Life gets busy. The days fly by. We have various commitments and surprises that pull us away from practicing new healthy habits, like stepping on our yoga mat. This is something that I find fascinating. I work with many clients who deal with this struggle in a big way every day. How do we balance our desire for growth and mindfulness while juggling the many other expectations of our day? And how do we step up and do what we have said is important?
I turned to a good friend to explore this topic further. I met Patrick Shannon in a philosophy class during my undergrad at U of Alberta. We stayed in touch through Facebook after graduation and have found ourselves both living in Calgary, and deeply intrigued by the practice of meditation. Patrick is now a lawyer and has developed a committed practice to meditation and mind-body health. I am inspired by Patrick's ability to work in such a demanding field yet still leave space for his joyful, curious, and open mind.
I asked Patrick what he had to say about what it takes to develop and sustain a Practice of meditation (which can be replaced with any habit or practice you would like to develop) while in the midst of a career that demands a lot of time and energy. He was gracious, eloquent, and poetic in his response, as usual ;). Read below for some inspiration.
***And check out his website for more zen-full treats (www.unfoldingzen.com)
The Italian Zen Master Elena Seishin Viviani, an elderly woman with dark, stern eyes, settled comfortably onto her cushion on the small raised platform. Now was the opportunity for us to ask questions.
It was 2014 - I was studying law in the French Alps and, while there, was practicing with a local Zen community. That Friday evening, our Zen group had invited a teacher from Turin to offer us some insight on Zen practice. I sat there, my legs aching and my stomach grumbling. I thought of my friends, likely gorging on cheese and spiced Christmas wine.
Yet now, thinking back, I can’t imagine missing that night. Elena was asked two brilliant questions and provided two brilliant answers. Each goes to the root of a very common problem: How do we maintain our practices (whether it is Zen, running, music, art, writing, or spending time with those we love) in the midst of a busy and chaotic life?
Question: How do you find time?
Answer: How do you find time to eat?
A young woman, an accountant from Grenoble, asked the first question, “How do you find time to meditate?” This question is a common one in Zen. Although in our tradition of Buddhism there are all kinds of beliefs and philosophies and interesting stories, the heart of our practice is meditation. The word “Zen” is simply the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “Chán,” which is in turn derived from the Sanskrit word “Dhyāna,” or the ancient yogic practice of contemplative meditation. If a Catholic goes to mass, a Zen Buddhist meditates. Like many of my Catholic friends, I have not always had a perfect attendance record.
The Master’s answer has stuck with me ever since, “How do you find time to eat? How do you find time to use the bathroom?”
This seems like such a simple response. How often do we question the importance of eating? How often do we decide we’ll skip that trip to the bathroom and wait until tomorrow?
These things are considered necessities for our life. We carve our lives around them. We know that when we fail to eat, our bodies become weak and our whole tower of priorities trembles and suffers.
We don’t relate to these things from a “what’s in it for me?” perspective. We delight when these experiences are pleasant, but we know that sometimes we have a bad meal or stomach flu. Practice continues.
So why do we take a different approach to our practices?
A valuable exercise is to consider whether a practice is a necessity for you. Do you need to write? If you gave it up, how would that be?
In his “Letters to a Young Poet”, the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke offered a troubled young author the following advice:
“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”
Ask yourself the following question: is your practice a necessity? Is it another way to distract yourself from the discomfort of your life? Or is it, as many have discovered, a practice that has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart?
Why would this make a difference?
We are trained from a young age to engage with life from a result oriented perspective. Like little lab rats, we press the button and receive our treat. If we do not receive a treat immediately, then we start asking “what’s in it for me?” or we begin to feel very bitter about pushing the button. Maybe we decide that there’s no point in pushing the button at all.
How often have you been frustrated when you do not see results from your practice?
I can tell you that I have spent months enduring uncomfortable or unpleasant meditation. Why engage in meditation if it doesn’t leave me blissful and compassionate? Because engaging in our practices selfishly or from a result oriented perspective is why we suffer so much. What should be an act of devotion to practice becomes nothing more than selfish, endless button pressing and selfish, endless hunger for more treats – or more achievements.
Engage with your practice as if it is a necessity. Set a clear schedule and adhere to it. When you notice yourself becoming attached to results, remind yourself that your integrity requires only that you show up and do your best.
I cannot stress this enough – the secret to sticking to a practice is to unshackle it from our expectations and our ego. Relate to your expectations like a fart. Your body does strange and smelly things sometimes. It is both natural and not something you necessarily need to be overly invested in.
Question: If we give up on results, expectations and ego, how do we succeed?
Answer: One Breath. One Step.
The next question was mine. You see, I bet you were reading that first bit and wondering, “How exactly am I supposed to improve if I’m just showing up? Eating is easy, my practice is hard!”
I’m on your side!
Elena had a simple answer, “How do you walk? One step at a time, taking one breath at a time.” She was referring to the Zen practice of walking meditation, which is used in Zen to break up periods of long sitting. It is characterized by slow walking in synchronization with slow, deep breaths. Incredible attention and mindfulness is applied to each step.
So how does this improve our practice?
Instead of relating to our practice as an endless quest for improvement, we can take refuge in each small step of our long journey.
There is a quote, possibly by Saint Francis of Assisi, that suggests that we “start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly we are doing the impossible.”
This is precisely what I think the Italian master meant. First we consider and internalize the necessity of our practice. Then we ask what step is intimately manifesting before us. Then we move forward, step by step, breath by breath and thereby accomplish the impossible.
A – Relate to your practice as if it were as necessary as eating
B – Forget about results, and engage in your practice for its own sake
C – When your expectations, ego and comparing mind arise, laugh at them and carry on.
D – Focus on each step of your practice, cultivating intimacy with the challenges immediately before you.
This is how sentient beings realize their Buddha nature. This is how you can accomplish great things in the midst of the chaotic, conditioned adventure that is life.
May all beings be happy!