Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No One Spiritual Practice Fits All

Gil's talk last night about spiritual practice really resonated with my own experience and what I have observed in my conversations, both off and online with other Dharma brothers and sisters. Here are my notes and reactions to it.
It is important to step back and look at how one's practice unfolds over time. One's spiritual practice is not a set thing. It keeps on changing, in a way that is unique for each of us. Very organic process. 
Our practice reflects the infinite number of relationships we are involved in at particular point in time: friend, parent, child, colleague, consumer, neighbor, etc . . . What we see in ourselves as a person depends on which relationship we are in. A holistic spiritual practice has to address all relationships in our life. 
Different circumstances at different points in our lives give us different things to work with. Our spiritual practice is often not our choice, rather is provided to us by life circumstances, e.g. parents needing to care for handicapped child. 
We also don't always know which phase in our practice we are in until we are done with it. Gil's own example of how his early years spent at zen monastery were about developing compassion, and not reaching enlightenment . . . 
Life experiences are important to find oneself, so that one can bring maturity into their spiritual practice. 
Some people need to go away and spend some time alone. Other times, they may  need to spend time in interpersonal realm. Path to freedom requires being free interpersonally. This may include exploring relationship with teacher. Another phase is path of service. 
 One has to be careful how to measure spiritual progress. You never really know from the outside how one person is doing. It can be that person needs first to develop faith, love of Dharma, and confidence for many yearsOther people listen to their teacher's promise of liberation, and then fail in practice because faith was not there. Sometimes people hit a brick wall because of wrong instructions. 
Teacher's role is to try to understand student's intentions, of which there are many. Study for intellectual liberation, so as to question beliefs and look at values. Service. Solitary practice. etc . . . Teacher should listen more deeply to what student think/want practice to be about. This involves discernment, which can be intuitive process. What is being asked of us? Importance of listening to the heart.
With age, priorities change also. As one gets older, and sees the end in sight, question is of how to address important things now. 
Spiritual life goes through all kind of phases. Can be cyclical. Sometimes one can start with  dramatic realization, then turn into a mess, because one was not psychologically ready. Someone else who has done inner work prior, and is better prepared, can sustain spiritual life. There are so many ways. 
Most important is to respect that we each have our own way. There are no fixed models. The only person who can really know what phase you are in, is you.
So liberating, and so right on! I know for myself, the path to Buddha's way has not been straight. It has involved many years of psychotherapy, working through the dark and bright spots in my psyche, along with a sampling of various religious traditions, akin to Ram Dass's version of spiritual materialism . . . followed by a disenchanted phase when I proclaimed to be done with spirituality. Artistic endeavors and other creative pursuits took over, providing an outlet for my inner life. Of course, my spirit was not dead, only dormant. Buddha's call came when I least expected it, when life circumstances presented me with a brick wall, and I had no way out but in.

The times spent going to Buddhist retreats years ago, and reading books from Jack Kornfield and al, had left an imprint somewhere in my mind, and this is where I went, out of desperation. The faith in the Buddha's way, I discovered then, is still shining, just as bright. I am learning to trust the feminine, intuitive self, more and more. Right now, it's telling me to keep on practicing mindfulness, diligently, simply . . . within the setup of my life as a householder. I am to keep company with other sisters on the path, and brothers who understand the way of the feminine. I am also to guard against the dangers of drying up my practice, with too much time spent studying the texts. This is a time for body and heart to rule over the intellect. Last, I am also hearing loud and clear, the call to serve, as in being an hospice volunteer, and helping the IMC sangha, and larger Buddhist community.

What is your path?


  1. Well, I think my path right now is about understanding and clarifying my own intentions. As well as learning how to communicate them, in a more lived-bodily sense. So, more body practice for me!

    Also, I read this article today in the NYTimes, and when I read the title of your post here, I couldn't help but laugh:

    Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves

  2. Thank you Ian. I am grateful for our unfolding spiritual friendship, and look forward to our continued online exchanges next year. May your practice flourish!

  3. I as well, Marguerite. Many thanks to you for all the inspiration I've found here.

  4. I just found this link in my old favorited tweets and it's the most perfect thing I could have read for where I am. It's interesting to look back and see what motivated my spiritual practice. In the dark times, there seems to be an abundance of dry logs to feed the fire. In the daylight, you barely remember what you even needed a fire for. What do you do when your most potent reasons for practice have changed? How do you find the needed willpower when things "aren't so bad?"