It’s like this: You are going along fine, thinking “So far so good,” and then you hit a rough patch and find you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing. You have to take a fresh look. Disturbing questions about your life arise without asking your permission. Though you are annoyed, you are also curious.
Then you run into a friend (perhaps the friend is you in a reflective moment) and after you repeat your complaints a few times, she says something like, “All that stuff you are having a hard time with? Your mind might be doing it, you know. The difference between happy and sad might be inside your mind.” And, even though your head has been filled with conversations, justifications, reasons why your ex-husband really is the difference between happy and sad, or possibly it’s your boss, your kid, or climate change—you begin to wonder.
At such a moment, you might say to yourself, “In theory, yes, I have something to do with my difficulties, of course. But in this case, that guy at work really is the problem.” To consider that you might have a part in your own difficulty is like a loss of innocence.
Loss of innocence comes with some advantages though, the main one being self-knowledge. If you no longer believe that the problem is entirely outside, you can be curious. If you are curious about your thoughts, then your thoughts become hypotheses, which you can test. You don’t have to believe your thoughts or the conclusions and fears that go with them. This is thrilling but also deeply disturbing, because you thought you were your thoughts, and now you begin to suspect that you are not. In which case, who are you? Who is thinking?
Being curious—about who you are and your part in your life—is a first step. But into what? Probably into a meditation practice.
The first time I heard about meditation as a possible solution to mental anguish, I could barely conceal my derision. I’d been trained in Western philosophy and science, and the Eastern stuff seemed just made up. Looking inwards also seemed like letting down the team, letting the pain in the world get away with being painful.
I was from Tasmania, Australia, an island on the far side of the world with penguins and secondhand Carnaby Street fashion and God Save the Queen. I suspected, correctly, that I was clueless. But penguins and silly fashions and general cluelessness are not barriers to spiritual discovery; they are more like requirements. At least the cluelessness is important; penguins may be optional.
The definition of cluelessness is having awkward questions, and a spiritual practice is one of the few things you can do with those questions. It’s not like answering an exam. Nobody has a decent off-the-shelf answer for why we are here, what death is for, and how come there’s no cure for love? Everybody secretly wonders, but we already know in our hearts that there’s something wrong with the way we are asking. We know we have to live our way through such questions. A practice steadies us while we do this.
A practice means being open to what is really going on. It changes our experience of the world, along with our idea of ourselves.
The historical Buddha was as clueless as you can get. He grew up in a palace with resources equivalent at the time to those of a Silicon Valley billionaire now. This Indian prince was utterly ignorant about life (something to consider if you aspire to be a Silicon Valley billionaire).
In Buddha’s case his ignorance was a deliberate artifact: facts were hidden from him, and he was like a detective in the mystery novel who has to make sense of the crime scene. So that’s the metaphor: Truth is available but it’s hidden. But where is it hidden? According to the Buddha’s story, it’s hidden deep in the place we never look. It’s concealed in plain sight. Everything we need for a practice is present in the moment we are having now. So if it’s already here in us, where might we look for it? Why might we look for it? Well, everyone’s life has lots of clues that are also gates to practice. There are two important ones.
Clue (& Gate) #1: “I’m really, really sure this isn’t it”
You’re unsatisfied, and that’s a clue. You missed out on being popular in high school, or being treated fairly, or a trip to Provence, or someone to hold you on Saturday night, or having a grateful child, or being a hip-hop star, or having perfect meditation, or keeping your marriage, or you have a longing you can’t even express.
But you can tell that getting these things will not stop you missing out on the next thing you want. Not being satisfied is intrinsic to desire. Even an amoeba is always seeking a more nutrient-rich puddle. The feeling of unsatisfactoriness ranges all the way from vague unease and asking What’s it all about? to bottomless sorrow.
Suffering is what was hidden from the Buddha. The idea was that if he saw sickness, old age, death, and a person who was devoted to practice, he’d run off to get a practice. Which he did and he did.
So the story indicates that suffering is not an anomaly but a clue to freeing the mind. In this sense suffering is not accidental or a mistake, but an enormous beginning. It’s the gift that starts a great transformation in our point of view.
It might be a surprise to find that your mind is on your side, even when it’s arguing with the world or seems to be making mistakes. When I became curious about my mind, I found that when I felt a deep loathing for an idea, that showed me I was interested in it and perhaps frightened of its power. In that way even defensiveness was on my side. The problems I saw, though they were real, were not the cause of my inner turbulence. It was just that I objected to what was happening and was spun around by it. For me, suffering is a kind of tantrum I throw from time to time. Suffering is full of should be, ought to be, and could have been.
“This isn’t it” is something I think without really looking. If I truly look and take in this life, I can say “Yes, even with sickness, old age and death, I can have a practice—and it’s going to be alright, and more than alright, and more than going to be: it’s lovely now.” There’s a Zen koan that goes “Say something backwards.” “This isn’t it” is pretty close to “What if this is it?”
Clue (& Gate) #2: There is a simple goodness that is always here—even before you finish reading this sentence.
As a small boy living on the edge of town, I used to cut down the hill to the farm across the road. An old Aboriginal man had about forty acres of pasture, a few cattle, and a market garden, where he wandered in sunshine and rain. He was a timeless figure in a hat and an ancient, perhaps once elegant brown coat, and he had a Tolkienian name: Mr. Woods.
The local animals came to drink from his spring—wallabies, tiger snakes, echidnas, a young bull. He seemed to have an understanding with children as well. I didn’t learn from what he told me (he didn’t talk much) but from the easy way he paid attention to things as if he were part of them, not cut off from the world. He would say, “See if you can find some eggs,” and I would follow his half-wild hens and work out where they had hidden their eggs.
When I brought eggs back he would smile quietly. My mother would then give me money to take to him next time I went down to his place, but I could tell that this wasn’t really the point—the eggs and coins were a ritual that allowed the real event to go on. He also conveyed an empathy for the hens. He understood why they hid their eggs and didn’t try to stop them.
So that’s another building block of a spiritual practice, a hint that there is a profound goodness inside the common life we have. It’s also something that we can draw each other’s attention to, as Mr. Woods drew mine.
All good moments are fragments of practice, slices of enlightenment. Practice is already here; we don’t invent it. The sign of practice is that there is peace, beauty, and timelessness. We are not worrying or getting in the way. We see that goodness is a capacity in everything alive. Such moments are themselves like a forest animal: when we notice them, and keep still, they step out of the shadows and become clearly visible.
But what is a practice, exactly?
For a start, a practice is something you do. It’s not something you have to believe. You can’t be disqualified by ignorance, skepticism, gender, race, lack of talent, geography, or defensiveness. You’re deluded? Not to worry. As mentioned earlier, cluelessness is probably an advantage, since it means you don’t have to get rid of things you are sure about but that aren’t true.
Since practice is something to do, we don’t have to know where it will end up. It doesn’t have a fixed destination. We can trust it to take us somewhere beyond what we had expected or hoped for. What will change may not be what we had asked for, and might be much more. We may come to accept or love what we thought we disapproved of. When we discover this, it is consoling and exciting.
There is an art to attention, but the particular arts of attention tion are not themselves fundamental. It’s probably best to try things until you find what fits you. Along the way you’ll learn surprising things, both subtle and huge, about yourself and the world. You will learn these hidden things by keeping company with your practice, the way Mr. Woods taught a six-year old boy to pay attention to more than eggs.
Here are some rules of thumb that might help you navigate whatever practice you are trying out.
- Criticizing, judging, or assessing yourself isn’t virtue. It doesn’t help in meditation; it’s just more noise. And if you are criticizing, judging, or assessing yourself, don’t criticize that, and so on, until you wear out and compassion enters.
- Criticizing others is, in mysterious and not so mysterious ways, actually criticizing yourself. See 1.
- You’re going to be okay. Your mind does what it does without consulting you. If the turbulence is intense, you can just plod along with your practice. Not to worry. Actually the universe, the Dao, whatever we call it, manages our minds for us. We are its expression after all.
- If you meditate and can’t stop wriggling, weeping, being angry, arguing with someone in your head, or being bored out of your gourd, don’t be a fascist. Don’t order your meditation to change; just be kind with yourself. You might notice that what your mind does is ridiculously, uproariously funny, or just touching. It’s like the chickens—you love it for some reason. See 1 again.
- Your thoughts are not you. Neither do they belong to you.
- Perhaps there’s not a problem. Maybe you are doing it right.
- You do a practice by yourself, in some way that’s always true of practice, but in some way you share this practice with all beings. So if you’re lonely, try finding other beings to practice with sometimes. We learn things from each other that we can’t learn alone.
- No part of your life is too ignorant or too shameful for your practice to enter. You can let it into every corner. It’s not about improving yourself or making yourself wrong.
- Not knowing is on your side. It’s reality. If you are clueless and don’t know, then you are still free. You are not dividing the world into friends and enemies.
- Compassion springs like water from the earth; it just fills the heart. Reality is kinder than delusion.
I’ve been talking about the ways practice is natural and even unconscious. Buddhist practice offers that understanding. There is a pattern deep in the world that practice draws out so we can see it and reproduce it and embody it. Because what is happening is kinder than our thoughts about it, then not cultivating beliefs, not knowing what to do, not knowing who you are, might be how it really is.
A close friend had a stroke recently. She has some trouble finding words but seems as smart as ever. A reading of her neurology report, though, indicated that she has some deficits that she is unaware of because of her deficits. When this came up, we started laughing. Immediately I began to wonder what I’m unaware of—what I can’t see that I can’t see. This was at first alarming and then exhilarating. It seems to me that the great questions take us into that exciting territory—the territory we do not know about at all.
That’s where practice is headed. Practice was something good that happened to me. I stumbled on it by myself, wandering in the bush, and I never could explain it very well. But it stains and dyes every part of life, and by degrees I learned to accept it gratefully. There’s no place in life where it doesn’t belong, no end to its territory, and even in hard times, with a practice, you can be pretty much happy.