Q. I have noticed that I carry around with me different ideas or conceptual frameworks of what I am trying to do. I have also noticed that my approach can chop and change. Sometimes it may be an emphasis on metta, at other times it may be about being aware of the body, the ten precepts, or sometimes just knowing my experience. Whatever my emphasis, I usually find it helpful. I have been wondering if I am proceeding correctly. Perhaps what I am doing is just making use of the range of skilful means available to me, which are all doors into the dharma so this alternation doesn't matter. But sometimes I feel like I lose a sense of what I am doing, I wonder if there is a danger of becoming a jack of all trades but master of none. I would value any suggestions you may have in this area.
A. There is nothing wrong with having various perspectives to contemplate or reflect upon. But I believe it is important that beyond this you have one main form of meditation practice that will firmly anchor you and provide the stability of practice that is crucial. Although we do have a specific meditation practice to nurture, it can be very useful to wander around and explore, hopefully in a spirit of enquiry and playfulness. Especially off the cushion. This spirit of openness helps us not to get too bogged down, and, importantly, helps us not to be always taking ourselves so seriously. It is very easy to fall into the trap that you must somehow fulfill your main practice at all costs, and as quickly as possible, that to divert is a sign of weakness or lack of commitment. As long as whatever you are contemplating is an aspect of Dharma, then you cannot ever be off the path. But always see these wonderings as a supplement to the form of practice that you are committed to. I am aware that a lot of practitioners don't have a specific form of practice as their main focus but rather have a variety of options and choose whichever one they think is appropriate at any given time. If changing meditation practices is done with a teacher who suggests picking an option, then that is fine. But from my experience most practitioners make the choice themselves, and often for unskilful reasons, for example: not getting anywhere, boredom, not in the right mood, etc. It is my understanding and experience that authentic understanding and change comes from learning to stay with a very specific form of practice without diversion, usually for years. It is often the case that change takes place not because of the specific practice being cultivated, but rather through developing the ability to stay with one practice.
Q. In my practice of mindfulness off the cushion I find that even though my intention is to be mindful throughout the day, there are whole chunks of my day that just drift by in un-mindfulness and unawareness. Can you advise on how to become more consistently awake during the day? How can I remember to be present more often?
A. Having commitment to the practice, being willing to take this commitment into the whole of your life, without picking and choosing, gives you the platform necessary for your innate, shining, perfect awareness to be more present. I believe it is unskilful to think that the purpose of our practice is somehow to be aware all the time. This notion will set up a tension, so when we believe that we are not aware enough in our day, then we are failing and we begin to develop negativity. I believe authentic change and genuine understanding takes place within the framework of commitment. Commitment to come back to ourselves whenever we catch ourselves wandering off into distractions, not being perfectly aware. The commitment to come back, and to come back, over and over again, with awareness of what is in front of us, is, I believe, the key to change. Practice is not about perfecting awareness! If you attach to that concept you will soon become downhearted and negative about yourself and your teachers, as this will never be achieved. 'Perfection' is nothing more than a figment of the human imagination. The great ideal of perfect awareness should be seen as something to aspire to, rather than to achieve. A valuable lesson can be learnt from contemplating this most important spiritual paradox. Simply remember, and remind yourself continually, that cultivating wholehearted commitment to practice in the four postures is the key to making yourself more awake.
Q. Given that the Pure Awareness practice is meant to be a practice that one is constantly engaged with, if you find that other than managing it perhaps during a formal period of sitting, one isn't managing to do it, then is one better off giving up on it altogether and sticking with more straightforward practices such as Sati and Metta?
A. If I were to give up a particular practice I am sure it would be because it didn't feel like the right practice for me. Rather than not simply being successful at it. If it doesn't feel right for you, then fine. But if you are looking for success as a criterion, then I'm not so sure about it. All forms of practice need commitment and the ability to stay with the forces that we need to stay with, as we learn to grow into something we are totally unfamiliar with. It is from this ability to grow into a practice that the changes we all desire take place. In your question you are comparing practices that may have quite sharp philosophical differences, and this is where your own disposition plays a big part, and what inspires you to take up a particular practice. With reference to the pure awareness practice, what is important to understand is that it pays no attention to any specific posture, but rather sees all of one's life as a 'seamless' whole. I hope you are practising with a teacher, for to bring pure awareness practice to the whole of your life will not be possible without one.
Q. Can spiritual practice (Meditation, Being in the Now, etc.) in itself ever be enough to deliver insight? When I hear people speak so often about their spiritual practice, and even spiritual experiences, they sound very 'self-seeking' and seem to be caught up in the movement of time. Does true transformative practice need to be based in spiritual vision that has seen through the world to a certain extent, and a consequential letting go of it? If so, if one hasn't reached this point, can any amount of practice ever deliver anything substantial beyond giving the practitioner more 'stuff' with which to create an identity?
A. If people are really 'self-seeking', then the whole process of practice becomes extremely questionable. If they really are in this state of mind, then all that is going to change is their ego as it becomes ever more deluded and entrenched. Actually, people in this state of 'practice' will never really ever enter the transforming process anyway. One of the greatest traps that we westerners fall into is that in our desire for change, it is the self itself that needs to do the changing. If we understand Dharma to be like this, then it is extremely doubtful that any sort of meaningful change could ever take place. It is crucial to be able to tell the difference between doing something in order to gain and performing 'skillful means'; skilful means encourage and lead us to letting go, not only of the delusion of 'me and mine', but also of the 'skillful means' itself, which is helping us to let go. There is yet another form of practice that doesn't even encourage working with any of the Buddhist 'skillful means' at all, but rather points straight to letting go of our attachments. I don't believe it is possible to engage correctly with any form of practice without a teacher, at least a teacher that has guided us for a good few years. We will inevitably get it wrong, as we are so conditioned into doing something in order to get something in return. Spiritual practice is paradoxical, with spiritual understanding even more so. We need to see that although there is an apparent 'self-seeking', 'doing' motivation, we are in fact always nurturing the spirit of letting the practice go – we are not being deceived into attaching to the practice. This apparent contradiction can only be guarded against with the skilful engagement of a teacher who sees these dangers.