On the first day of a four-day meditation retreat, a student went in to see the Zen master with whom he’d been studying for many years. Sitting at the teacher’s feet, he asked, “Can you tell me how I’m doing in my practice?” The Zen master thought for a minute, then said, “Open your mouth.” The student opened his mouth, and the teacher peered in and said, “OK, now bend your head down.” The student bent his head down, and the Zen master looked into his hair, then said, “OK, now open your eyes really wide.” The student opened his eyes, and the Zen master glared into them and said, “You’re doing fine.” Then he rang his bell.
Because the teacher rang his bell, the student had to leave. The next day, he returned, quite perplexed by what had happened the day before. “I asked you how I was doing in my practice yesterday,” he said, “and you made me open my mouth, bend my head, and open my eyes. What did all that have to do with my practice?” The Zen master bowed his head in thought. Then he said, “You know, you’re not really doing very well in your practice, and the truth is, I am not sure you are ever going to make it.” Again he rang his bell.
The student walked out. You can imagine how confused and angry he felt. The next day he went back, still fuming, and said, “What do you mean, I’m not going to make it in practice? Do you know that I sit in meditation for an hour every day? Sometimes I sit twice a day. I come to every retreat. I have really deep experiences. What do you mean I’m not going to make it?” The master just sat there, apparently thinking. Then he said, “Well, maybe I made a mistake. Perhaps you’re doing pretty well after all.” And again he rang his bell.
On the last day of the retreat, the student went back to see his teacher, utterly exhausted. He felt distraught and confused, but he was no longer fighting it. He said to the master, “I just wanted to know how I was doing in my practice.” This time, the teacher looked at him and with no hesitation, in a very kind voice, said, “If you really want to know how you’re doing in your practice, just look at all of your reactions over the last few days. Just look at your life.”
Three Pillars of Practice
It’s important to have a daily meditation practice, to have a developing ability to see thoughts clearly, and to reside in our bodily experience. But having deep experiences during meditation is not enough. If we want to know how we’re doing in our practice, we have to examine our life. Unless we begin to connect it with the rest of our life, our practice—however strong, calm, or enjoyable—ultimately will not be satisfying.
The reason it won’t be satisfying is that we’re ignoring one of the three basic pillars of practice. The first pillar is a daily sitting practice, in which we slowly develop both the strength and the willingness to do what we’ve spent our whole lives avoiding: reside in the physical reality of the present moment. The second pillar is the more intensive training offered in retreats, which pushes us in a way that we rarely push ourselves at home. There is no substitute for the learning we can do at retreats—where our illusions are dismantled and the real value of perseverance becomes evident. The third pillar is practicing with the messy, unromantic, ordinary ups and downs of daily life. This pillar is essential to a genuine practice. Without it, we will never truly be satisfied.
However, understanding the connection between practice and the rest of our life means addressing many different concerns. For instance, how are you practicing in your relationships—with your spouse, your children, your parents, the people at work? How many resentments do you still hold on to? Do the same people as ever in your life trigger anger, contempt, or other believed judgments? To what extent can you say, “I’m sorry,” and really mean it? When a problem arises, can you say yes to practicing with it, even when you hate what’s happening? And when criticism comes at you, are you willing to work with your reactions when they arise, instead of justifying them?
The Heart of Experience
The answers to questions like these give us the measure of our practice. This measure is nothing magical or mysterious. It’s simply the increasing ability to know what our life is, as well as the growing understanding that to practice with our life means to practice with everything we meet. Practice isn’t just about sitting on a cushion trying to feel calm.
It is not at all uncommon for students to ask their teachers to measure their practice for them. The question itself, if we’re not aware of what we’re really asking, is already one small measure of where we are. Asking “How am I doing in my practice?” is like asking “Am I OK?” or “Am I acceptable the way I am?”
A friend recently told me she learned three things about herself in assessing her practice: She was addicted to her thinking, she was attached to her emotions, and she didn’t want to stay in the present moment for more than a few seconds at a time. This might sound like familiar bad news, but is there really any problem with this? At least there’s awareness of where she’s stuck. What is unfortunate is believing our judgments and discouraging thoughts about what we see—”I’m a bad student,” “I’ll never really change,” and so on.
We all want to change, to make our lives better. What we don’t realize is that most transformative changes are slow and almost imperceptible; we continue to believe that our lives should be significantly different after practicing for only a few years. But it’s not as if we go in to see a teacher, full of our fears, and come out fearless! Nor can we go to a retreat full of confusion, have a deep experience, and then remain permanently clear. We would like to see dramatic changes, but this isn’t how practice works. Sometimes we don’t even notice the ways it erodes our habitual protective strategies, until one day we find ourselves in a situation that had always made us anxious or angry or uptight, and we notice that the anxiety, the anger, or the closed-down quality is gone.
Seeing Beyond Confusion
Rather than “How am I doing?,” the real questions are “Where am I still shutting down in fear and self-protection?” and “Where do I meet my edge, beyond which I’m not ready to go?” Practice is about noticing and experiencing these places—not with heaviness or guilt but just as something to be worked with—and then seeing how to take small steps beyond them.
For example, when faced with a difficult decision and lost in confusion, are we able to see clearly how to practice? Students often ask for help when trying to decide whether to stay in a relationship or make a career change. They’re often caught in the mental snare of weighing and measuring the pros and cons of each position, spinning among possibilities with no hope of resolution.
However, confusion is a state out of which nothing but confusion arises; the real source of confusion in such situations is that we don’t know who we are. As the French philosopher Pascal said, “The heart has reasons of which the mind knows nothing.”
To practice with difficult decisions, we must leave the mental world and enter the heart of our experience. This means residing in the physical experience of the anxiety and confusion itself, instead of spinning off into thoughts. How does it actually feel to be confused? What is the texture of the experience? Staying with the bodily reality of the present moment offers us the possibility to see our life with a sense of clarity that we could never realize through thinking alone. How long will it take? No one can say. But practicing like this is a good example of going to our edge and working directly with where we’re stuck.
Another example is working with fear. What do you do with your fears when they arise? Do you usually vacillate between trying to stomp them out and trying to avoid the fearful situation? Most of us do. But when we come to our edge—and what is fear if not the clearest indicator that we’re at our edge—we can take the small practice step of choosing to go against our habitual reactions to fear. This is not done with the intention of modifying our behavior by stomping out our fear.
Instead, we take the moment to observe and experience as fully as possible what our fear really is. The next time fear arises, see if you can really feel the energy of fear in the body, without doing anything to change it or get rid of it.
Practice always involves seeing our edge and taking a small step beyond it into the unknown. As a Spanish proverb says, “If you do not dare, you do not live.” Nietzsche echoed this when he said, “The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously!” Nietzsche wasn’t necessarily talking about doing physically dangerous things; he meant taking a step beyond our edge of comfort.
Still, we have to step toward our edge by ourselves. Instead of regarding our edge as an enemy, a place we prefer to avoid, we can realize that our edge is actually our path. From this place, we can take a step closer toward what is. But we can do this only one step at a time, persevering through all the ups and downs of our lives. We may sense danger; sometimes we may even feel as if death is upon us. However, we don’t have to leap in headfirst, going for all or nothing. We can simply take a small step, supported by the knowledge that everyone feels fear in stepping beyond the illusion of comfort.
The real measure of practice is whether, little by little, we can find our edge, that place where we’re closed down in fear, and allow ourselves to experience it. This takes courage, but courage isn’t about becoming fearless. Courage is the willingness to experience our fears. And as we experience our fears, courage grows. Noticing our edge and trying to meet it also allows us to develop compassion, not just for ourselves but for the whole human drama. Then, with an increasing sense of lightness and curiosity, we can keep moving toward a more open and genuine life.