Protect Your Practice

In a previous essay I reported on some experiences I had had while doing my regular daily meditation practice outdoors. Here is another edition of the “teachings from the trees.” About two weeks after the wren landed on my head while I was sitting in meditation, I started out to the back yard as usual for my morning practice. There had been a very bad thunder and lightening storm the night before with heavy rains, and I found the wrens’ birdhouse on the ground. Two of the roof pieces had been pulled off. Inside, the nest was scattered; there was only one tiny piece of a broken egg remaining. I haven’t heard any wren sounds since. They are gone.

The new depth to the fabric of quietness, without their sweet song filling the air, has been surprising and heartbreaking. The fragility of life has once again made itself known in my yard: the quivering uncertainty is revealed. The inevitable ending of joy lives right alongside of the inevitability of the rising of joy.  Earlier this spring, I went to a retreat with Bhikkhu Analyo. In the many years since reading his first book, I have often quoted his summation of the teachings on mindfulness: “Keep calmly knowing change.” This spring I heard him speak a slight variation: “Keep calmly knowing cessation,” he said. Pay attention to endings. Near the tree, now empty of birdhouse and nesting wrens, I sit knowing this particular cessation.

Once, at the end of the first six weeks of a three-months retreat, a point at which half of those attending were leaving and half continuing on, Dhamma teacher Michele MacDonald gave both groups the same admonition. She said simply, “Protect your practice.” This advice can have many interpretations –– both in terms of what it means and how we do it. I think the example above of my finding a way to understand a sudden, unpleasant turn of events within the context of Buddhist teachings represents one way.

Another quote on which I rely from Bhikkhu Analyo’s first book is: “Mindfulness is the ingenious method of turning an obstacle to our practice into an object that can be known.” The wise mindfulness of the eightfold path includes wise understanding, as well as all the other path factors. The transforming of what seems to be an obstacle to our lives, something we don’t want, into an object gives us a chance to relate to it wisely. We begin to loosen our identification with the experience. We have some wiggle room, a chance to see a bit more clearly into the nature of things. In a context so much simpler than the loss of a beloved person or relationship or job or body function; the loss of the birdhouse and the wrens, both of which had brought me such delight, became a direct experience of endings––something to look at, feel, learn from, and bear. It is still sad. The rising of an ache in the heart doesn’t have to be denied. It is part of the process of wisdom arising.

Another way to protect our practice, both our daily life practice and our formal meditation practice, is through the intentional cultivation of the Ten Paramis. Many in our Valley Insight community are working with the book PARAMIS: WAYS TO CROSS LIFE’S FLOODS. In it Ajahn Sucitto reminds us that exercising these particular intentions, which are generosity, morality, relinquishment, wisdom, clear energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity, will protect us from being overwhelmed by what may seem like unfair obstacles to our lives. With wise intentions as a backdrop, we will have a firm, yet flexible, ground to stand on, even as the waves of life, the internal as well as the external ones, crash over us. This steadiness of heart becomes a strong support. Increasingly wise mindfulness becomes a reliable foundation in an unreliable world.

For me, a simple way of living into the echo of Michele MacDonald’s call to protect my practice is to continue to do it. In all the moments of my life, as often as I remember, and wherever I am, I attempt to pay attention and to reflect on the teachings; and I make room for the formal practice of meditation on a daily basis if at all possible. Relatedly, it is important for us all to periodically consider as to whether or not the practices are contributing to our own welfare and that of others. Is the practice building empathy and allowing us to establish a wise and kind relationship with ourselves as well as with the world? Is it helping us to engage with the joys and the challenges we face on a daily basis? Do we notice we are lighter and happier at times? The Buddhist teachings offer a wide variety of meditation practices. It is up to us to choose the ones that work best for us at any given time.

When she said, “Protect your practice,” Michele was reminding all of us that, whether you are staying in a retreat format or going home –– wherever you are –– things are going to change. Knowing this: watch out, don’t get stuck, protect your good-heartedness, protect your life, and “continue with care.”

Appreciative awareness leads to life.
Heedlessness leads to death.
Those who are aware are fully alive
While those who are heedless
are as if already dead.
Dhammapada (vs. 21) – vers. A. Munindo


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