It’s really easy to get lost. Some unsatisfactory things in life creep up, and threaten to (or actually) upset the equanimity you feel like you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Maybe it’s a job you don’t like, or your insomnia, or trouble with someone close to you, your loneliness, or the world’s troubles on your doorstep. The world’s troubles are always at our doorstep. Sometimes it might just be a bad day, or a spate of bad days. Sometimes, it’s something really big – someone close to you dies, or you break up with a partner, or you lose a job, or you get really sick.
One of the great things about spiritual practice in general, and the path of life as practice in particular is that you actually really never go backwards, even though it might feel that way. You might feel knocked back into last month, or last year, in terms of practice, but that’s actually an illusion. The Buddha said that practice is like drops of water into a bowl. Every effort you make adds more to the bowl, but none of it goes away (and no, it doesn’t evaporate.)
We can always move forward, and know that the work we’ve done was never in vain. What we do need to do sometimes, is to re-dedicate ourselves when we get lost. Right now, I’m a little lost. But I’ve made a pact with myself – I’m re-dedicating myself to practice, again. For the forty-thousandth time. Really. I mean it. Maybe the forty-thousand three hundred and fifty-fourth time.
We have to do this over, and over, and over. But it’s actually not an indication of failure. It’s realizing, again, that practice is like that rope between the house and the barn in a blizzard (borrowed from Parker Palmer.) It can guide us, and help us to find our way home.
Since I promised a little detail on practice, and I haven’t offered any yet, here’s a taste of what I’ll be re-dedicating myself to:
We are reminded, sometimes all too often, of the brutality in the world. Sometimes, that brutality hits close to home, and other times, it is far distant, out of our sight. Having to acknowledge, over and over (and over, and over) again that human beings can be brutal with one another is painful and difficult. It is hard to accept.
I don’t want to accept that people build bombs, and place them places where they know people will be hurt and killed. I don’t want to accept that people take weapons, and shoot people deliberately. I don’t want to accept that women and children are raped, molested and assaulted every day. Worse yet, sometimes this brutality is either done in my name, or done with my complicity, or my tax dollars. I don’t want to have to accept that, either. I don’t want to accept any of it, none of it at all.
But of course, I must accept this as true, because it is what is. This is not to say that by accepting it I condone it, or think it is right, or proper. This is not to say that because I accept it, I will do nothing to change it. This is just to say I must accept it, because it is what is, and unless I can accept what is, I will find no peace, and no end to my own suffering.
Just like we must hold ourselves with great gentleness and compassion, we need to hold others, and the hurting world, with the same compassion. And, we need to hold the perpetrators with compassion, too. That one is really hard. It’s hard to find compassion for someone who has done something we find deeply abhorrent. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold that person responsible and accountable for what they did. It just means that we have compassion, because we must remember that any brutality is born of suffering.
Many, many people, in different traditions, phrased in different ways, have said this same basic thing over many millennia, including both Jesus and the Buddha. Violence only begets violence. The only way out of a cycle of violence is love. The only response to violence that will end it is compassion.
And it’s OK, if you can’t accept it. Allow that you can’t accept it now. Give yourself the space to be angry or frightened (or both.) Don’t fight those emotions, because they are also what is. And perhaps, over time, you will be able to accept what is, and respond with compassion. And then, the world will be different.
(This was actually meant to be post #3, but the events of the day suggested to me that I write this today. I will spend at least two posts on actual practices that I have found to be really helpful in my journey.)
I was asked recently by a significant person in my life: what is my passion? I have many passions, of course. I have a passion for learning, and a passion for writing. I have a passion for play of all kinds (not so much involving my body and mostly involving electronic equipment of some sort, although I do love to do artsy-craftsy things on occasion, and enjoy a good wrestle or kite-fly once in a while.) These passions change in relative importance in my life, although all of these have been important for pretty much all of my life, even as a kid (not so much the writing–that passion arrived in college.)
But above all of these varied passions has arrived one overarching passion. A passion that has been with me pretty soon after I understood what spiritual practice was. I have a deep, abiding passion to use everything in my life (and I mean everything) in the service of my spiritual practice.
I don’t quite know exactly which moment this became true. In some ways, it’s been with me a long time. I think I would have said as a young adult that I wanted to learn from every experience. This passion isn’t quite that. It’s not really about just learning from experience, although in some ways, one can’t help but learn from experience if one is committed to life as practice.
One of the things this involves is a willingness to dive deeply into questions about why I behave the way I behave, and why I react to things the way I do. And it’s not about judging that behavior or reaction – it’s just about knowing it and understanding it. And alongside of that, there is the willingness to hold that reaction or behavior (meaning, really, holding myself) with acceptance, compassion and gentleness.
So this is where it gets interesting, right? How can you hold your own behavior that is in some ways problematic with acceptance, compassion and gentleness without feeling like you are in some way fostering it?
That’s actually, to my mind, one of the places where life as practice is the deepest and richest. If there is something we do that we don’t like (eat too much sugar, drink too much alcohol, are too quick to anger, etc.) how is greeting that behavior with acceptance, compassion and gentleness going to help change it? The ironic part is that we actually can’t really change the behavior until we fully accept that we do it, and understand where it comes from.
Today, I was really grumpy. The electricity went out this morning, and I had a bunch of conference calls and work to do, and I had to camp out at a local cafe to get my work done. It was unexpected and uncomfortable. And I was grumpy. And the more I didn’t like that I was grumpy, the more grumpy I got. Finally, I said to myself “OK, I’m grumpy. I’ll just be grumpy.” And my mood lifted, and I’m not grumpy anymore.
This is a really minor example of a state that doesn’t really generally have any negative ramifications, except perhaps some minor affect on some people who happen to be in my presence. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Take anything you don’t like about what you do, and notice how you feel about it. Notice the knots of resistance to that thing. Notice the circles (and circles, and circles) of self-judgement about it. Those circles of self-judgement mostly serve to shield you from the core of what moves you to do that thing. Open it up and let the air in. Don’t judge. Cut yourself slack, look at yourself with the gentleness you would a child, or a kitten, or puppy or <insert favorite baby being here.>
I’m not saying this is easy. Life as spiritual practice is a sh*t ton of work, honestly. Sometimes, the most infuriating thing about it is that it never gets easier. But the rewards are, in my experience, totally worth the work. Removing circles of judgment means joy can make its way in a lot easier. You actually do change, in ways that are positive, both for yourself and those around you. And you keep learning (over and over) to accept what is, because, really, what is is all there is, even if we’d rather that not be true.
I’ll be exploring more of this in the next few blog posts because, well, it’s my passion.