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Nurturing and Supporting Our Practice

By | 12/7/2022
The following is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Annual Old Student Meeting at Dhamma Patapa, Georgia by Center Teacher, Bruce Stewart on November 12, 2022.

Good morning all…it's a joy and pleasure to be sharing this precious space with you. As we look around, we can see and feel that we are in “good company.” Dhamma friends walking on a path together!

My intent is not to talk “at you,” and load you with information. Rather, I look at it like a sharing among friends. And like any good conversation, my motivation here is to stimulate thought and reflection. In this same spirit, you will have the opportunity to further explore and share your thoughts with your fellow Dhamma friends in group discussions after this talk.

This spirit of sharing in Dhamma can’t be overemphasized. The Buddha said emphatically that “friends on the Path” are critical for our progress. He didn’t just mean ”fellow meditators,” but “fellow meditators to discuss and explore the Dhamma with.” We could view the Buddha and the teacher as “spiritual friends” in this sense.

And we can view each other as Dhamma friends by developing open and honest relationships that support our growth and practice. So take the opportunity in your small groups to authentically share your thoughts and experience with each other.

Looking back from the vantage point of my 45 years of practice, I can see that while my initial motivations to meditate and my first steps on the path were maybe a bit naive, I also recognize that there have been many stages in my experience, understanding and development in the Dhamma. It has certainly not always been clear sailing. There were, of course, the inevitable struggles—the very typical ups and downs of a beginner, for example, which are common to us all.

That's not to say that the ups and downs are only at the beginning stages, of course. But while my own progress has sometimes felt slow, I can see that there has been a progressive, even at times profound change for the better in myself.

And in my teaching experience, I have noticed similar stages and rhythms of practice and progress in students, or practitioners as I prefer to say. I can identify some common areas where practitioners in this tradition struggle in their understanding.

This often results in confusion, which can turn into a cascading sense of feeling stuck and plateauing in practice. Many of us will probably be familiar with the sense of taking a few steps forward—but also maybe a few back, and maybe even the feeling that one has tried so hard but made no tangible progress. All this can seem overwhelming and lead to a loss of inspiration and faith.

This might be due to the fact that our practice has deteriorated into rote body scans and gotten stale without our realizing it. We go through the motions with a slightly bored mind that has lost its sharp awareness of the object of our practice, vedāna—the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral tone of sensation—which fades into background fuzz. We might think we’re being equanimous but maybe we’re really just not feeling much. 

But that’s not the only reason. And whatever the reason, confusion and feeling that one is trying hard but making no progress can easily lead to doubt. Skeptical doubt, one of the hindrances (nivārana), or five enemies, is understandably viewed as a negative state of mind where one spins one’s wheels, resulting in a spiral into feelings of hopelessness and disillusionment. We lose faith, maybe even want to give up.

However, if seen through a different lens, doubt can, in fact, be the very catalyst we need for deeper understanding to take root. We can harness productive doubt in the service of inquiry. If we dis-illusion ourselves about what we had previously understood to be true about our practice, and/or ourselves, we can explore the new ground that opens up to us.

So, hidden within the space of a question, or not knowing, lies the opportunity for deeper wisdom to arise. This renewed sense of inquiry can build confidence and dispel skeptical doubt. This is one place where Dhamma friends can be of so much help to us.

Perhaps just as important as putting the brakes on disillusionment with our practice, a spirit of inquiry helps us uncover any complacency that may have crept into our Dhamma life. Anyone who feels, “I’m good, I understand what I need to keep me going until the final goal,” has a long, long way to go.

I've come to see too, that development on the Path is far from a linear progression. Because our progress doesn’t always go in a straight line upwards, we might become frustrated or angry at ourselves if we feel it’s staying flat, or even going downhill. When this happens, the tendency is to blame. Blame the technique, blame the teacher, blame the situation…

…But usually it’s ourselves that we blame the most. Sound familiar? If so, join the club! By recognizing this tendency if we have it, we can begin to rise above judgmental, self-critical views and incorporate them into our spirit of inquiry.

My hope is that by acknowledging and opening up the topic of nurturing and supporting our practice, we can better realize one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, samma sankappa, that is “right” or “wise” Intention.

So that is what I want to focus on today, proactive and creative ways to understand, nurture and support our practice.

Towards this end, I have divided this talk up into three parts:

The first part of the talk will address normalizing our practice. In one sense, of course, Dhamma practice is so incredibly precious, unlike anything else in life. But in another, it’s really nothing special. By that I mean, developing skills on the Path is no different than the dynamics of developing skill in any mundane field of endeavor. We’ll examine this notion in more detail.

The second part of today’s talk will focus on exploring our practice. We will look at how students can veer off track in the way they practice with one of the core elements of Goenkaji's teachings.

In the third part, I will talk about the importance of taking ownership of our practice, and looking at ways to nurture it.


Normalizing Our Practice

As many in this room know, our initial experience with the practice can be deeply profound, affirming and life-changing as we glimpse the potential to live a happier, peaceful and more meaningful life. It can also feel very exciting! This excitement, intermingled with grandiose ideas of ways we can positively change our lives, can almost feel giddy at first–a bit like falling deeply in love!

Taking this analogy a step further, we know that rarely can couples maintain this euphoric stage, as the more complex aspects of human behavior inevitably become part of the relationship.

Clinging to the excitement and pleasure of giddy beginnings inevitably leads to heartache, serial relationships, a lack of commitment, and hurt.

However, apart from the enjoyable excitement, the honeymoon phase has another, more important up-side. It sets the stage for a much deeper, long-lasting relationship that can nurture genuine trust and companionship if the partners commit. It has the chance to become an unconditional love that maybe was not even envisioned by couples willing to take the plunge beyond their giddy beginning.

Dhamma practice is much the same. Just like in committed relationships, we have to avoid clinging to the initial excitement, and commit to facing the inevitable hard stuff that comes with this territory. We are, after all, very ordinary humans, so the hard stuff will surely come! But over time comes even more deep, long-lasting, really good stuff as well!

There can be yet another subtle and seductive danger in clinging to the initial "falling-in-love'' stage of our practice. Because our initial understanding of the practice and the Dhamma is certainly restricted and narrow, we might build expectations that are either unrealistic, or conversely, we end up cementing in artificial limits in our approach to the practice, and our understanding of the Dhamma in our lives. 

And I can’t emphasize enough that our practice should not be used as a vehicle for avoiding difficulty, or becoming numb to life’s challenges—whether we do it intentionally, or it remains an unexamined motivation.

Using our spiritual practice to justify indifference and avoidance is known as spiritual by-pass. Mistaking indifference or avoidance for equanimity and spiritual neutrality is a sign of regress on the Path, not progress. For lay meditators, following the Path should result in greater creativity and engagement with life, which by definition includes both ups and down—as Goenka-ji says, the “Art of Living.”

Then in terms of developing on the Path, Dhamma practice is like learning anything, from tying shoelaces to mastering a craft or profession. If we don't believe we have the ability to learn something no matter how hard we try, we won't put the necessary time and effort into developing our skills.

And it’s also similar in another way. Recently I was at a memorial gathering for a neighbor. While there, I met a professional musician, and being an amateur musician myself, we struck up a conversation about music. I revealed to him that I had stopped playing for some time because I felt stuck in a rut—playing the same old riffs that were familiar and comfortable, but not expanding my repertoire or developing musically. Surprisingly to me, he proceeded to describe his own “stuckness,” which he still experiences even after decades of successful performance as a professional musician!

The point here is that getting stuck or plateauing is a natural and normal part of musical development for amateurs or professionals alike. It’s not only normal, but in fact is the very catalyst one needs to grow. It’s the basis for taking risks towards achieving a higher level of performance. Even the great Yo Yo Ma still practices to improve, to move beyond his already extraordinary skills into even more sublime musical dimensions.

It’s important to not only acknowledge but also willingly embrace the inevitable challenges of developing skillfully in our Dhamma practice, and the need to periodically change and grow, which culminates in an increasingly subtler exploration and experience.

There’s also another close similarity between learning a craft and practicing the Dhamma. Mastering any skill requires lots and lots of dedicated practice before it becomes integrated. All of our parents probably told us that “practice makes perfect” at one time or another. And while it may not ever really make “perfect,” lots of practice is how the human brain develops and integrates new skills. It’s part of the growth process we should all expect. When you think about it, our meditation is called a “practice.” So we shouldn’t be too surprised about all this!

In our meditation practice, we are learning to see in different ways to understand how we create our own suffering, and how to transcend it. We have to practice these ways over and over and over again before they become integrated into a new way of being and knowing in the world…that eventually culminates in wisdom (vijja ñana).

Those of us who were born in western cultures are conditioned to being in a hurry and wanting quick gratification. This can spill over into our Dhamma work. We might arbitrarily decide that we’ve practiced enough so that we should be seeing certain results by that point. If we don’t, we suffer.

The musical analogy can be extended to what mastery in our Dhamma practice looks like, too. Consider a professional saxophonist playing in a first-rate jazz ensemble at Carnegie Hall. They have carefully studied music theory and practiced for thousands of hours, yet when playing in that concert, there is no thought that this note is a B flat, or a D seventh, or where their fingers should be going, or how to blow into the reed to get perfect pitch.

The musician integrates it all into seamless beauty, playing from a place of deep knowing and experience, allowing the music to flow effortlessly. Similarly, the beginning stages of our meditation practice are more effortful and deliberate, but we keep practicing, and progressively, given sufficient dedication and time, it develops into an effortless, integrated, and increasingly deepening practice, and wisdom.

So it’s important to acknowledge that in the beginning of our Dhamma life, there will naturally be a certain amount of struggle and efforting, and that our struggles may not end there.

We just have to keep going, keep practicing, not with clenched teeth and armed for battle, but in the spirit of openness and inquiry. As we practice and open more, our integration of Dhamma deepens, which in turn opens up new areas for growth.

And if our struggles don’t end when we’d like them to or think they should–that’s ok, too! We need to be kind and patient with ourselves. This is so critical!

It’s important to keep in mind, too, that our Dhamma journey operates on both the sublime and mundane levels. We might feel we must always have our eyes raised to the sublime, or ultimate reality, that we try to understand everything in life through that big perspective.

In one sense, yes, that's the practice. But on the other hand, if our eyes are raised up high all the time, we might not see the stones or pieces of glass we're about to step on at our feet, or the hole we're about to fall into. As lay practitioners, we live in the conventional world, and we need to fully occupy our place in it — but with wisdom, born from the fruit of our practice.

The Buddha illustrates this balancing act between conventional and ultimate reality when he uses the phrase “thus he trains himself,” for example, in his teachings on ānapāna, a practice which itself leads to full liberation. This may seem contradictory: Doesn’t full liberation in part mean the experience of not-self, or anattā? So what’s this “he trains himself” all about?

But this can easily be resolved. The Buddha is simply illustrating that while there is ultimately no abiding self to be found, there is a self in the moment trying to realize that fact!

It’s crucial to lovingly embrace our many “selfs” and their complexities–both good and bad–in our daily life of relative truth. They are certainly not going away anytime soon! In this way, we help avoid the slippery slope of spiritual by-pass.

Understanding that the Buddha refers to development on the Path up to the first stage of Enlightenment, or Sotapanna, as a “gradual training,” and by normalizing our practice, we can relax and let the Path unfold and ripen according to our accumulation of merits (parami) and the degree of our effort (viriya).

 

Exploring Our Practice

It can be very helpful to continue to study and reflect on the Dhamma, especially with Dhamma friends. We often find that in conversation with friends, we see that others struggle like we do but maybe discovered something that helped. They might also understand differently in ways that resonate with us.

Looking at what we understand about Dhamma concepts is a valuable way to explore our practice. I’d like to take a few minutes here to illustrate what I mean by this.

In ten-day courses, Goenkaji talks about developing on the Path in terms of both “eradicating impurities (asavas)” and “cultivating wisdom (pañña).” He further refines the teaching as the course progresses, specifically referring to “eradicating saṅkhāras.” So continuing to try to understand saṅkhāras more deeply—and then skillfully deal with the—is obviously a very important aspect of our tradition’s meditation technique. 

However, I’ve noticed that some students distort their practice around a misunderstanding of saṅkhāra. They either get stuck in an initial, simple understanding of this complex concept, or warp it to fit their personal—and perhaps unexamined—motivation for meditating.

One thing some of us do is grab on too tightly to the idea of eradicating saṅkhāras, thinking of them just as impurities. But an interest in learning more would reveal that saṅkhāras are actually anything that gets created—or fabricated—in the world of mind and matter. 

A saṅkhāra can be a huge thing or insignificant, wholesome or a hindrance. A thought about chocolate cake is a saṅkhāra, as are thoughts of mettā. An emotional storm of terror is a saṅkhāra as is the upwelling joy one feels at the birth of a child. An intense pain in the back is saṅkhāra, as is a ticklish itch on the tip of your nose. Even the self that’s thinking about what a saṅkhāra is, is a saṅkhāra! 

In other words, literally everything! Goenkaji’s teaching is to observe saṅkhāras as they manifest, not just particular saṅkhāras, not valuing some over others.

But we’re on the lookout just for certain kinds of saṅkhāras, especially if our real motivation to meditate is to “deal with our stuff.” So we just focus on “the big stuff,” or even just “the very big, hard stuff.” With this mindset, we start practicing with the intention that that kind of stuff will come up so we can be rid of it.

This distorted perspective inevitably leads to an even bigger problem: we insinuate a goal-oriented bias into our practice. Being heavily goal-oriented about our practice both on the cushion and off can easily throw us into imbalance.

If the goal of “eliminating this or that saṅkhāra” is reached, we become more attached to the process and grab on tighter; if it isn't, we can easily become frustrated, confused and disillusioned, and our entire perspective on our practice can get distorted. Of course, we will at times inevitably experience not reaching our goal, or not getting rid of our “stock” as Goenkaji says. The tighter we have been grabbing on to our expectation, the more frustrated, confused or disillusioned with the practice we become.

This was brought home to me when a student on a recent course plaintively asked, “How do I know how many more saṅkhāras I have to eradicate?” While this turned into a rather comical moment, it illustrates how our thinking can get distorted even when we think we are practicing “in the right way.” It's important we do not hardwire mistaken notions into our practice. A discerning mind is essential.

Finally, we can get so blinded by an outsized focus on eliminating certain kinds of saṅkhāras in our practice that it elbows everything else aside, including the equally crucial element of progress on the Path — developing wisdom about the empty nature of all saṅkhāras.

So again, keeping an inquiring mind about what we’re doing, and why, can help keep our practice on track, deepen our understanding, and reveal more of the vast, rich world of Dhamma to us. It also requires us to learn more about our real motivations for practicing, which leads me to the final part of my talk.


Nurturing and Taking Ownership

Knowing the value of exploring our practice connects directly to the question of how to best nurture and take ownership of it.

I’d like to address the “taking ownership” part first. If we don’t take ownership of our practice, we may well be driven by hidden or unexamined motives, as I suggested above. That will undermine our ability to nurture our practice.

Our intention may well be wholesome and true to ourselves. But it also could be subtly counterproductive. Taking ownership basically means understanding our motivations.

At this point it might be helpful to name some fairly common unskillful beliefs, motives and perspectives that hide in the background and can potentially prevent us from taking ownership of our practice. Maybe you can even think of others beyond these.

  • The first four on my list are closely related, sort of variations on a theme having to do with our relationship to our wonderful teacher, tradition and Dhamma community. One of these is blindly accepting the teaching and teacher without question, along with the shared memes of the community. Now of course, faith is very important. However, blind faith results in an unwillingness to bring a discerning mind to bear on our practice. Goenkaji, himself, strongly warns against blind belief and an undiscerning mind! Plus, if we don’t realize Dhamma truths for ourselves, what good does it do us to plant a flag in the ground of insisting that whatever our teacher says must be true?
  • Another of these related issues is ticking the box of “it’s universal, pure and non-sectarian Dhamma” without deep reflection on exactly what that means. Now, if we understand this in a discriminating way, it can really strengthen our faith and perseverance. However, if it’s just a belief to cling to, it can lead to a subtle, yet seductive conversion to a blind adherence to dogma. Again, we lose sight of our discerning mind in favor of rigidity and even self-righteousness.

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  • This third one in this grouping is a variation of the first two: cultivating an attitude of exceptionalism. That is, we believe we practice in the only true way. Besides the same pitfalls as the first two issues, this perspective easily gives rise to a feeling of superiority in oneself, separation from and condescension towards practitioners in other spiritual traditions, and generates disharmony. It turns the Buddha’s Path of wisdom and liberation into a Path of clinging and ego inflation.
  • The last of these four is quite seductive: being comforted by a community of fellow believers. This can obviously be a wonderful thing! But the strong desire to belong can easily lead to “group-think” and limited investigation. Belonging to this sweet community may become the reason we practice, instead of developing wisdom, exploring the Dhamma, and becoming liberated. 
  • So the first four are quite closely connected. The next five are similarly related. They are variations on the theme of having a limiting perspective on how we approach the practice. They prevent us from engaging with the incredible richness, depth and beauty of the Dhamma. The first of these is thinking that we already have the practice down and have enough understanding of Dhamma that we don’t need to explore it more. This keeps us stuck at the shallow end of the pool. Not only that, our understanding could be wrong.
  • Connected to this is viewing the practice as just “a technique,” which channels the scope of our practice, and the benefits we derive from it, in limiting and rigid ways.
  • The next of these is focusing on the quantity of our time on the cushion as opposed to the quality of the wisdom we develop from it.
  • Then sometimes we might conflate the codified policies and procedures of a Center and the Organization with actual Buddha Dhamma. Then we no longer keep our eye on the ball, and start to “sweat the small stuff,” as they say.
  • The last of this particular grouping is mistakenly thinking that equanimity is the goal of our practice. Yes, it’s important, but there is so much more to Dhamma theory and practice!
  • Then we have two issues that obviously wrap our practice around a core of craving and ego inflation. One is focusing on getting a “Vipassana badge” to impress the teacher and fellow practitioners.
  • The other is practicing really seriously because deep down, we want to become a course/center Manager, Assistant Teacher or Full Teacher.

Then once we’ve taken ownership of our practice, we are in a better position to nurture it.

One important way to nurture our practice involves uncovering our relationship to “desire.” I’d like to take a moment to unpack this word in relation to our practice, as there may be more to it than it first appears.

The Path leads towards a state that is empty of all craving, that is the ultimate goal. But we should not confuse the ultimate goal with where we are here and now, as ordinary householders!

Being free from craving does not happen instantly. Remember, we are not trying to be “perfect meditators.” Rather, progress results from balanced and skilful efforts in Dhamma practice and understanding. 

We already know a lot about the desires that aren’t healthy in our lives. Of course, if we ever are plagued by an unwholesome sense-desire, berating ourselves, thinking “I shouldn’t have this desire anymore, why can’t I get rid of it, I’ve been sitting so many courses, what’s wrong with me?!” — that would not be productive at all. We’d just be firing up the inner critic and digging a new hole to get ourselves stuck in. We just need to patiently work with it, knowing it’s ultimately anicca, anattā and dukkha like all other fabricated things.

That said, is all desire really “craving?” Are there some desires that are wholesome?

Some of us might have a knee-jerk reaction to that question, thinking, “Goodness no, the Buddha teaches that desire can never be good!” But the fact is that the Buddha encourages us to cultivate wholesome desires when he exhorts us to “strive for liberation.” If we didn’t desire to develop on the Path in some way or other, we likely would never go back to sitting on our cushion. Or what about when we practice mettā, and desire that all beings be free from suffering? 

It’s not “desire” that is bad. Desire based in the hindrances and that leads to clinging, suffering and increased selfing is bad.

Thinking from this different perspective, we can understand that trying to impulsively avoid all desires can even be counterproductive. Rather, we should examine our mind when desire arises, and understand it first in its true nature as a transitory phenomenon. From there we can decide whether it is wholesome or not, and then whether acting on it would be wholesome or not, whether it would lead to more, or less, suffering for ourselves and others. Then we act, or not, accordingly.

In fact, more important than any philosophical question about the nature of desire is this most critical question to ask ourselves as we negotiate our complicated lives: Will the action I take–or decide not to take–lead to more or less dukkha for myself and others?

Circling back to where I started this section of the talk, I want to emphasize the importance of knowing what motivates our practice. I’d like to suggest that you take a quiet moment to deeply reflect on your most authentic and deepest desire, because desire underlies any motivation to act.

You might ask yourself, “What exactly is it that brings me to practice?” Knowing your answer to this question has a huge impact on understanding what has unfolded in your practice up to that point, how it is unfolding now, and how it will unfold from that point on. If we honestly consider our motivating desire about where we want to go in our practice and why, we can then examine the arc of our practice and see if they match.

It’s also important to remember that our motivations to practice may well change over time. So what you find now when you look may not be the same when you look again at some future point. Nonetheless, whatever our desire/motivation is at any given point in time shapes and channels where our practice goes.

Can we sense when our desire is wholesome and our inquiry authentic? For example, the joys of service and belonging to a thriving Dhamma community are wonderful and fulfilling to be sure. But what is the desire behind that? Is it truly a Dhamma desire, or one or more of the unskillful beliefs, motives and perspectives I listed earlier? We have to be careful not to just carelessly fall back on Dhamma platitudes like, “I want all beings to benefit from Dhamma!”

Honesty with ourselves is essential. No one else will ever know what our true desire is unless we tell them. So since it’s private, and it is there directing our practice anyway, why not shine a light there and acknowledge what is? Only then can we truly nurture and support our practice. 

If an honest inquiry into our desire yields a wholesome answer, how wonderful! And if it yields an answer that we aren’t so proud of, that’s great too, in its own way! For now we know. We can still serve and practice in that case, we don’t have to give it all up, but we can also work towards cultivating a more wholesome desire about our practice. 

And even if we do not immediately know our answers to these deep questions, we can lightly drop them into our consciousness and patiently await a response from within. There’s no rush—just holding the questions is enough.

Having a broad view of our Dhamma practice is very helpful, even if it’s a bit blurry at first. It sets the stage for not only how we approach our daily sittings, but also how we integrate what we learn into our everyday lives.

Besides exploring your desires, you can explore your thinking in other ways. You might ask yourself, “Do I have deep wonder, awe and love for the Dhamma? Do I sense its unlimited possibilities?” Perhaps you’ll uncover a limiting thought like. “Oh it's such a long path, I’ll never get there,” lurking in the background, or “I'm already a good person so I can just coast along for the ride,” or maybe, “I sit twice a day and go to retreats every year, so I’m all set from a Dhamma perspective.”

A comforting way to nurture your practice if you ever do feel stuck or even regressing is to reflect on all the efforts you have made in your Dhamma journey so far.

Have a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude to yourself for simply showing up and be willing to squarely face the inner critic and the inevitable ups and downs that come our way as part of the practice.

This appreciation, caring and softening of the heart is so important! It can lessen the push-and-pull and grind of it all, and rekindle inspiration.

As I mentioned briefly near the start of my talk this morning, skillfully nurturing and supporting our practice connects directly to samma sankappa, right or wise Intention. So it’s a really important facet of our practice.

I’d like to briefly bring this section of the talk full circle, back to the importance of taking ownership. On Day-11, in the last discourse of a ten-day course, Goenkaji brings this point home when he emphatically challenges us with the words, “You are your own master…you have to work out your own salvation.” Friends, if we are at all serious about taking ownership and developing on the Path, we need to take these words deeply into our hearts.

Before I close, I’d like us to reflect for a minute on the practice and development of mettā, or lovingkindness. Mettā is without doubt a critical component of our practice, as important as anything else we can do. When we practice mettā, we first generate it for ourselves, and then for all beings, who share in our collective suffering.

This naturally develops into a feeling of gratitude for all who have helped us, in particular Gotama the Buddha, who uncovered this sublime path that leads us to the final goal, but also our teachers, supportive Dhamma friends, even those not practicing Dhamma who support us in our life in whatever way.

We are all like plants, sprouting, growing and maturing—leaning away from darkness and towards the light.

An empathetic, heartfelt, accepting and loving attitude towards ourselves and all beings is the fertile ground we cultivate in order to take progressive steps on this Noble Eightfold Path.

I hope I realized the intention I had for this talk, which I said at the beginning was to stimulate thought and reflection. And now it’s over to you to ponder all of this, spice it up with some warm mettā, and talk about it in your small groups with your Dhamma brothers and sisters.

In other words — develop your own wisdom!

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