Sunday, March 02, 2008
Achievement and Practice
Ten days after a ten-day silent meditation retreat which focussed on the practice of Vipassana -- insight, mindfulness -- the lessons are still sinking in. At first on re-entering the "real world," the shock to the senses was overwhelming. With resumed action and echoing speech vying for airtime with frogs, crickets, sprinklers, motorbikes, trucks, heavy equipment, hammers, neighbor's voices, roosters, wild birds, boat engines ... it has been difficult to keep the mind calm in sitting meditation. But I have kept my resolution to keep sitting every morning, and the overall calmness of my mental state is now increasing.
I was afraid that I would slip all too quickly back into long habits of chosen activity: writing, computer networking, music engagements, restless wanderings ... and indeed I have been inspired to delve into detailed schedules and outlines for all of my old unfinished and ongoing projects. I have made similar resolutions with new inspiration at various times in the past. Always within a week or two the inspiration fades; unpredictable life crowds in like jungle growth; and in despair I give up all my discipline to "the flow."
This time I feel it is going to be different; my resolution is firmer, more grounded in the practice established in the "Buddhist boot camp." The emphasis on mindful meditation practice in all the primary postures and motions of life -- sitting, standing, walking, eating, breathing -- has taught me to view all of life as "practice," a view that is fundamentally different than my former view of the importance of achievement.
Music practice is a prime example. Previously I have found it extremely difficult to maintain any disciplined regularity to my music practice. It always seemed like "work"; and work it was, designed and engaged in so as to achieve better proficiency. Renting a studio space with set hours helped a lot, because I was forced by "efficiency" to make full use of the allotted rental time. But at home -- finally moving into a place where I can practice freely -- the time I could be practicing inevitably dwindles into distraction: Do I have new email? How long is the sun going to be shining outside? I'm hungry right now and better eat ...
The same is true of my eternal backlog of tasks -- lists upon archived lists -- in the area of writing, editing, publishing, networking, promotion. Always I have been inspired by the breadth of work I could do, but debilitated by the lack of focus and determination to choose and see projects through to conclusion. I think that underlying both the verbal and musical fields of activity, I have been chronically hampered by a gnawing, existential doubt: what is it all for?
That, of course, is the problem with all worldly achievement, in the light of our eventual death. A practice of deep and repeated insight and mindfulness cuts through the veil of denial to confront us squarely with the meaninglessness of our ego-driven priorities. But that does not mean we are left with nothing, dangling helplessly, hopelessly in the void. We are left with the tool that got us to this state of realization: the practice.
In the week's company of a slow-walking friend, I had to keep practicing my slow, measured steps, with time left over to watch the breath. No time lost, no time gained: no time. Establishing a comfortable habit with the sitting practice, I extend the form to musical scales and rhythm exercises. Am I improving? Will I be a polished performer? These are secondary questions, not immediately relevant to the importance of the task. The task is to trust the practice. In itself it has value as a tool for engaging in the artful and mindful practice of living. And if continued, it will, like the sitting practice that inspires it, have secondary benefits in the form of a more successful life -- even in worldly terms.
That is the irony of spiritual practice. To be effective it entails giving up all worldly concerns and priorities. Then, being effective, it results in clearer, stronger, more effective functioning in the world, indeed in more worldly success. That success in turn cannot be gloated upon as a stolen, secret reward. Death still claims the last word. But in the meantime we can add, moment by moment, a subtle reward to our efforts, our spiritual work: the happiness of knowing what is simply true, step by step, day by day, note by note, word by word, breath by breath.
The practice continues.
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