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My Buddhist Practice: How I Got Here, Why I’m Staying

      It’s an old story. By now, my space is festooned with Buddhist marks—books, quotes, figures—and earthy incense beckons towards a colorful pile of pillows, waiting every morning for my plop. Usually I’m reluctant at best, prematurely frustrated at worst. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Meditation is not fun! Buddhism is hard work! This makes it all the more puzzling: how did I get to this point and who got me here? Under the guidance of a philosophy that so values stopping and stepping back, I’ve been observing the evolution of my practice from distant interest to deep engagement. 

      A few years ago, I began to faintly hear and mishear the echoes of that far-off person Siddhartha Gautama. At this time in my life, I was bitter and cynical, an open skeptic against any and all religions. Still, there was something deeply appealing in Buddhism; it was a religion for atheists, a refuge for skeptics. In few philosophies will you find an assertion like this one:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

      Despite the Buddha’s insistence that even his words were to be questioned, in his basic teaching there didn’t seem to be all that much to question. The more I thought about it, the more I was stricken by the universality of the Noble Truths. Suffering was implied in all of life’s changes, and no matter the circumstance, I could always trace my suffering to the desire for things to be other than what they were. The Buddha emphasized lived experience in a down-to-earth philosophy that, however, filled a higher spiritual need I did not know I had. As I began practicing, my life improved. Improvement was not something I could be skeptical about.
      Thus began a fumbling, rather uninformed attempt at various meditation techniques that was too flighty and complicated for the mind of a total novice. I tried far-out visualization techniques, creating fantastical scenes in my mind that were relaxing if a bit escapist. Next came Tibetan energy healing mediation. I jumped from exercise to exercise, and they were mostly elaborate; I wanted to feel I was “doing something.”  Though I had the appearance of an active meditator, in retrospect my early attempts were somewhat superficial. I needed something simpler.
      Back to the breath.
      I credit the much-needed simplification of my practice to a few factors, but firstly in the man of Thich Nhat Hanh. His Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching may be the most important book I’ve ever read, for it was my true introduction to a way of life I hope lasts as long as life. Of far greater significance than any meditation advice he could have given me was his emphasis on mindfulness in everyday life: mindful breathing, talking, loving, living. Buddhist meditation, divorced from the rest of life, is ailing.
      If this was my observation, then it would be best to make the source of life, the breath, my primary meditational focus. This shift to simplicity coincided with the introduction of Zen into my life, particularly with the accessibly erudite and lighthearted Alan Watts, whose lectures are blessedly and widely available online.
      Simpler is better. In Buddhism it doesn’t pay to be showy. Listen to your own experience, your own heart. As with any practice, understand the difference between what you need and what you feel you should.
      When I looked at those pillows this morning—orange, blue, red, green—the debate of whether I should sit or not was not as long as it used to be. The yes was implied in my person, for if the one thinking it was so much more at ease than the one of years before, to only think what was possible in the years to come.

In the spirit of going back to the basics:
IDP’s Basics of Meditation class, starting tonight (7/8-7/29)

All images under CC license 2.0


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Me too!

When I first started meditating and studying Buddhism, I raced toward the fanciest teachings, with a little bit of disdain for simpler dharma. That had lots to do with my yearning to transcend my "mundane" life. It took me a long time to understand that the "mundane" is it, that's all we have.

"Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

Thanks, Sonia!

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