Although I’ve been reluctant to ever speak of stages or steps in our practice, it might be useful to describe two dimensions of practice, two sides that may occupy the foreground or background to different degrees in different times. What we usually foreground is when we tell people in beginners’ instruction, that sitting is like sitting down in front of a mirror. Your face automatically appears and it’s the mirror that’s doing all the work. You can’t do it right or wrong. You’re simply there looking at what emerges and watching your reaction to it.
I think that probably for most of us the majority of the time over many many years we’ll be engaged at that level of simply trying to stay honestly present with what emerges moment after moment and noticing our aversion to a great deal of it. That aversion will manifest in terms of self-judgment, shame, anxiety, attempts to control our mind or get lost in distractions. It’s very easy, as I’ve written about, to turn practice into a secret practice of fixing up what we see in the mirror, buffing up our self-image to remove all the parts that we don’t like and try to create something idealized and spiritual. But the real work for practice for most of us is being able to spend long hours sitting and experiencing those parts of ourselves that we see in the mirror that we came to practice to eliminate.
I would say that gradually we may be aware of a different dimension in practice -- we might call it emergence property that comes out of the first -- that as we spend a lot of time simply leaving ourselves alone and learning to stand that, we can develop a habit of being present that gradually becomes self-reinforcing. We find that we don’t reflexively avoid being present to ourselves. We find that maybe we can sit here without distraction, maybe we can sit here without thinking all the time -- am I there yet? Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Am I doing it right?
Gradually we can just get tired of those judgments and questions and efforts and then we might find ourselves in just those few moments in any given sitting, just sitting, having the experience of our body breathing, and that not being a step towards anything in particular, but just being the moment as it is, nothing particularly special about it. In many ways it’s more the absence of something than the presence of something. We might find ourselves more and more willing and able just to stay with the body and the breath just because that is in fact what’s happening, we’re sitting and we’re breathing. And in doing that we’re not accomplishing anything. We’ve simply stopped running away from ourselves or running towards something that we’ve set up on the horizon, something that we’ve been chasing in our mind for all these years in the name of spirituality.
If we just sit, we find ourselves really just sitting for its own sake, for the sake of sitting. It’s sort of an odd thing to do. And yet we may also find that in unpredictable ways, that generalizes to the rest of our life where we may be asking ourselves questions about what is the meaning of what am I doing, what’s it for, what’s it add up to? And usually practice will organize itself around, again, two kinds of themes, one of which is very grounded simply in the activity of being present for its own sake, in a similar way that our life is simply lived for its own sake, whatever its content, we just do the next thing and have that experience. But we also might find ourselves, when we move out of a self-centered preoccupation with how am I doing, and move out of a preoccupation with perfecting ourselves and becoming enlightened as an antidote to our perpetual self-hate, we might get organized towards something we think of as compassion, or serving others, or serving a higher cause, something like justice, democracy, peace.
And here again we often have to go through a long process where we sort out the experience of doing these things for their own sake, for the sake of our whole-hearted participation in them, versus whatever outcome we think we’re going to bring about or whatever doing those things contributes to our self image as a good person. Because in the long run, any cause we dedicate ourselves to is likely to be, not unattainable, but to be subject to many, many factors out of our control and not ever attainable once and for all. We’re going to have to come back to the experience of simply making the effort of doing something that feels good for its own sake, even if we can’t always see or measure an outcome.
It’s a funny thing about contemplative traditions, where they in some sense have to justify themselves, when they put a great deal of effort into separating themselves from the world, living a certain kind of ascetic or austere life in order to do what, exactly. Maybe a certain kind of model is as if we’re suffering from a very intractable disease, and it’s only by putting ourselves through such a difficult and rigorous cure that we can hope to cure ourself of delusion and awaken to our true nature. What would that look like then?
The thing about that model is that once we awaken it’s not as if we then say, well, I’m cured of that. I don’t have to do this anymore. We just keep doing it. Somehow that whole contemplative life and practice is its own justification. It’s not actually a means to any end at all. Now often traditions for one reason or another try to put around themselves the idea that our prayers or our practice generates merit for all beings, does something for the souls of the departed and their progress towards rebirth. Western contemplative societies used to describe themselves as engines of prayer, sending up prayers to God on behalf of all humanity. In a certain sense it was hard to say, well, we just like this way because we like it. We want to stop doing something that we think is really foolish and pointless and probably destructive the way that ordinary people live. We want to live without doing harm, like the model, it’s something about simplicity and not living a life of getting and spending. But then you have to say that this life is primarily a model for its own sake. It’s simply a good way to live.
Modern communities are a little more comfortable having that kind of frame around themselves, particularly if they now think that what they’re modeling is simplicity and sustainability in the midst of a consumer culture. This could be a good life for people. You don’t have to run around chasing all the things you think you need to be happy. It’s possible to have satisfaction from very unexpected sources. But I think all these things come around in the end to a deep version of no gain, that we’re not really engaged in anything that’s a means to an end, but that we’re really trying to settle into our life, settle into an appreciation of our life. That we do that to try to settle into an appreciation of each moment and each breath. The temptation is always to turn that again into some project that we’re going to master and do well and generate a certain feeling and that’s why I don’t like to separate that out into a separate step or stage because immediately people will think it’s something they have to do better or do more of. I like more the idea that it’s simply what emerges when we leave ourselves alone. This is our life. Let’s appreciate it together.