If you've been following our 'Thought for the Day' from Dan, our Primary Counsellor, over the past few weeks you may have been trying to develop a contemplative practice. In today's post Dan looks at some of the common questions about why this is so hard to achieve.
If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it? - Eihei Dogen
This timeless quote from the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school, Eihei Dogen, symbolises the wise heart of Zen, and all other truly contemplative, responses to those questions concerning enlightenment, teaching and spiritual practice. It’s a reliable enough response to all kinds of queries. But over the many years of teaching contemplative and meditative practices in clinical, spiritual and secular settings, there’s a familiar collection of questions I regularly encounter, that might just benefit a more detailed, but no less provoking, response…
Why is it so hard to develop and sustain a contemplative practice? Because there’s too much ‘you’ trying too hard. If I held the ultimate answer to this common question, then I’d be halfway towards the riches of those spiritual teachers that make it onto Oprah’s couch. (Spoiler: There is no ultimate answer really). But it’s a practical enough question that’s worth a response. When folk begin to practice contemplation or meditation, they can be quickly discouraged by how difficult it is. They might have expected to be good at it - at least they expected something - but what they are good at is something else altogether. Contemplative practice resists measurement, expectation or even effort; They are to be gradually emptied out of your life along with the rest of ‘you’. A contemplative is not a person who eventually says, ‘Listen to what I’ve learned in my practice.’ Instead, (s)he practices in steady hope of one day saying, ‘Look what practice has done to me. There’s almost nothing left of me but love.’
Why is it so hard to ‘just breathe’? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath. My familial and medical narratives go that I was born with asthma, but I’ve come to the personal hypothesis, after years of self-observation, that I was probably born holding my breath. The inflammation of asthma naturally followed and became an implicit bio-emotional habit and early way of being for me. It might just take a lifetime (or two) to unwind. The underlying and momentary rhythms of breathing<—->not-breathing that accompany human narratives of the past, present or future, often hint at intuitive knowledge that might prove valuable concerning whoever is sat with me. It is one of the first things, when meeting someone, that I pay careful attention to. It is rare to meet a man or woman who retains the capacity from infancy to breathe with their whole body in fluid movement and deep relaxation. Practice it for a few moments, see what it feels like. Breath is quickened or held in fear and this becomes our collective (and so familiarly reinforced) cultural breath. It is why I always veer away from advising people to breathe using a new technique, for advice often carries an implicit demand that invites resistance and more fear. It’s enough to know that you’re not ‘just breathing’ and uncomfortably relax into that for a while.
Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing tiredness. If you fall asleep during contemplation or meditation, that is your life right now; Appreciate it and don’t fight it. You’re momentarily tired and your body needs some rest. Once you’ve replenished your cellular tiredness, sit again with alertness and intent. Until you fall asleep again.
Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing agitation. One of the subtle cultural shifts that has flirted with my attention in recent weeks is the emergence from the shadows into the online vernacular of those slippery old contemplative metaphors such as ‘the liminal’. Contemplative practice might be thought of us a gradual dropping into what the Celtic sages called ‘liminality’, the unknown space between here and there, younger and older, past and future. It is the thin space where life ultimately unfolds. If we want to attend to stillness, we do well to value liminal time and space and to learn to let reality, even in its darkness and uncertainty, be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating or improving it on our own. To continue to resist the liminal is to continue in anxious agitation.
Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve forgotten that silence is not a void. You’ve been practicing talking to yourself and others as the primary means of having and expressing your voice in the world. Speech is often the cloak of reality and all too often its tomb. Authentic silence, that which re-emerges within contemplative practice, is not a repression of words or expressivity. It is a reminder that, just as words express our deep belonging to collective human culture, silence grounds us in everything else; Nature, Cosmos, God.
Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention and the world invites you to do so. I’ve recently been peripherally involved in the conception and development of smartphone app ideas concerned with improving mental health, encouraging interest in dreaming and ‘making accessible’ meditation. What delicious irony for this foolish monk in the world! I’ve not yet solved the koan of utilising ‘smart’ technology to subvert its own inattentive premise and distraction-based rewards. However, my involvement has reminded me of the importance of encouraging the practice of something that initially tethers our mind in one place or gives it something to do. We do so until we become familiar with the inattentiveness of the modern mind and, at some point, are able to actively choose to let go of identifying with any thoughts that arise, endure, and pass away within our perforated field of attention.
Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear. Dogen said that ‘we should live each day, each hour, in the same frame of mind as that of a man falling from a horse. In that brief moment before he hits the ground, all his ability and learning are useless, and there is no time to think, no time for daydreams or self-reproach’. No fear there. Contemplative practice repeats a daily falling off of ourselves, an unwinding of our usual mental scaffolding against the reality of the moment. We become positively bereft of our mental life rafts and survival strategies. We survive, moment to moment, and so trust knits together thread by narrow thread.
Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress and many of your ideas of ‘relaxation’ carries within them a reaction to the same seed of stress. Thomas Merton once said, “I’m blown down the street like leaves scattered in all directions.” I love that quote. It’s a radical enough statement in a world that tends towards conceiving of relaxation as a future state to be worked towards or achieved. I’ve never quite got my head around the notion of a ‘relaxation technique’. It feels counter intuitive to Merton’s wise foolishness and misses the point that true relaxation occurs when there is less ‘you’ to relax. To fall deliberately into a contemplative way of life is to potentially become so empty that the polarity of stress<-—>relaxation is imagined as an outdated and conditioned set of reactions against the winds of change. There’s nothing else to do.
Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to cognitively know something that relies upon a ‘knowing’ of the heart. Spiritual practice loosens the ‘personal’ in favour of an interconnected life, at once our own and of reaching beyond ourselves, in a state of communion with that which lies beyond personal thought, beyond emotion, beyond memory. In this subtle, qualitative, interior, rich state, ever so delicate, a sharp attunement to things arising is cultivated, not as cognitive knowledge, but as heart-felt-known.
Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad or not feeling at all. Much of modern psychology, including the spiritually informed rise of secular Mindfulness, risks reinforcing a collective one-sided quest for happiness or sweet feeling. The contemplative character is one of almost infinite sensitivity to the whole emotional spectrum and to all beings, human or otherwise. Practice sensitivity. Widen the bandwidth. Goodness and a river of compassion will naturally flow in generous sensitivity.
Whatever you practice, you’ll eventually get very good at, and you’ve been practicing many of these things forever. We might all take our own hopelessly imbalanced lives as proof that practice works as long as we keep doing it. Like a good enough physician, you simply have to replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm. Why not?
Author: Dan Lawrence, Primary Counsellor