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Sometimes, our practice goes awry. Just like everyday life. One day everything’s coming up roses; the next, we’re in the muck and mire. We can’t seem to move our feet to get out of our own way. Or sitting, we can’t still those annoying thoughts that come up, or we can’t seem to stop ourselves from engaging those thoughts. They’re not like clouds floating by in the sky; they’re like tornadoes that we just can’t escape.
In times like these, we are facing barriers to what the fourth of the Great Vows bids us do. It says, “The way of enlightenment is unsurpassed; I vow to realize it fully.” So what do we do when this realization of the way is apparently blocked? Let’s look at some possibilities.
If we’re sitting in any given period, we might renew attention to the basics: posture, breath, mind.
- If we’re usually on the cushion, we might shift to a chair for one or two periods – just to give our bodies something new to do. Or vice versa.
- If we’re following our breath, we might let the pace of our breathing experience a change of pace. If it’s fast, let it slow down; if it’s shallow, let it deepen; if it’s deep and slow, let it flow at a more natural pace. We might even return to counting our breaths: one, two, three … ten, one, and so on.
- And if we find our minds wandering through the hills and valleys of the past or future, we just stop and bring our minds back to the present, to the here and now. To this moment. Beginner’s mind: each moment is a new moment, and we’re just starting out.
That’s one very practical approach to unblocking our way.
What if we’re sitting with a koan, and we’ve been working on that koan for what seems like a long, long time – and we just can’t find an answer? Well, one thing to remember is that the aim of koan study is not to find an answer; it’s to open us up to an experience – to let us see through the koan to the truth it’s trying to reveal. If we remain true to that intention, the truth of the koan will break through and reveal itself.
So, we remain humble and open as we sit with the koan and, in fact, live with it. We entrust ourselves to whatever the koan will bring to us, or will bring us to. We don’t try to know what that is or define the outcome. We just shut up and let the realization come – when and as it will.
Sometimes we may find ourselves asking, “What am I doing here anyway? Why am I putting myself through all this drudgery and dullness? What am I trying to find?” That may be the time to check in on our intention. Maybe look at the questions we’re asking in our unrest, and write down what results from such inquiries.
We may find that our intention has become blurred by some idea we have about what we should be doing, about our performance, about what we think our answers should be. All these sorts of thoughts reside in our small self, which is often the main obstacle we encounter along the way. When we take a check on our intention, we may find a new energy in how we approach that intention. And with this new energy may come a new breath of freedom that urges us on along our way.
Above all, we must live and practice in humility and surrender. The moment we think we know what we are doing – the moment we put what we want to happen above what really is – that’s the moment we are subject to trip over our own feet. For example …
Have you ever noticed, say while doing a walking meditation, that when you bring your attention to the pace or direction of your steps, you stumble or lose smoothness in the flow of your walking? That is, you start watching your walking rather than just walking unobserved? Your steps get the hiccups, and you have to regroup – to restart your walking in order to regain that smoothness. I’ve noticed this at times in myself during the walking meditation at in-person retreats.
And this is when I – when we – must surrender to whatever is happening and let that happening flow without interference from our thinking, observing, assessing, judging minds. It’s being attention more than paying attention.
So, how do we unblock the way of our realization? Basically, it’s about just getting our selves out of our own way. It’s about not putting any thought of self between us and the way. Practice, trust, humility, surrender. These are the traits we must develop and embody as we continue along our journey.