Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Motivations For Practice

In order that I qualify to enter the Dharma teacher training program, I’ve been asked to write a 1000 word paper on motivations for practice. Well, the motivation for practice is to help this world. There. That’s why I practice. Well, now I only have 971 more words to go. I guess I might as well elaborate.

So, how can sitting on the floor help this world?

In his Four Noble Truths, Buddha stated that suffering is the result of the attachment to craving within our own minds. Then he laid out a plan called the Eightfold Path for eliminating suffering, in part, by training the mind to stop this craving and the clinging it creates.

That brings us to meditation. This is the way we can train our minds to stop clinging to what we consider to be good and to push away what we consider to be bad. We do this by practice. In Buddhism, the word practice employs two meanings. It refers to both a spiritual practice and a repetitive practice (as in practice makes perfect). Just as we can learn to train our fingers to the correct position for playing a chord on a piano or guitar, we can train our minds to cling less. So, when you’re sitting and thoughts come up, and you become aware that you’re no longer counting or watching your breath or whatever your practice is, you gently but firmly bring your mind back to your practice. It is the nature of the mind to wander. No matter what you do, it is going to fight against this training and try to return to what has become its habitual nature. So, there’s no reason to beat yourself up because your mind is wandering. Wandering is what minds do. The training that the Buddha speaks of is actually the continual bringing your mind back to concentration. This is what you are practicing. So, if you have a session in which your mind keeps wandering and you keep having to rein it in, or if you have a session in which your mind is calm and focused, they are each equal in quality. Actually, quality or judging has nothing to do with practice. It is practicing itself that is important.

On Internet discussion groups, I’ve read many posts in which folks ask how they can become more compassionate, patient, open, etc. The answer to all these questions is simple. PRACTICE. Meditation, bowing , chanting, walking and kong-ans are the practice. Becoming a more patient and compassionate person is the by-product. It is that simple. This is a truly transformative spiritual practice. Its not as if meditation will make you realize that you should do this or that, or that it provides you with the tools to decide to behave a certain way. Regular meditation actually transforms your mind.

But, becoming a better person is not the ultimate motivation for practice. I stated earlier that helping this world is. I love the metaphor of ripples in a pond. One small pebble, even a grain of sand, tossed into a still pool will create ripples that slide out across to the opposite bank, putting all the water molecules in the pond into motion. It’s also true that as one person becomes more compassionate or patient, those with whom they interact will benefit, and the people with whom that second set of people interact will benefit, on and on until the ripples reach the opposite bank.

I’ve seen this rippling in action in my own life. I work as an elementary school teacher. My co-workers and I have lessons to plan and teach, papers to grade, scores to record, reports to write, meetings to plan and attend, standardized testing to prepare for, articles to read, etc., etc. It is very rare that it’s ever possible to actually finish our work during the work day, or even when we take it home to continue working there. It is very tempting to tune children out during times that we might consider down time so that we can concentrate on one of the tasks demanding of our time. It used to be that when children were waiting for dismissal, I would ask them to sit quietly while I worked away.

One day however, after I’d been practicing for a year or so, a boy was waiting for a late parent to pick him up. Instead of grading papers, I sensed that something was on his mind. We began talking and soon he began telling me that he’d been very anxious because he really missed his brother. Because I seemed receptive rather than asking him to sit down, he went on to explain that his father, who had just been released from prison, had kidnapped his brother two weeks earlier and the family hadn’t heard from them in all that time.

We had a heartfelt discussion about these events and the stresses they had born. I know that had this happened a year earlier, I would have asked him to just get out a book to read while he waited and this conversation would never have begun. It was because of my practice that I was aware that there was something to talk about and was present enough to act on it. I didn’t stop to think about what I should do. I simply reacted to the situation in a more compassionate manner. I like to think that this talk helped my student. Maybe he was nicer to his other family members or friends when he went home. Maybe they responded in kind to those with whom they interacted that night. Of course, this was just one event. I find myself in similar, though less dramatic situations on nearly a daily basis, as we all do.

As anyone who works with children, I’m fortunate to receive immediate feedback from them for all my actions and all my speech. Working with children is probably the best spiritual training a person could find. I often wonder who does more teaching during a school day, me or my students. Actually, it was because of this feedback that I first sought out a Zen teacher to help me become more patient and compassionate with my students. It was the best thing I could have done for them, for myself... and for this world.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Thank you for sharing this Richard. I am so happy that you will be taking ten precepts and embarking on the journey of Dharma Teacher in Training. Peace, Margaret.