Transcribed from a talk by Gil Fronsdal 12/20/09
There’s a great book called “We’re All Doing Time”. It’s about spiritual practice inside the prison. So, this morning, what I’d like to talk about is how to evaluate your practice. I think that it is pretty common for humans to be evaluators. We’re evaluating things all the time. A lot of the evaluation goes on subconsciously. For example, you evaluate what clothes you’re going to wear depending on the weather.
If you get on a bicycle, you evaluate all kinds of things. Some of these things are subconscious. If you’re in the prime of health and are a capable bicycler, you don’t think too much about what you’re doing, but there is a background evaluation going on, such as, “Am I capable?” Perhaps if it’s snowing and icy outside, you realize it’s not wise to go out in those circumstances. When you get to be 98, you evaluate this activity more carefully. You wonder, “Can I still ride the bicycle?” It becomes a more important evaluation.
You evaluate the goal you have set for yourself and where you’re going. If you said, “I’m going for a bike ride to LA this morning,” without any preparation, it’s probably a bit over the top. You evaluate your energy level, how you’re feeling, how much you’ve eaten, and how prepared you are. There are many things that go into preparation. And some of it, you hardly notice that you even think about. It’s so automatic. But it’s there. It’s something as simple as riding a bike, or many of the things that you do.
So, in the same way, people evaluate their practice. Sometimes people will do it subconsciously without good criteria or without a good understanding of what’s reasonable to evaluate in their practice— meditation practice or spiritual practice. And sometimes people don’t do enough evaluation. Maybe they have a lot of faith or just do a dumb meditation. Like, “This is what I do and I’ll just do it.” There’s never any kind of evaluation at all about what’s happening when you meditate or what’s going on or what it’s all about. And then some people over-evaluate and tie themselves in knots. For example, if you’re learning to ride a bicycle for the first time, the first time you sit on the seat and push the pedal down, you don’t start saying, “Am I doing it yet?” You don’t look around for approval. You don’t look around and see if you’ve gotten someplace. You had better focus on trying to stay balanced and not evaluating too much of what’s going on.
My favorite over-evaluation story is the story of the farmer who goes out into her field and pulls a little corn seedling out of the ground to see if it’s growing yet. Thereby destroying the seedling. And it doesn’t grow. So, sometimes if we start over-evaluating ourselves, we can actually undermine our very attempts at practice.
But I think, sooner or later, it’s important to spend some time evaluating what’s going on with your practice so that you can know whether it’s working, working well enough, or needs some correction. You can get some of the full benefits of the practice that may only come if there is a stepping back, looking at, and understanding of what’s happening there.
I’m going to go through a list of things that you can evaluate, if you so choose. You don’t have to go through this list systematically, like a checklist. And they’re not necessarily put in the order that they should be done. Some of this happens automatically or subconsciously. But from time to time, some of these different areas of investigation might be useful for you to consider. If you’ve been practicing for a few years, it might be really good to spend some serious amount of time stepping back, thinking about your practice, and what’s going on for you. If you’re brand new, maybe you don’t want to spend too much time doing this. You want to actually do it for a while.
Some people who come to me are interested in doing some kind of meditation practice, or Buddhist practice, but haven’t decided which to do yet. There’s Tibetan, Zen, Vipassana, all kinds of different choices and different teachers. They want to start, but can’t decide what to do. I’ll often say to them, “For the first year, it probably doesn’t matter what you choose. Just choose something. Flip a coin- -make your best guess. Because when you’re a new meditator, no matter what tradition you’re in, you’re dealing with a lot of the same issues. And most of those issues are you, not the tradition. You’re learning yourself; you’re learning to be patient; you’re learning to be mindful, and you’re developing some stability of mind. You may look at your ethics and start to live more ethically. Do a very basic kind of introduction to Buddhist practice. And after a year or so of doing that, then you will have better eyes to discern what tradition fits you. So, if you can’t decide, wait a year.”
So, sometimes if you’re new, you don’t want to do a lot of evaluation; you just want to get some experience under your belt. And then with that experience, you can do a better job. Some of this evaluation you can do on your own, and some of it can be done with a teacher because sometimes teachers ask questions that are interesting to explore with friends, fellow practitioners, or teachers.
So, the first thing to consider is: What is your motivation in doing the practice? What is your aspiration? (It’s a lovely word, I think.) Why are you doing it? There are many answers to that question. I would not want to be in the position of telling you what their goals should be. As a teacher, when people come to talk to me, I like to understand what their intention is so I can support them in their intention rather than tell them, “Oh, that’s not a good intention; you should do this instead.” Everybody will have a little different flavor or taste or way in which his or her life is going to unfold. So, it’s very important for the motivation to arise out of your own heart, or your own understanding of yourself.
In terms of a spiritual practice, what is your motivation in doing it? I feel, like I’ve often said, that our deepest intention is one of the most important things that we have to discern. Spend some time contemplating, “What is the deepest intention I have for my life?” It’s a really worthwhile thing to do. It’s very easy to live a surface life. Society will give us a lot of purposes to pursue, many of which are not so worthwhile. So, to be able to step back from the social and family-given purposes of our life and really dwell deep inside and ask, “What do I really want? What really is my heart’s wish?” is a very important exercise to do.
So, if you find your deepest wish, then you could ask, “Well, now how does my spiritual practice fit into that? Is that deepest wish spiritual or Buddhist or something? Does it have to do with meditation, perhaps? Or does meditation or Buddhist practice support my deepest intention?” This makes it easier to fulfill your deepest intention. If the deepest intention you want your life to be about has no connection to spiritual practice (spiritual practice doesn’t even support your deepest intention), then why do it? Why do spiritual practice? Just chuck it! Trust the deepest intention, clarify it, and stay in touch with it.
For some people, their motivation for practice is well articulated; they have good reasons. They understand why they’re doing it. And sometimes it’s not really articulated; they can’t put words on it, such as, “This is why I’m practicing.” I’ve gone through a variety of phases in my own practice. Some of which I knew really well what my purpose was, and some which I didn’t know what my purpose was, but I knew I had to sit. I knew I wanted to practice. When I was really motivated to practice, when it was really important for me to meditate, to live in monasteries, to do a variety of things, I thought it was really odd that I couldn’t actually say “Why”. I just knew it was the right thing. I was just pulled towards it.
And there were other times when I could say very clearly, “Well, I’m suffering, and I’m practicing in order to overcome or be free of my suffering.” Sometimes the suffering was conventional psychological suffering, and sometimes it wasn’t so much the conventional thing we call suffering. But in situations where my life was basically free of conventional suffering (well, happy), there was some clear insight that there was a deep dissatisfaction, deep uneasiness or a way in which suffering resided in the background or at the cornerstone of the way my mind and heart worked. And it just felt really important to find that, touch it, and resolve it somehow.
At times my motivation has been to develop, touch, awaken, or reveal the beautiful qualities that exist in the human heart and mind. The heart and mind have amazing capacities for love, peace, courage, compassion, insight, understanding, and for understanding and pursuing the truth. And so sometimes the motivation for me has been to go towards these things and to develop them.
And sometimes the motivation for me in my practice has been that I practice not for myself, but rather that I’m strongly motivated to do the practice to support other people. I believe that, sooner or later, people are not going to keep doing their meditation practice, or Buddhist practice, if they’re only doing it for themselves. So, to understand how the practice (your own practice) is supportive for others is one of the reasons to keep practicing.
So, there’s a wide range. Some of the motivation is intuitive; it just seems right. Sometimes it’s very well understood. But then there are also short-term and long-term motivations, goals, and purposes. If you’re a new meditator, and you sit down to meditate and say, “Well, in this 45-minute meditation, I’m going to get fully and completely enlightened, ” that’s probably unrealistic. Perhaps the goal of this meditation is that I’m just going to try to strengthen my mind’s capacity to be present. I’m going to try to learn how to let go of a lot of the preoccupations that keep me caught up all the time. And as I become more skillful at being really present, my mind is stable, and I get skillful at letting go of things, then perhaps someday I can start moving slowly towards the more ambitious goals that I have for myself. It’s a step-by-step thing. You don’t run a marathon by just running cold. Usually people spend months, years sometimes, preparing for that.
So, I don’t know if a marathon is the best analogy for spiritual practice, but there is a sense that you want to focus sometimes on what’s happening right here while you cultivate and develop yourself. Then eventually it grows and develops, and you mature into someone who can step into some of the more profound experiences that Buddhism points towards.
In looking at one’s motivation, part of the important evaluation is: Is your motivation, your aspiration, reasonable? So, again, for the long–term and short-term, is it a reasonable motivation for you in your circumstances, given how you live your life? What is a reasonable motivation? What is a reasonable purpose for you?
I’ve known people who’ve have had purposes that weren’t reasonable. And I’ve known people who have short-changed themselves–who have felt it wasn’t OK to have grand aspirations. Somehow maybe they discount themselves; they feel like they’re not important. Or they’re afraid of being in touch with the heart’s deepest wish. Or they feel like, “Yes, there’s this wonderful possibility of spiritual practice, but it’s not for me. And so, I’m going to be content just to read some dharma books that inspire me and let me feel like, yes, I’m in touch with something true, but I can’t really do this myself.” So, sometimes, people hold themselves back, and don’t give themselves enough motivation or sense of purpose even when they’re quite capable.
And then connected to the motivation is: What is the degree of inspiration you have for that motivation? There are plenty of people who are, what’s called, “bookstand Buddhists.” They can have great motivation as they’re reading their books. “Wow, this Buddhism is great! Enlightenment is great! I’m made for this! This is wonderful! Yes, I’m going to do this!” And then they close their book and that’s the last of it until they open their next book.
And some people are book junkies in Buddhism. They like to read and get kind of high. Oh yeah, that’s great! But they don’t really do the work themselves.
How inspired are you? What is the strength of that motivation? If you say, “It’s a good idea, but I’m not really going to get up off the couch,” or, “It’s a good idea; I’ll get around to it eventually,” then, maybe there’s not much discipline to follow through.
So, there’s a whole category of things to look at when we look at motivation. This is also a very interesting place to be in conversation with someone else about it, as well. Sometimes, when we talk to someone else about our motivation, we hear ourselves and understand ourselves in a new way, but also the other person can ask questions and offer different perspectives. They can be a kind of check and balance. It can be very useful.
The next area in evaluating one’s practice has to do with how well you understand yourself. But perhaps no one understands him or herself well enough. So, there’s always room for more understanding. But is there enough understanding to know how to match your motivation of practice with who you are?
If you read a generic dharma book, it lays out the course of practice. Then you might think, “That’s what I’m supposed to do—A, B, and C.” But it might not actually fit for who you are or for the phase your life is in. There might be issues that you have to deal with that are different than what your teacher is telling you to do. For example, I will often give talks about mindfulness or meditation, but in the last few years, I have not given many talks about ethics. And it might be that for some people, working and dealing with their ethics is the most important thing they should be working on, not meditation. So, if you listen to me and think you’re supposed to be meditating all the time, and you try to fit yourself into that mold, then maybe it’s a misfit for who you are. There might be particular psychological issues that you have; you might have certain ways in which your brain works.
I’m really struck by how different people are from each other and also how similar. One of the ways I was so struck by how different they are is in seeing children. Now that I’m raising children, I’m around a lot of children and get to see how differently these children come into the world. Some of you probably read in the paper yesterday that one in every 110 Americans has Autism. I don’t know if it’s just children now, but there’s a very high incidence of Autism. So, in the circle of my son’s friends, there’s Autistic kids, Asperger kids, lots of kids with so-called learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders, and all these wonderful names and diagnoses which are kind of energy-draining to hear.
But what I’ve learned is to not look at people who have all these differences as having disorders, but rather to see that this is who they are. I try to look at the gift of the person. It’s very common these days to say that someone has a learning disorder. I prefer to say a “learning difference” because there are many different ways of learning. Some people learn more auditorally. Some people learn more visually, where something written usually works. Some people learn more kinesthetically—doing something really works best for them. There are many different ways that people learn.
So, do you understand yourself? How do you learn best? What works best for you? I think it’s very important when you do a spiritual practice that you understand yourself enough so that you know how to tailor-make the practice for how you are, and at the same time, tailor-make it according to your preferences. So, that‘s a very important area.
That’s also where it’s useful to talk to someone else. You can say, “This is who I am; this is how things work for me, and so I’m going to practice this way. What do you think?” And then a friend or a teacher can say, “You know, that’s interesting, but it looks to me like you’re just attached to pleasure.” Or the teacher might say, “That’s great! That seems just right. Given who you are, that seems to be your way.” Some people find that reading and studying are some things that really help them deepen into their spiritual life. Other people find that reading and studying just become intellectual exercises; they’re not that valuable at all. Some people find (maybe more the extroverted types) that their spiritual life unfolds best if there’s a lot of conversation, communication, or interchange with other people. There are people who are more introverted and find that their spiritual life works best if they spend a lot of time alone. And that works best for them. So, understand yourself well enough to know how to adapt the spiritual practice for who you are.
Then, the next area of evaluation is to understand what the practice is–the instructions for the practice. There are people with strong motivation who might understand themselves fairly well, but who don’t actually know what to do. There are some Buddhist traditions that purposely don’t teach you very much and don’t give a lot of instructions. Some people do well on that system, and some people flounder because they don’t know what they’re doing. Sometimes people spend years sitting in meditation daydreaming because they weren’t ever given any clear instructions for what to do.
Or some people are given instructions in particular areas that are useful in that particular area, but in order to develop in an all-around way, they need to understand how the instruction applies to other areas. So, a person might get a lot of instructions, for example, on mindfulness of breathing and mindfulness of the body, but they may not understand how to work with their emotional life.
One of the great things that happened for me when I came into Vipassana practice was that I had not been told or given much instruction on how to work with my emotional life before doing Vipassana. In Vipassana, I learned how to turn the attention towards the emotional life and understand it in some deeper way.
So, there’s a whole series of areas of instruction. Here at IMC we often give instructions in working with the breath, body, emotions, thinking, quality or state of the mind, and intentions (not just your big intentions, but all the intentions of your day). There are actually clear instructions on how to work with intentions and attitude, how to do walking meditation, and how to practice in speech (mindfulness of speaking). Do you practice at work? Do you have some instructions or an understanding of how to practice in the work that you do? Or do you leave your practice at home and have a divided life?
Do you understand how everything you do can be your spiritual practice? Or do you have a kind of understanding of spirituality that divides up the world between that which is so-called “spiritual”, and that which is not. And so you’re happy to practice meditation and Buddhism Sunday morning at IMC, but then you don’t think about it until the next week (next Sunday). The rest of your life has other things that take the forefront.
So, what is your understanding of practice, the domain of practice, and how to do practice? This is useful not only to evaluate, but also to discuss with others because you might have missed something; you might have something a little bit off. You might have heard the instructions about the practice to do, but you’ve not heard the instructions about how to do the practice. And the difference is: Someone might tell you that the meditation practice is to follow your breath. That’s the practice. But how do you do the practice of following the breath? Well, you could strive, grit your teeth, really push, and be demanding. Or you could think, “Oh, I’ll get around to one of those breaths one of these… The sitting’s just started. We have 35 minutes for this meditation. There’s a lot of breaths. I’ll get to it. I have important things to think about or do here… I think it’s about halfway through, I think I still have some time… Getting to the end now. I think it’s probably a good idea to focus on a couple of breaths.” You can be too complacent, too easy-going.
So, the attitude we have with how we practice is a very important area of practice itself. And so part of the evaluation is to look and ask, “How am I doing it? What’s the attitude, what’s the approach in which I’m doing this practice?” There can be a lot of both subtle and great coarse adjustments that are needed in the how–the approach we have in doing practice. Are you too ambitious? Pushing too hard? Is there too much expectation? Is there not enough patience? Do you understand the importance of patience? Do you understand something about the balance between having a goal in practice, and at the same time being goalless–showing up and being really present here without the filter of the goal, without letting the goal trip you up, without missing the possibility of having some profound sense of presence here. That profound sense of presence or mindfulness won’t be here if we have a goal that has us looking into the future for what you’re going to attain. You have to understand something about the balance between being goalless and having a goal.
So, there’s a lot to understand about how to do the practice. I guess I kind of said it already, but I want to say it again. How well integrated is your practice in the rest of your life? Do you divide the practice where some areas are for practice and some areas are not? How well is it integrated in the way you live your life? I like this quote by Gary Snyder:
“All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with—reality. Reality insight says, ‘Master the 24 hours. Do it well without self-pity.’ It is as hard to get the children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus, as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha Hall on a cold morning. One move is not better than the other. Each can be quite boring. And they both have the virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms: changing the oil filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick. Don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on the “path”; it is our path.”
The areas I have covered so far are motivation, self-understanding, and understanding the practice itself (or the instructions that you’re going to do.) The fourth area has to do with balance. Is your life balanced? Is your practice balanced? Is there a right balance of activity and non-activity, work and not- work, socializing (being with friends and people) and being alone? Do you have enough time off to allow for some kind of contemplative time to happen for you?
Is there a balance energetically—do you get enough exercise so that you have a good balanced energy as you go about your life? Without good energy, it’s hard to do a spiritual practice. Do you get too much exercise? I’ve known some people who get too much. And what I mean by too much is that they can’t really sit still. They’re always kind of charged-up, and there’s a kind of depending on the charge they always get. You see it occasionally on retreat—the exercise
junkies. They just can’t sit still. And they come with great arguments about how important it is to run or do something that is part of the spiritual practice. And usually when people come with strong arguments for it, that’s usually a sign that it’s probably imbalanced. Exercise is important, but…
I like the term balance because it points out that we’re multi-dimensional. There’s many different aspects to who we are as a human being. And so, sometimes we’re stuck that it’s one way—this one thing is the important thing. And often, it’s more than one thing. Things have to be in balance. So, in terms of meditation practice itself, there’s a variety of psychological factors or physical/psychological factors that need to come into balance. There’s a balance between faith and wisdom, confidence and discernment. There’s a balance between having energy and being calm or concentrated. You need both. You need to have some confidence or faith to do the practice, but you also need to have some wisdom about that faith. There’s some people who have blind faith and not any wisdom. There are people who have a lot of understanding, but they have no confidence or faith. There are people who are too calm— they don’t have enough energy. And then there are people who can get concentrated and have an adequate amount of energy to balance that concentration.
So, classically in meditation practice, a meditator is looking at the balance between these factors. And the most important one, I think, is the one between energy and concentration, energy and calm. You have to get wise in swimming and negotiating between those two factors–tracking oneself and noticing when you get so calm that your mind starts to drift. You need to have a little more aroused energy to match the calm. Not to lose the calm, but to match it.
For some people, the interesting balance is between service and self-care. In different phases in people’s practice life, it might be more important to do self-care—to practice for yourself, be on retreat. In other phases, it might be very important to have your practice outwardly directed—to be of service and to help others. How do you negotiate the balance between service and self-care?
There’s the balance between practice and study. There are people who practice a lot, but their practice would be supported by more study so that they understand some of the teachings and can grapple with the teachings and use the teachings to be a mirror to understand themselves better. There are people who study too much. And do things like get PhDs in Buddhist Studies. So, there’s all kinds of things you can do, but is there appropriate balance?
The next area is: What are the problems you have in doing the practice? What are the obstacles you have? Sometimes it’s really useful to look at what attachments you have–what are the places you get stuck when you do the practice? And there’s a whole slew of areas. So, one interesting question, for example, is if you’re practicing mindfulness throughout the day, when in the day are you most likely to lose it? Are there any patterns behind it? It’s easy enough to lose your mindfulness and not think that’s important –“I’ll get around to it eventually.” But it might be that the cutting edge of your practice is to understand that you mostly lose it when things get very hectic or when things have a lot to do with self- image–when you have to go and talk to other people at your work and make a presentation and you get caught up in self-concern. That’s when you lose your mindfulness. Or it might be that…I don’t know what. There’s all kinds of possibilities. So, study, “When do I lose it?”
Or what are some of the preoccupations that pull you away from present, from being mindful? What are the challenges you have to work through that’ll be useful to look at more deeply and more carefully? Do you get attached to pleasure, to comfort? Are you aversive to discomfort? And is that an important motivating aspect for your life, an important obstacle for doing the practice? If you’re too caught up in pleasure and comfort, it’s very hard to practice in an honest way. If you’re too aversive to discomfort, it’s also difficult to practice. You have to find the right balance of the two. Not balance–you have to find the right way to hold both of them so that they become part of the path, rather than obstacles to the path.
What’s the role that fear and aversion have for you? What’s your relationship to altered states? Sometimes in meditation, people experience altered states–98states that are different from what they’re used to having. And what’s your relationship to that? Are you afraid of them? Are you confused by them? Are you strongly attached to them? That’s what it’s all about. Altered states—that’s what it’s all about. Nothing else counts. The ordinary mind-state that I have, ordinary life, that’s not important. It just gets in the way. What’s your relationship? Are you stuck around states of mind?
Are there problems with your ethics–your sela? Is the fact that your behavior is not really so ethical becoming an obstacle to you in furthering your spiritual practice? I like this little description:
“A few years ago, at an alcoholism treatment center in the suburbs of Chicago, staff members reported an intriguing discovery. Many of them lived at some distance from the facility, each day braving the hazards of tollway traffic in commuting to and from work. And one day, the state of Illinois instituted honor system toll collection booths in that area. No attendant, no barrier gate, just a basket into which motorists were expected to throw their coins. Data are unavailable about how well the method served in meeting the highway department’s fiscal and traffic flow needs. But counselors at the treatment center, collected observations that soon added up to an axiom: Those who don’t throw their money in, their patients don’t get well. As one counselor put it in telling the story, “How can you pass on an honest program if you aren’t honest yourself? Honesty is indivisible. ”
So, looking at how you behave (your ethics) is an important part of practice.
Another interesting problem area that points to some of the core issues of Buddhist practice, has to do with how much self is involved when you practice. One of the very intriguing or challenging aspects for some people is to distinguish between the self-observation, self-tracking, the mindfulness (a big part of mindfulness, especially meditation, is to look at yourself, understand yourself, where your attachments are, to let go). So, there’s a kind of self-focus, in a certain way. How do you distinguish that from narcissism? Isn’t that interesting? I think it’s interesting. More than interesting, I’m perplexed sometimes. It doesn’t happen that often, but every once in a while, someone comes and talks to me about their practice. It’s reasonable that they’re talking about their practice. That’s usually what people do when they talk to me. That’s good; so, it’s fine. But then, I’m imagining that I’m scratching my head, tipping my head sideways, looking at them. I wonder, “Is this person just really narcissistic?” And there’ll be no end to talking about themselves. They’re really self-obsessed in a big way. It’s all about themselves. They’re not practicing to become free of self-attachment; they’re practicing as a way to continue self-attachment.
So, it’s a tricky thing to find that balance. Look at: How does self-image come into play when you practice? What are the expectations around self? What kind of self are you trying to make or create, and for who? These are some of the problems areas that can occur in practice.
Another area of evaluation is to begin, at some point, appreciating the understandings and insights that come with the practice. So, as you do Buddhist practice, understanding and insight is an important part of it. And so, it’s not just a matter of changing, becoming calm, changing your mind state or something, but it’s also a matter of understanding how your mind works, how your heart works. What are the causes and conditions that bring together the forms of suffering that you have? What are the causes and conditions that bring liberation from suffering? How does compassion work for you? There’s a whole slew of areas to understand.
As you sit and look more and more deeply, how well do you understand how selfing works–the whole idea of how we create a sense of self, make up a sense of self? We often take the self for granted, as if it’s God-given—it’s just the way it is, that I have this self. But, Buddhist practice shows you that if you look carefully, much of what we think of as the self is a construct. It’s an activity that’s being created and formed and shaped moment-by-moment. And if you start looking and seeing the creative aspect of it, you’ll start having insight into how that works.
So, there’s a variety of things that begin revealing themselves as you do the practice. And so, begin appreciating those insights. Probably the most important one (my guess the most important insight to have in our tradition of Buddhism) is to understand how clinging works. To understand the nature of grasping and clinging, and all the subtle and multifarious ways in which we cling. And then to understand, if you can, how you can release that clinging. If you understand those two things and the value of those two things, all of Buddhism will open up for you. So, as your practice deepens, you start to understand better and better the nature of clinging–how you cling, what you cling to.
There’s also insight into some of the beautiful states of mind, of heart that can bubble up as we practice. You can have insight into how compassion works and the value of compassion, insight into loving-kindness, how to develop loving-kindness, how to cultivate it. There’s a lot of things.
So, at some point, being able to appreciate those insights and understandings are very important because that strengthens them; that allows us to build on them and be informed by them as we continue our practice.
And here again, it can be very useful to be in conversation with someone else about it. Saying, “Oh, this is my understanding now. I’ve had this insight. This is how I understand things.” One of the reasons to have an interview with a Buddhist teacher is not to go and talk about your problems, your difficulties, but rather to talk about the understandings and insights you’ve had in practice. “Oh, I’ve been practicing now for a year, 2 years, 10 years and this is the understanding I’ve come to in my practice. This is the understanding that I base my practice on. What do you think of that?” And the teacher will say, “Great!” Sometimes a teacher is just a glorified cheerleader. And sometimes they’ll say, “Hmmm…that’s interesting!” Or something like that. So, there’s personal insight–understanding the nature of the world better. There’s dharma insight.
And then the last area of evaluation is to spend some time evaluating or understanding what the benefits and blessings have been from doing the practice. What are the benefits that you’ve experienced in doing the practice? It’s a little bit different than the insights. Because sooner or later, this Buddhist practice is supposed to bring benefits. Sometimes it’s later, and we have to be patient. But sometimes it’s immediate. And sometimes it’s both.
My ideal idea of someone’s practice is that they would see the immediate benefits of one moment of mindfulness and feel like one moment of mindfulness is satisfying and meaningful in and of itself because it’s so beneficial. And they would have some sense of how the mindfulness practice is onward leading to a deeper and deeper realization of freedom. So, both exist together.
But there’s all kinds of benefits to be had. You can be calmer. You can go about your life with more understanding: less reactive, don’t cause as many problems anymore for yourself as you go about your life, don’t cause so many problems for other people anymore (they’re really glad for the benefits). There’s a greater sense of joy, delight in just being alive, being present–feeling lighter, more at ease with how things are. There is greater capacity for courage, for doing difficult things. When you’re really challenged by something, hanging in there and seeing it to the end. Having a great resolve. Having strong resolve is a benefit. One of the benefits is how we can be of greater help to our community–help to support other people better from having done the practice.
And some of these benefits are blessings. Or we realize how much blessing there is in this life of ours, how much fortune there is. I think just to be alive is to be fortunate. There’s so much that supports our lives. I think part of the value of the practice is to appreciate how much support we have–to feel the gratitude for that and value of that. And part of the reason to appreciate the benefits and blessings, is that as we appreciate and recognize something, it tends to strengthen it. We tend to notice it more fully. We tend to notice it more often. And as we notice something, it becomes more a part of who we are. There’s a lot of so-called blessings, fortunate things, that we receive. There’s all kinds of things that I don’t spend much time reflecting on how wonderful it is that I am the recipient of these blessings. But, for example, I don’t often think about how lucky I am to have an electrical system that works. But it’s a pretty amazing thing that we have this all this electricity that comes our way. And when I think about that, it kind of lightens my heart. I feel kind of nice.
So, I’ll end by saying that from time to time, it’s useful to evaluate your practice. Sometimes you do small evaluations as you go along. So, for example, if you’re sleepy when you sit down to meditate, you evaluate–you’re aware of that sleepiness. You know the instructions of what to do when you’re sleepy and you do it. You sit up straighter. You open your eyes when you meditate. That’s a simple evaluation. Sometimes you want to step back and maybe go for a day and walk on the beach or take a book with you and write on in. And really reflect on what your life is about.
When I turned 50, I went for a 5-day hike in the Sierras by myself. And part of the purpose for that was to review my life and see what was my intention, my aspiration, what did I want my life to be about now at this turning point of 50. I spent 5 days walking in the Sierras, kind of reflecting and thinking. It was very useful.
So, sometimes small evaluations, sometimes big evaluations. And as you look at all this, your motivation, your self, your benefits, one thing that I encourage you to do is to give a lot of credence, a lot of value to your beauty–to your nobility, to your capacity for good, for freedom. Every heart has a tremendous amount of beauty in it—potential beauty, capacity for beauty. And some people are much more hesitant to appreciate their own beauty and to act on it as if it’s very important, than they are to appreciate their neurosis. And it’s certainly important to bring mindfulness to your neurosis if you’re neurotic, but perhaps your neurosis would be seen in a very different context if you saw it in the context of your profound capacity for beauty.
And may your particular beauty flower and grow and become a gift for others.