Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rather than practicing, I recommend actual-ing

I had a great question come up at the all-day silent retreat that White Mountain Sangha offered this past weekend. I gave an answer that I think met the question of the moment, and I also left the retreat still pondering the question. Like I said, it's a good one, so here it is: what should I do for practice, how much should I meditate, and how often?

Start by recalling that this is the moment. This, this one is the one, with your sweatpants on and the laundry spilling out of the basket and nothing much in the fridge. There's nothing to practice for, you're already an expert at ... This. Stay with This. If you can follow This sincerely, kindly and passionately, it's enough. Breathe in ....This. Feel the texture of ...This. Hear the sound of ...This. Just This. Always This.

Now you're likely to notice how often, despite your long-cultivated expertise at being This, how very often you drift into a fantasy, a non-real realm, one that's better or worse, future or past of this moment. Notice how you jump 10 seconds ahead when someone's talking to you, notice that you're already bracing and gearing up your argument. You miss what is communicated in those 10 seconds. Notice how you begin to harangue and despise yourself for spilling the cereal, or forgetting the dry cleaning. You add an entirely unnecessary dramatic narrative during that time, taking you away from what's right here. Notice how you contract, turn away and escape from the kid in a bad mood in your kitchen. You just missed the window for compassion or clear reflection. Notice how you're having a blissfully good time, and then a thought comes along that reminds you that your best friend is still annoyed at you about something you said last week. You just brought in a character and event from the past, adding these to this moment for no apparent reason. Notice how you just wolfed down twice as many chips as you have any business eating. Now your stomach is upset. Notice how you sat on your foot for so long it went to sleep. Now you're going through the painful, prickly waking up phase.

Practice is designed to bring this constant habit of checking out, avoidance and covering over into conscious attention, so that you stop losing out on the vast majority of life. The purpose of "practice" is to consciously direct yourself to live the very moment-to-moment life you're receiving and experiencing. In meditation circles it is named practice, but really it's turning toward the real thing. It would be better named "actual-ing" rather than practicing!

By "actual-ling", you're cultivating a new habit to stay here, in the aliveness of the moment. It actually shouldn't feel like practice at all, more like a constantly refreshing curiosity or appreciation for what's here. Practice to me connotes rote repetition and getting better at a particular skill. (How dreadful and deadly sounding!) But this "skill" is so elementary and essential to you that there's no way to get better at it. What will happen is that with intention and attention, you'll invite more deeply and richly, fluidly, this living as aliveness. Still, it's clear that it's an activity aimed toward stripping away all of that unnecessary stuff you've been adding. And it's okay to call that activity practice.

How can you tell when aliveness is present for you? Notice yourself taking inordinate interest in the ordinary. Notice that food has flavor, that there's color in nature, that there's pain and pleasure in your body. These things have been there all along, and suddenly you experience them as if like new. Notice that even your thoughts become curiously interesting, and every kind of thought at that. How interesting, the places you go, the problems you create and inflate, the fictions you create. Notice how ordinary people and places become dear, that the whole thing feels like home.

Here's my full disclaimer: I meditate formally just about every day, and spontaneously pretty much constantly. I have found this to be essential to cultivating the habit of living my actual life. I also set time aside for all-day, weekend and weeklong retreats a few times a year. These periods are where I felt aliveness really wake up in me, at more profound and sustainable levels. There is something that centuries of contemplatives in all traditions have discovered about silence: when you deliberately structure some quiet for a time, it helps the system settle so you can see everything I've talked about here clearly. To me, it's invaluable.

I can't say what will work for you. You need to try some things, and see what is conducive to inviting you more and more into living in a truly alive way. I think it's possible for just about any activity to cultivate awakening, if pursued with focus, heart, curiosity and openness to infinite possibilities. Try some awareness practice of your own. I've got more to say about this, more toward inquiry. I'll save that for my next post. Have some fun with this for now.


  1. Children and animals are good at this. THIS -as you say, Margaret. It takes me courage to be more present, just here, just THIS. I find myself fending off invisible enemies and potential threats and dangers, and like any good obsessive compulsive thinker I am only okay right now because I have been fending them off all that time! How can I safely stop? Without being obliterated? Just THIS seems so little and so fragile...

  2. Bows to your question and your patience waiting for a response. The only way to know how you can safely stop is to try it and see what happens. You may notice a mix of things resulting. Observe their reality, and what definition of "safe" you hold. Are you still warm, and fed, and physically in no danger? Are there emotions that tell you otherwise. This requires curiosity and courage, a fearless look at what's actually happening, and also what you may be thinking or feeling about that. Is there an important difference? All the best, Margaret