Monday, December 17, 2007

Practice makes perfect except when it does not

Is it fair to say that in Buddhism, practice doesn't make perfect, it reveals it? In a vein of writing that relates back to my recent posts on seated meditation as surrender, this one in particular, I am giving an update on the state of my own Buddhist practice. It seems only fair that if I am going to write about what such practice means to me that I should be willing to lay my cards on the table. So ante up and let's see what I'm holding...

In a reply to something I wrote a few months ago, Ray of Dharmakara's Prayer asked a question which included the following reply:

"I'd be keen to hear more about how buddhist thought and practice touches your lived experience."
I'll have to consider that. I suspect it is the case that the cliched view of our egos is correct. We all have the constructed version of ourselves in which we would like to believe, and then there is the often unobserved (at least by own selves) reality. Ironically, I suppose such an observation and honest appraisal would be a form of introspection consistent with (if not unique to) the concept of "buddhist thought and practice."

As it is, I am currently unaware of how either touches my lived experience. That is not to say there is no influence, but more to say I am not particularly conscious of it. This is in no small part owing to the fact that I haven't had a regular "Buddhist practice" in well over a year, not since circumstances undercut my ability to continue practicing with the sangha I had been with for 15-16 months.

Looking back at it, this shows a presumption that without being connected formally to teacher and a group that my efforts were somehow not as genuine or effective. Which I found odd coming from me when I re-read it. The irregularity of course had many sources, including something I addressed a couple of months later:
So where's the problem? I think perhaps I never really developed a good foundation for my practice. I was intrigued and figured it was worth a try, and when I found a sangha whose monastics were so enthusiastic and had such great confidence, I never worked on cultivating such qualities on my own. Since I had to stop going and then to move, these defects in my attitude and fortitude have become apparent.

And it's true. It is easy to agree in principle to much or all of Buddhism (especially parts of Mahayana Buddhism such as the Bodhisattva Vows) but so much harder to really and truly take them to heart. Especially when there is no one to judge you, to praise or blame you, to give you a sense of authenticity by association. When it's just you and your life, with no guru or robed figure to stand over your shoulder, what do you really believe? What do you actually do? Do you just like the appearance of being religious? The self-satisfaction of feeling spiritual? This is a very subtle but pernicious form of spiritual materialism. It is so easy to think we are very noble and caring and generous, but how much of that is just to fool ourselves or others?

I think I have been fortunate to have exposed my own errors (at least a few of them) and to have caught a glimpse of why I have been struggling in practice/why I had been unable to really answer Ray's question. Fear of being wrong and fear of failure can blind us to other possibilities. That is to say, if I assume I am right about something (but "admit" I could be wrong), why would I give another way of seeing something a chance? Mistakes, errors, and failures can provide a wonderful opportunity. Rather than dwelling on the idea of tarnishing our reputation or suffering embarrassment or humiliation, it is well worth asking "If I was wrong, what other options was I overlooking?"

And when we open our eyes to those new possibilities, who know what might happen?

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