How to practice "Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher" Barry Magid July 25th 2015

We should come to see our lives as a teaching that's immediate and relevant. How automatic is it for us to imagine a kind of calmness or quietness as a picture of how things are supposed to be, and see everything else in us as a deviation. For Joko practice was nothing at all but presence. And our resistence to presence. And being present to our resistence. We're not trying to cut out resistence, rather make that resistence what we are present to, what we are allowed to have. "That too is it. Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher." Will you recognize that teacher when she shows up?

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I think the core of Joko’s teaching can be found in the lines she had us chant: “Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher,” and practice centers around our recognition or rejection moment after moment of that teacher, of life’s teaching. I think Joko always emphasized that we do a lot more rejecting than accepting, and for her, practice focused on the way anxiety, anger or just plain boredom, was a sign that we were rejecting the moment, that one way or another we were saying to ourselves, This isn’t it.
There’s an old saying: It’s not the early bird that gets the worm, but the bird that knows a worm when he sees one. I think the same is true of the dharma: The dilemma is recognizing it when it’s in front of us, knowing what to do with it, seeing it as a teaching, that it’s immediate and relevant. I think when we start off, we’re preoccupied with the personality of the human teacher, and Joko was very dismissive of those who wanted to run around to this teacher or that guru. She was very suspicious of the charisma of enlightenment as if by attaching ourselves to a special person, something was going to rub off on us.

The real problem is that most of the time it doesn’t rub off, and in fact, it just confirms in us an underlying core belief that he has it and I don’t, and that we can feel all right and feel special as long as we’re in the presence or connected to this special person or this special teaching or this special place. Then we feel like we’ve arrived and what we’re doing is correct and important, significant, but we then have a great deal of trouble sustaining that on our own, carrying it out into the rest of our lives. We don’t know what to do when we’re unplugged from the source.

So when Joko said that Life as it is is the teacher, she was talking about the kind of feeling that people have when they say that they have a deep faith and God is always with them. It’s the sense that the teacher and the teaching is with you, and that your life is the center of meaning or relevance, and it’s not a matter of where do you go, what do you do, what do you connect with? But you yourself are the center of things. In a way it can seem very egocentric, that the world revolves around you, but it’s really a sense that life is not happening somewhere else. It’s not what other people are doing. It’s what you’re doing and what you’re doing with it.

In another sense, it’s a kind of evolution in practice from the specific to nonspecific of what we think of as a teacher or a teaching. When we start out it can be very specific. We have so many images in our mind about what a teacher and a teaching is supposed to look like, and almost always it's exotic and almost always it doesn’t look like us. The maturity in our practice is a kind of non-specificity where we’re able to learn from more and more people, more and more situations, more and more things. And to the extent that we do that, we can become more the center of meaning in our life. To do that, we really have to become aware of all the ways in which we are rejecting our life as not the real thing, and how convinced we are moment after moment that this is just not interesting enough, significant enough, relevant enough, whatever it is, that somehow there’s always a better party going on somewhere else.

I think that as we sit, we just have to watch and experience that moment after moment in relation to our thoughts and feelings, how easy it is to automatically have a kind of default position that assumes a certain kind of calmness or quiet or contentment is where we’re supposed to be, and everything else that’s going on in our thoughts and body is a kind of deviation from that. It’s an unwillingness, as Joko would say, to take our bodily tension, our own resistance, as the focus of our attention, as the focus of our experience in this particular moment. This is what’s happening. It’s not an absence of something else.

See, as we practice, we may develop more and more that kind of open-minded acceptance of one state after another, for allowing first this thought, then that feeling, then that itch, then that sound, then this thought. In a sense we simply become more and more transparent, we become like a glass door that lets light and sound in. We’re not particularly filtering anything, we’re not selecting, we’re not controlling; we’re really just letting ourselves be receptive to what’s going on in our bodies and minds the way we’re receptive to the sounds coming in from the outside.

It’s a kind of absence of resistance to things. That was one of the main differentiations between schools of Buddhism as to whether or not they considered open transparency from one state after another to be a state itself that can be cultivated. I think there are different schools of practice that have different attitudes about the cultivation of a state. At one end you have a sense that acceptance is itself a state or a feeling, like loving kindness, that you extend to your thoughts and feelings as they arise. You extend a feeling of acceptance to each moment, to each thought, the kind of idea of May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be content in this moment. It’s a kind of conscious effort to say Yes to things rather than No.

I think that practice tends to mature into a kind of wide open acceptance of things, once we say Yes over and over again to ourselves, and we just let things come and go. We don’t have to actively affirm them. I think Joko was pretty clear that acceptance was not a state or a feeling that you added on to anything. For her, acceptance was the absence of something, not the presence of it. It was the absence of that kind of judgment that says, This isn’t it, and holds things at arms’ length through judgment or anger or anxiety. Acceptance was simply that kind of willingness to feel things moment after moment as they happen, so really for her there is just the moment’s feeling, there’s not the feeling plus accepting the feeling.

If you’d like to add a little acceptance of loving kindness as a condiment on top of what you’re served moment after moment, I have no objection to that. The dilemma is that you might think you ought to feel a certain way and you’re always falling short, to always feeling that way and you’ve compounded the thought, or ticked it up a level. For Joko, then, our practice is really nothing at all except presence and our resistance to presence, and on top of that, our presence to our resistance. That’s the next move. It’s not that we’re trying to cut out all resistance as if that was possible, but we have to make that resistance itself what we are present to. Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher. Will you recognize that teacher when she shows up?

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