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The Storms of Spiritual Life

-Adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, April 1st, 2001

It is naive to expect Buddhist practice to entail only joy and ease. It is much more realistic to expect both joy and sorrow, ease and struggle. If the practice is to engage with our full life, then inevitably we will practice in times of crisis, loss, or painful self-confrontation. Certainly it would be nice to negotiate these times with calm, grace, and wisdom. However, to be hard on ourselves for not doing so only adds to our suffering and hinders the growth of compassion.

To evaluate one’s spiritual practice by the presence of joy and ease is often myopic; it overlooks the range of other personal qualities that we need to develop. An analogy may illustrate this:

Imagine two people setting out to cross a large lake, each in a small rowboat. The first sets out on a clear day with the lake surface still and flat like a mirror; a gentle breeze and a steady current push the boat from behind. Each time the oars are dipped into the water, the boat shoots across the lake. Rowing is easy and delightful. Quickly the person reaches the far side of the lake. The rower may congratulate herself for being quite skilled.

The second person heads out across the same lake during a great storm. Powerful winds, currents, and waves move in the direction opposite the boat. With each pull of the oars, the boat barely moves forward, only to lose most of the distance gained when the oars are raised out of the water for the next pull. After much effort the second rower makes it to the far side of the lake. This rower may feel discouraged at his lack of skill.

Probably most people would prefer to be the first rower. However, it is the second rower who has become stronger from the exertion and is thereby better prepared for future challenges.

I have known meditators who have congratulated themselves for their meditative proficiency when practice has been easy. And I have known meditators filled with doubt and self-condemnation when the practice has been stormy. Practicing with our best effort during periods of crisis and personal struggle may not bring about spiritual highs. It may, however, bring something more important: a strengthening of the inner qualities which sustain a spiritual life for the long term: mindfulness, persistence, courage, compassion, humility, renunciation, discipline, concentration, faith, acceptance, and kindness.

For Buddhist practice, one of the most important inner capacities to develop is that of intention. If our intention is a muscle, then following through on our intention to practice -to be mindful and compassionate-during times of difficulty is an important way of strengthening it. The beauty of this is that, even if our efforts are clumsy or if we don’t accomplish a particular task, the “intention muscle” has still been strengthened every time we use it. As our core motivations become stronger and we develop more confidence and appreciation in them, they become a resource and refuge in times of difficulty.

Meditators all too often measure their practice by their “meditative experiences.” While a range of such potential experiences can play an important role in Buddhist spirituality, day to day practice is more focused on developing our inner faculties and aptitudes. This includes cultivating our capacity for awareness and investigation in all circumstances, whether the weather is clear or stormy. A wealth of inner strength follows in the wake of mindfulness and persistence. Such strength is often accompanied by feelings of calm and joy; but, more important, it allows us to remain awake and free under conditions of both joy and sorrow.