One of the cultural drawbacks we seem to have here in the West is the tendency to separate things into various and sundry categories or typologies. This is especially true when it comes to the spiritual life. Our culture has a habit of separating the spiritual path from daily living. The result is that many things that happen in our lives either go unnoticed or are trivialized and, as a result, we often miss important spiritual lessons. The fact is all of life can be our teacher. Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck speaks clearly to this issue:
Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or desperation, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath.
I often hear students pursuing spiritual development complaining that life is too demanding, too hectic to allow for real spiritual transformation. The thought of finding time to meditate, for example, seems totally beyond the scope of reasonable expectation:
“Did you ever try to get two kids and a lazy, chronically distracted husband to school and work on time?” So remarked a thirtyish participant at one of LifeBrook’s introductory Zen classes. “I face that five mornings a week, and that’s before I start getting ready for my job.”
No doubt many can relate to the chaos this woman is describing. I know I can. I have found that most folks can find the time to squeeze in at least a brief meditation period at some point during the day. These brief periods, if pursued with commitment and discipline, can be far more beneficial than you think. However, that is not my main point for writing this article. What I hope to get across is that meditation, as important as it is, is only a small part of mindfulness practice.
One helpful way of making sense of mindfulness practice is to define it in terms of formal practice and informal practice. In our formal practice, what we are doing is meditation. This aspect of mindfulness practice can take many forms but most often, it involves sitting quietly and observing the breath. Informal practice involves maintaining periods of mindfulness throughout the day. Informal practice can also take many forms, from something as simple as pausing a moment to watch your breath each time you turn a door knob or cross a threshold. Informal practice can be something as seemingly mundane as walking the dog or changing a baby’s diaper.
Given the frenetic pace of modern life, mindfulness practice offers us a way to incorporate our spiritual practice into the very fabric of our daily lives. And when you think about it, that is exactly where our spirituality should be. Lama Surya Das, an American Buddhist teacher trained in the Tibetan tradition makes a cogent point regarding this aspect of spiritual practice:
Today it seems to me that we have little choice but to assimilate all we experience into our spiritual lives; it is all grist for the mill, manure on fertile fields of spiritual flowers. The sacred and the mundane are inseparable. Your life is your path. Your disappointments are part of your path; your dry cleaning and your dry cleaner are on your path; ditto your credit card payments. It’s not helpful to wait until you have more time for meditation or contemplation, because it may never happen. Cultivating spirituality and awareness has to become a full-time vocation, and for most of us this has to take place within the context of a secular life here in the Western Hemisphere.
Whether we are sitting on our cushion or seat in formal meditation or whether we are folding laundry or drying the dishes, the principles of mindfulness remain the same. Our practice is the same in the zendo and in the traffic jam: we are to fully engage the moment as we pass through it. Lama Surya Das continues:
For you, the seeker, what matters is how you attend to the present moment. This includes motivation, intention, aspiration, desire, hope, and expectation. This is not just about what you do but how you do it. The present moment is where the rubber actually meets the road. Your traction on the path, spiritually speaking, depends on how you apply your heart and soul.
In order to “gain traction” on the spiritual path it is best for us to be realistic and reasonable with ourselves. What this means on a practical level is that we have to be both perceptive and honest. We have to be perceptive enough to realize that we cannot train ourselves like monks and nuns – not while we are living in the contemporary world. By accepting this fact, those of us who are highly committed to the path we have chosen can relax a bit and go easy on ourselves. We can come to the realization that five minutes of solid, committed practice of meditation and/or mindfulness can be of tremendous benefit. We also freely understand and accept that on some days, five minutes may be all we can spare.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have to be honest with ourselves about our commitment to practice. Many times I have found that people who insist they don’t have time for practice actually have plenty of time, but they lack the discipline and will to get down to doing it. Like many in our “quick fix” culture, these folks want the benefits of mindfulness training and meditation practice without the effort required to secure those benefits. Like the “Beauty School Dropout” in the musical “Grease,” these seekers” have the dream but not the drive.”
Beyond perception and honesty, we also need sincerity. Taking up spiritual practice requires a consecrated commitment if it is to be fruitful. Dabbling here and there, taking a little of this and a dab of that is interesting and spiritually stimulating, but does not reap lasting rewards. If you want to move forward with your spiritual practice, whatever the tradition, brace yourself for some hard work. Again, sincerity is essential. Buddhist writer Andrew Weiss tells us:
Offering ourselves sincerely to the moment is the key to good practice. Our intention in practicing mindfulness is more important than any technique. Many meditation teachers have pointed out that all the skill and effort in meditation will not yield fruit if we do not have this sincere desire to wake up…..Five minutes of practice with the sincere desire to wake up to the present moment is worth more than a lifetime of practice without it.
Our daily lives, rather than posing obstacles to spiritual practice, offer the optimal venue for growth. This is especially true when it comes to mindfulness training. Our task is to train in the ability to completely give ourselves to the present moment, whatever we may be doing. Although initially challenging and at times frustrating, if we persevere at this task we will find that the benefits will be well worth our efforts.
(c) L.D. Turner 2010/ 2017 All Rights Reserved