Many years ago I had the opportunity to go into a long retreat. As I sat in my cabin all day with nothing to distract me from my mind, I found it too painful not to practice. That’s the beauty of retreat. Where can one go? Because of the intensity of the situation, I was determined to engage my sanity. What that meant to me at the time was to sit up straight and follow my instructions with fervor. But these instructions alone sustained me for only so long. I sought something deeper—a way to enjoy all the experiences I encountered without bias. This positive sense of dissatisfaction pushed me further and I began to ask myself some deeper questions, the first one being: When am I practicing and when am I not? What exactly does it mean to practice? I had to be sure.
We can receive guidance on how to sit in the lotus position and watch our breath, contemplate, visualize, or recite mantras. True, these techniques can support practice, help us focus our mind, or connect us with our innate wisdom. But we probably all know that it is possible to engage in these activities without practicing at all. For this reason, it would be a mistake to view these instructions as the practice itself.
We can receive teachings on the nature of suffering, compassion, or emptiness, but when we sit down to practice, no one can show us how to integrate these teachings. What we end up doing with the wild and unruly character of our thoughts and emotions still remains a question for us. How we bring the practice to life is something personal, and it can’t be taught.
Sometimes we receive a direct transmission from a teacher or have an encounter that has an awakening affect on us. We often get excited about these small awakenings. But how we use these short passing experiences to liberate the mind from confusion presents yet another koan—an open question—for the practitioner.
It dawned on me early on that practice has something to do with how we digest the rich energy of experience: terror, bliss, excitement, pain, boredom—my days were full of such experiences. At the end of each day I wondered if there was anything else left to experience. It turned out there was.
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