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Practice is just Practice

“Sitting peacefully on a cushion day and night seeking to attain Buddhahood, rejecting life and death in hope of realising enlightenment, is all like a monkey grasping at the moon reflected in the water.”Zen Master Shoitsu [1202-1280].

For some students, sitting on that cushion seems to be their best chance of becoming enlightened or awakened. Even experienced practitioners can get caught in the trap of believing that by avoiding any kind of difficulties in life, such as the fear of getting sick, or by ignoring the fact that we are all going to die one day, is the “solution” to their unhappiness or dissatisfaction with their life. Surely if we can avoid all that messy stuff, and just drift serenely through life, that is the path to be on.

Hard lessons

This unfortunately is such a misunderstanding of meditation practice; seeking an escape from the realities of everyday life is not the purpose of meditation practice. I have had numerous students who believed that if they completed a meditation course, learned to sit quietly, breathe correctly and still the mind, that all would be well, their lives would somehow be miraculously transformed, even though outside the meditation hall they had made no substantial changes to how they lived, how they behaved, how they treated others, or how they treated themselves. in their "outer" life they were still fearful, angry, and their relationships were still messy.

Our practice is about seeing our life for what it is, and understanding that if we truly seek change, we have to accept that where we are right now, is where we need to be. That can be a hard lesson to learn, because we naturally resist what makes us unhappy. I always say to students at the beginning of a course, “If all you do is come here for an hour and a half each week for some guided meditation and a lovely cup of tea, I can absolutely guarantee you that nothing in your life will change.”

Stuck on being stuck

It is a tough lesson to learn for students, and not all of them are open to that lesson. Not all of them want to put in the effort to change; sometimes it can just be easier to stay stuck, stay unhappy, angry, jealous, fearful or guilty. When we have been carrying those negative emotions around for a number of years, we know where we are, to the point where we believe that this is who and what we are. “Yes, I’m unhappy, yes, I’m angry, but that’s who I am.” There is almost a perverse comfort in holding on to something that keeps us stuck. To be prepared to put in the work to change who we are, to let go of conditioned thinking, that can be confronting. “What if I become someone different? What will other people think? How will my partner treat me? My children? My friends?” Stepping into the unknown can be terrifying for some people.

And yet we think that if we sit on that cushion, all will be well. A difficult starting point for many students is the letting go of expectation, the hope that if we learn meditation then things will automatically change for us. It isn’t much of a selling point for us to hear that we should not expect that something miraculous to happen, yet this is what a teacher must do. Change will take place as long as we commit ourselves to practice, but when will that change occur? Next week? Next month? Next year? Five years? Ten years?

No one knows. Yet, we have to have that aspiration to practice, the determination to keep going, because the change is very subtle, and often creeps up on us without us even being aware of it. Frequently, it takes a partner, a friend, a family member to point out that we look healthier, younger, we seem more even tempered, happier and less anxious. The benefits of regular meditation practice are numerous, but they generally happen once we have let go of the expectation that change MUST happen if we sit on that cushion.

Sitting is only part of our practice

In time, we come to understand that the cushion is only a small part of the practice. Ultimately, meditation is about how we live our lives. How we treat other others, even those we may have no real connection with; how we respond to those who might dislike us, or even perhaps wish us harm.

We become more mindful of how we behave, how we talk to people, how we treat the planet, and all living beings that live alongside us . Teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh call this “meditation in action”; taking our practice into the “outer” world, the real world that we inhabit. So when we commence practice and believe that we can become happier, calmer people by ignoring the world, and the reality of our own mortality, our teachers have to encourage us to let go of our own selfish desires, and open our awareness to the whole of our lives. in this way, we cultivate our kindness and compassion.

Whether we call it a monkey grasping at the moon’s reflection in the water, or just clutching at straws, we must let go of the desire for enlightenment or something miraculous. The sitting on the cushion is a start – but only a part of our practice. Our practice is the practice itself.

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