In our normal view of the world, we create an image of ourselves and then put our energies into maintaining this image: our ego. When life presents challenges, our self- image may get battered, our goals thwarted; we create suffering as a result. We ALL do this, to varying degrees. The more attached we are to our self image and dreams we set for ourselves, the more we suffer when things do not go our way.
So the first venture into practice may be as an attempt to escape the suffering of this unpredictable world. Perhaps we want to learn to calm our mind. We practice first to learn the boundaries of ego so that we can disassemble it, or rather see that it has never existed. The first step on the path then starts with seeing the illusory nature of ego. Eventually we come to understand that practice may not abolish our suffering entirely, but rather, practice will give us tools to manage suffering in a sane and grounded way.
According to the Buddha, there are 84,000 different doors to enlightenment. It doesn’t matter if you subscribe to Buddhist belief, or Hindu belief, Christian belief, or no belief: we all have wisdom deep within that is hidden by our obscured view of reality. By developing a disciplined practice–whether it is yoga or meditation or writing or painting– we develop the tools to clarify our circumstances and uncover our bright shining light. Our radiance and joy.
We do not all need to follow the same path. Whatever practice we do is only relevant in the sense that it should create some benefit. So we should be alert to the effects of the practice. If we have been doing a particular practice for many years and don’t see positive results in our lives, then we should question whether that is the appropriate practice for us in our particular time and circumstance.
The Dalai Lama notes: “When we take medicine, it is not the taste, color, or quantity of the medicine that matters; the important thing is the beneficial effect on our body. If in spite of having taken a certain medicine for a long time we see no effect, there is no point in continuing to take it. Regardless of whether your practice is elaborate or short, above all, it should be effective in bringing about some kind of a transformation, a change for the better, within you.”
This is why we practice: to free ourselves of delusion, so that we may be of some benefit to others. Sometimes I hear modern yoga teachers make promises like, “you will feel better, your bad habits will go away, your relationships will change as a result of practice.” This is possible. It is, however, entirely possible to use practice in the service of ego. With unclear intent, wrong understanding or lack of awareness, we can use anything, even spiritual practice, to reinforce our self-serving habits. We practice to cultivate awareness – not just on the mat or the cushion, but in every single moment of our lives. If awareness is not translating into our lives (as kindness), then our practice is misguided, and we should look again at what we are doing, or rather how we are doing.
How Practice Works
Practice provides a technique to watch our responses (or reactions) to failure, success, ambition, hopes, drives, fears, disappointments. How we respond to the rules suddenly being changed, or to rules period. Can we see deeply into the core of our experience of how we view and interact with the world? Until we recognize our own little thingy – that habitual pattern, whether physical, emotional or mental, that obstructs our complete opening – then we won’t be able to release it. And if we can’t let go of our thingy, then it will rule us. We will carry it around with us our whole lives, like dead skin we no longer need, but refuse to shed. The point is that the practice itself is not “It.” There is no prize for having an “advanced” practice, especially if we are using the practice to boost our ego. Practice is the tool, it is not the result that we are seeking.
So we should check in with our practice periodically to see: are we increasing wisdom and compassion, lessening self-centeredness and attachment? Is the practice working? If we listen, practice will show us the way: to living more fully and compassionately with awareness of the vivid and fleeting present moment, the here and now, with all of its inconvenient and beautiful truths.