Upon returning from the vi-pasana teachers’ weekend last month I’ve been contemplating what intention and attitude to practice means to me and why I felt they were so important. I’ve written something which I’d like to share with you. I’ve only been teaching/facilitating the dhamma for a year but I share reflections from my own practice and my short experiences as a vi-passana facilitator.
Intention to practice
Personally, setting an intention to be more mindful, to live more consciously and to generate selfless love and compassion was the single most important action I’ve taken when setting on my own vi-passana journey and when I share the Dhamma. As far as I’m concerned everything else stems from that act of setting an intention and knowing why we meditate. From a facilitator point of view I found out that it also clarifies the differences between meditation practice, self help workshops and therapy. Over the past year I’ve mainly taught individuals who are new to insight practices and I found it very important to clarify that spiritual practice is not about feeling better and it is not a “quick-fix” path. I found it beneficial to make sure that beginner yogis understand the purpose of spiritual practices and align their intentions with the fruits of practice or chose a more suitable path for their needs.
I begin every sitting with asking the yogis to ask themselves what really matters. What REALLY matters. I ask them to repeatedly ask this question inwardly and listen silently to the heart. Sometimes I’d ask them to imagine that this is the last day of their lives and ask what would have mattered then. This, is why they practice.
It is different of course when teaching a Mahasi sitting group for people who have already attended 10/14 days retreats and know what to expect. Either way I think it is important to remind the yogis why they meditate and align their intentions with why we practice and the results of practice.
The intention to stop
Specifically, I emphasis on the intention to stop and simply be with what is in a non judgmental attitude. That I feel makes a radical change. The inner movement of stillness, the counter movement to the conditioned behaviour to move, the counter movement of the tendency to be in between and be caught up in our obsessions with thinking and feeling. I emphasis on the intention to stop and cultivate that counter movement not only in sitting practice but also in every other activity we carry out.
It is that movement of stopping regularly that also breaks the boundaries between meditation practice and daily life. Instead of creating another duality between life and practice we simply stop. Stop while sitting meditation, stop while receiving an email at work, while having supper with our partner or while changing nappies. From my modest experience asking someone to do just that a few times throughout the day sometimes proves more beneficial than asking them to sit for 20 minutes every morning no matter what, especially when the yogi is new to the practice.
Which leads me to my next point regarding attitude. As a “campaigner” for the “soft approach” I found out that it is sometimes important not to place too many demands on beginner yogis and individuals who have never before committed to a spiritual practice of any sort but are inclined to practice vi-passana. Too many demands can easily lead someone to feel overwhelmed and might end up counter-productive resulting in them deciding not to practice at all. We can and perhaps should as teachers advise and recommend daily sitting practice but we need to be careful that daily practice doesn’t become a (resentful) daily chore.
The way I understand it, it has allot to do with the human tendency to expect too much of ourselves, to do too much, to police ourselves and to feel bad when we don’t meet our own expectations. To feel insufficient, not good enough, not capable enough. Simply not enough.
The inability to sit everyday due to lack of skills at the early stages of practice, confusion, or simply because practice is still not a priority at that stage of spiritual development, can very easily become another reason for feeling “not enough”. That can easily lead to an inner struggle which might end up in giving up the idea of meditating altogether. I found out that putting too many demands on a beginner yogi can be counter-productive.
When I made my very first steps as a teacher I asked the people who contacted me for a commitment of six meetings accompanied by a daily practice for the duration of our “contract”. As you can imagine that demand didn’t make me a very busy vi-passana teacher but some people were interested.
A few months ago I was teaching a man who simply hated to meditate. He had no inclination to meditation at all. Yet being a successful businessman used to “sticking it out” he policed himself to sit for twenty minutes every morning for nine weeks. Despite my repeated suggestions to soften things up, he “had a go” on the practice. Sitting practice was a chore for him and he hated almost every single minute of it except the times that we were meditating together. Once our six meetings agreement was over I never heard from him again. I have an unfortunate feeling that it will take him some significant time to get back to wanting to practice.
In two other occasions, women I met who led a very busy life juggling between having careers to being mothers, wives and friends decided not to continue with our agreement as the mere idea of having to add meditation to their already impossible lifestyle stressed them out. These two women truly enjoyed our mutual sittings and had insightful experiences. They had an honest curiosity and would probably continue to practice if I had presented my expectations differently and didn’t imply that there is no point in continuing to meet if they cannot “do the job”.
Learning from these experiences I have soften my expectations and emphasis on a gradual commitment to practice. I encourage and even insist that yogis take baby steps. I found it more beneficial. I encourage beginner meditators to stop frequently throughout the day and rejoice in every little practice “achievement” they have. To my surprise since I lowered my demands more individuals I meet are keen to develop a daily practice.
A compassionate attitude to practice
Finally, I’d like to raise the point of attitude to practice. The way I see it we practice for liberation. We practice to let go of the “doer”, to live peacefully with both our form and formlessness so that we could relax peacefully, allow all formations to come and go, be happy with no reason and love without boundaries. And so I emphasise on practicing with that attitude. Practice with an attitude of liberation, with a vast boundless space where everything is possible.
When I began my vi-passana practice I had a different attitude. I wanted to attain the Dhamma. To achieve that spiritual experience and that one. To go through all the vi-passana nyannas and master them. I worked really hard, striving and cultivating, fighting and killing kilesas and perfecting the paramitas. My teachers and surrounding encouraged me to do so and I felt very much at home working hard. Basically it resonated with that sense of not enoughness. I was always on the lookout for a deeper insight, a more profound experience and a purer mind. It worked for a while until it didn’t and I nearly lost the mind perfecting the striving attitude. Until at some point there was no other option but to come up with an alternative strategy. When I left my teacher Vivekananda a couple of years ago to continue my “spiritual” journey I told him that I need softness and acceptance, that I’m tired of fighting. In my experience transformation occurred only when I allowed everything and I mean everything to just be. It was only when I learned to accept that, that the practice could progress. In a sense I was being surrendered rather than surrendering. It was the attitude to practice that made the whole difference. I was accepting. Accepting “my” attachments,” my” limitation, “my” identifications and all the unperfected, unenlightened places I found.
These days when I share the Dhamma, again and again I guide yogis to return to that place that can just hold everything exactly as it is. The place that can embrace all the joys, all the sorrows and all the contradictions. Even our own sense of unworthiness, even our own judgements and criticism, the imperfect and contradicting places we find inside and the shape-shifting self. This for me is the background for practice, the canvas which all formations are being sketched on. In that space I ask people to practice and if they can I ask them to sit 3-4- 5 times a week.