DT-Fruits of Practice

Tonight, I’ll be speaking about the fruits of practice, drawing on a chapter in Joko Beck’s book Ordinary Wonder. Referring to meditation practice, Zen Master Rinzai stated, “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.” When we expect our meditation sits to transport us directly to blissful, peaceful realms, we are disappointed to encounter the five classic impediments of restlessness, sleepiness, desire, aversion, and doubt.

Joko writes, “Practice is the act of placing our awareness on what is occurring in this moment as best we can…. It is the act of being as honest as we can in noticing what is really going on with us in this moment, noticing our thoughts and impulses, noticing that we may not like what’s going on, and noticing our thoughts and impulses about what we would prefer to be going on. Finally, practice is experiencing all of this in our body, our being, and resting in that. Practice is doing this over and over, thousands and thousands of times….”

The main characteristic of genuine practice is that we pay attention to reality. In the process, we have a better understanding of ourselves and of how life works. With that understanding, our life begins to make sense and feel harmonious.

According to Joko, effective practice has two parts. The first part is daily sitting, which she says takes at least twenty-five years to build enough discipline to become skillful at paying attention. The second part is paying attention to life as it unfolds when we’re not sitting.

Sometimes we feel resistant to sitting because too many emotions are brewing inside. We imagine that if we avoid sitting, we won’t have to feel them. But, as Joko says, “It’s the practice of returning to sit, whether we feel like it or not, that builds the container that can hold all that we are experiencing.” She calls sitting our “best friend.”

Her advice is, “If you don’t want to sit, walk to the place where you [usually] sit, and just stand there, [seeing] all the thoughts that run through your head, and [feeling] all the body sensations. Then, if you still don’t want to sit, don’t do it that day, but at least continue to approach your sitting spot, day after day. Don’t avoid the place. And eventually, maybe, you’ll just get tired and sit down.”

Sometimes, when we notice our resistance to sitting practice, it helps to start with concentration on a mantra or on counting the breaths. Concentrating the mind slows down our thoughts, shuts out distractions from the world around us, and steadies us. Our goal is not to stop the mind from wandering away from the breath but to notice when it does, gently inviting it to return.  

Although sitting practice may seem ordinary, the awareness we bring to it reflects the sacred. Every daily activity that we do with awareness is both ordinary and sacred. Mindfulness practice allows us to experience the ordinary moments of life without judging, grasping, avoiding, or trying to fix them.

Joko observes that each day we seem to go through a series of moments and that usually we react to each moment with a quick judgment: “I like this, but I don’t like that.” Sometimes, our assessment is, “I’m neutral about it.” Similarly, we evaluate people: “I like them” or “I don’t like them” or “I feel so-so about them.” As we respond to tasks that require our attention, our internal judge decides, “I don’t want to do this” or “I’m happy doing that.”

Rather than simply enjoying our activities or other people, we listen to mental judgments that separate us from our experiences. Meditation practice wakes us up to notice reactivity so that we can confront the inner judge: “Thanks for your opinion, but my mind is open to flow with this moment.” As we practice, we become aware of the reality of what is arising in our life instead of getting caught in the drama of our reactions.

Reflect upon the last time that somebody made a comment that hurt your feelings. How long did it take for you to stop replaying their words in your mind? For how many hours or days did you nurse your hurt or even plot revenge? Some people hold on to past wounds for decades, and history is full of stories of feuds that are passed down from generation to generation.

You may recall hearing about the Hatfield-McCoy feud. But I’ll wager that few of you remember what led to the slaughter of more than a dozen people in the two families. The Hatfields started bootlegging in West Virginia not far from where the McCoys had their own bootlegging business on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork Tributary of the Big Sandy River watershed. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a Hatfield who’d fought for the Confederate cause killed Asa, the only McCoy who’d served in the Union army.

From 1863 until 1891, the two rural families racked up murders in disputes about issues as trivial as the ownership of a hog. Floyd Hatfield was the proud owner of a prize hog, but Randolph McCoy claimed that the notches on the pig’s ears were McCoy, not Hatfield, marks. The matter was adjudicated by the local Justice of the Peace, Preacher Anse Hatfield, who ruled in favor of his cousin Floyd. A relative who’d testified that the hog belonged to Floyd was killed by two McCoy brothers. A friendly judge acquitted them on the ground of self-defense.

You’ll be relieved to know that in 2003, 140 years after the Union soldier Asa McCoy was killed, some McCoy cousins in Kentucky partnered with Reo Hatfield in West Virginia to declare an official truce between the families. In Reo’s words, “We’re not saying that you don’t have to fight, because sometimes you do have to fight. But you don’t have to fight forever.” Signed by more than 60 descendants during the fourth annual Hatfield-McCoy Festival, the truce was considered a peace proclamation. The governors of Kentucky and West Virginia penned proclamations declaring June 14 Hatfield and McCoy Reconciliation Day.

In retrospect, it may seem ridiculous that it took well over a century for two families to bring their bloody feud to an official end. But we still need to be reminded today of our human capacity to be attached to the fixed notion that “We are right, and our enemy is wrong.” Unless we practice taming the mind’s reactivity, we will continue to perpetuate conflicts.

Joko reminds us that the body’s intelligence helps us to catch reactive impulses. When we feel threatened, the body reacts before the message reaches the brain. As she puts it, “Our thinking is not the most important thing for our survival. The most important thing is the innate intelligence that lives in the body.”

Many years ago, when Teja Bell introduced me to the principles of Qigong, he mentioned that this ancient practice trains our bodies to become energetically alert and adaptive to unexpected danger. After doing daily Qigong for decades, I’m aware that my body protects me on walks by ducking before my mind registers that I would have hit my head on an obstacle like a low-lying tree branch.

In our mindfulness practice, we attempt to sit up straight to reflect an attitude of being awake and alert. We try to sit still, without tension or rigidity. Stillness creates a container for us to observe every movement of the body and mind. We practice noticing body sensations that reflect where our pain, anger, sadness, and excitement are stored. If we attempt to cover up unpleasant feelings, the body reveals the truth when we pay attention to it. Moderate physical discomfort keeps us alert, but if the pain is intense or intolerable, it’s fine to move quietly and slowly to a different position. The body is our ally to face reality.

The more that we practice living with our actual experiences, the less tempted we are to rely on things outside ourselves for satisfaction. We recognize that a new relationship, a fancy car, an exotic vacation, or a financial windfall do not bring lasting fulfillment or inner peace.

Joko cautions that our lives are not instantly fixed when we sit still and pay attention. As we struggle to understand the nature of our experience, meditation practice can be messy, confusing, and discouraging. Ironically, diligent practice teaches us to be increasingly disappointed with all the things that we believed would make us happy. By weaning ourselves from those attachments, we feel lighter and freer.

With regular practice, we begin to know who we are. We start to show up for life as it is in the moment. As we let go of perfectionistic striving to be different than we are, we feel more peaceful. By waking up and truly experiencing our lives, we reap the fruits of effective practice.