practice quietly and consistently. Small, regular efforts over a long period of time are more effective than short sprints. This point I learned the hard way—after two three-year retreats. Seriously out of balance emotionally and energetically, I could do very little in terms of practice. Taking and sending (Tib. tonglen) was the only practice that didn’t compound the imbalances. Even that I could do for only a short time each day. I also learned some energy balancing techniques, but problems developed if I did more than 1/3 the usual amount. So that’s what I did for twenty years—small consistent efforts. I had to let go of any idea of making progress. That letting go made it possible for the practice to work on me.
Faith doesn’t come through believing. Faith is a form of knowing and it comes through doing.
To practice this way means that you have to have faith—in yourself, in practice, and in your teachers. Faith doesn’t come through believing. Faith is a form of knowing and it comes through doing. You come to have faith in yourself when you work through difficulties. You come to have faith in practice when you notice that how you experience and act in your life has changed, without you making explicit efforts to do so. You come to have faith in your teachers as your own practice and understanding deepens.
3. Don’t be concerned with results.
As Chekawa wrote in Mind Training in Seven Points, “Forget about results.” Just do the practice. Practice is about training skills and building capacity. When your skills have been refined through practice and when you are able to rest in attention at a high enough level, you experience stuff not as something that you have to do something about, but as movement in mind. It arises and it is experienced. It isn’t something “other.” It doesn’t take you over and you don’t have to do anything with it. In fact, if it feels like anything, it feels like you do nothing at all. You don’t react. You don’t fall into confusion. Something comes and goes. That’s all.
Find a practice that speaks to you. Learn it thoroughly. Do it consistently, so much so that it becomes part of you. When stuff comes up, don’t turn away and don’t try to make the stuff go away. Instead, learn to experience it without falling out of awareness. Over time, things change. What was once incomprehensible becomes clear. What was once impossible happens on its own.
This article originally appeared in the author’s newsletter.
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