Thinking about steadiness in practice reminds me of when I was a little girl and would swim in the great breaking waves of the Pacific coast of Baja California. The surf was ragged, and sometimes treacherous, but for those who were accustomed to its rhythms, it was possible to swim through and around the currents, to bob up from under the fiercest waves. I think a key to this ability was sensing that one was part of the ocean and that to play in it was to let go into the wave, sometimes swimming under, sometimes alongside it. There were days when the ocean was utterly calm and days of wild intensity, and for a child, no matter what, there was that fish-like ease and joy of play.
Perhaps most of us enter meditation practice with the hope of finding that kind of natural joy in our lives, in the hopes of experiencing each moment fully, with the freshness of moment-to-moment awareness. And in the initial stages of our practice, many of us manage to find the quiet space that opens us to our spaciousness and spontaneous nature. Buoyed by this experience, our practice gratifies us and propels us along for a while.
And then the inevitable distraction or doubt or difficulty arises. Whether it is a subtle change in our schedule or a disturbing loss of faith, we lose our footing, drop our practice, and often completely forget for weeks at a time that we even had a meditation practice! And it is so difficult to come back, to actually stop and sit down and practice again.
We know that we should “just do it,” but our ever-subtle and tricky “monkey minds” make that “should” and that “just” infinitely difficult, even interesting, and distracting. Instead of sitting down on our cushion or going to our meditation center, we think and talk and distract ourselves with all the reasons why not to do it. Or we simply “forget” to practice.
Practice is not something we do, it is something we are.
Now if the practice is so good for us, why is it so difficult to maintain a steady practice? It may be that the notion that practice is “good for us” is the very impediment—we all know how we can resist what is good for us at the table, at the gym, and on the Internet. This mechanical notion of practice, “if I practice, then I will be (fill in the blank),” leads to discouragement because it is not true that practice inevitably leads to happiness or anything that we can imagine. Our lives, like the ocean, constantly change, and we will naturally face great storms and dreary lulls.
How, then, to put our minds in a space where practice is always there, whether tumultuous or in the doldrums? It requires a completely radical view of practice: practice is not something we do; it is something we are. We are not separate from our practice, and so no matter what, our practice is present. An ocean swimmer is loose and flows with the current and moves through the tide. When tossed upside-down in the surf, unable to discern which way is up and which is down, the natural swimmer just lets go, breathing out, and follows the bubbles to the surface.
And so it can be with our practice. Seeing our practice as our life, we just let go and do it. We just practice a steadiness in our daily meditation. Without expectations of any kind, we just practice, day in and day out, through the high points and the low. “I really doubt this practice is helping me. Okay, still, it is time to sit, right through this doubt.” Or, “Oh, I didn’t sit all week! Okay, right now I’ll sit for twenty minutes.” And each time we come back to our practice, we experience it as more inherent to our life. Maezumi Roshi, based in Los Angeles, would often use the Spanish expression for “little by little” to indicate this patient quality of practice: “Being one with the practice, you are transformed, poco a poco.”
This understanding of our practice is expressed by the great thirteenth-century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen, when he says that our meditation practice “is not step-by-step meditation; it is simply the dharma gate of peace and joy. It is the practice-enlightenment of the Ultimate Way….When you grasp this, you are like a dragon in water, or a tiger in the mountains.”