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Sustaining Practice

December 1, 2009

When Nate suggested I write about sustaining practice, I thought it would be pretty much a no-brainer. Then I started thinking, which is never a good thing because my mind can put an Escher drawing to shame. And that, in a nutshell, is what derails my practice: I start to believe what I think.

For all practitioners, practice is a challenge. Sustaining practice is just that: meeting the challenge of practicing. From a psychological perspective, sustaining any activity is simple – theoretically. Find what reinforces the behaviour and apply generously. It boils down to a simple creed: Create intention, pay attention. From that, right action follows – mostly. Full disclosure is required here: it doesn’t work for me at the formal level of practice. I can no more sit religiously than I can run, work out, eat well, not ruminate, or love unconditionally.

Kevin Kinghorn has a terrific chapter in Running & Philosophy: a marathon for the mind which explores what makes an early morning runner. It seems to fit for “early morning” (or maintaining any consistent) practice. He describes three kinds of runners: the constant struggler, the single decision-maker, and the rote runner. These groups differ in how they sustain practice by making decisions that lead to intentional actions. (Kinghorn’s decisions are the equivalent of what I’ve called creating intention; his intentional actions map to right action.) More often than I like to admit, I fall in the category of the constant struggler, putting the decision making in the foreground and intentional actions in the background. Every moment is a decision and every decision is a struggle. From the moment the alarm goes off I struggle: Should I get up? Is this a good thing? Am I tired? How is this going to affect my day? How do I feel? When I do get myself to the cushion, I’m still thinking: How long can I sit? Is this right…wrong? How do I feel? And so it goes. This process eventually derails me because all the energy is going into decision-making about practice. Any reinforcement of the intentional actions that arose from each decision is lost in the struggle of the next decision.

The single decision-maker does only one thing: make the decision. Everything else flows from that. Sometimes I hit this sweet spot. The decision to sit tomorrow morning encompasses everything: waking up, doing the rituals of sitting if there are any, setting butt on cushion, sitting. There are no interim or bridging decisions to be made. It’s one flowing movement from creating the intention to fulfilling the action – or, in Kinghorn’s terms I make one decision to run and all actions intended to fulfill that decision unfold. And there’s flexibility. Some mornings, as a single decision-maker, I can decide not to sit and other actions flow from that with no recrimination or self-bashing. The challenge with cultivating this style is in clarifying my delusion-prone thinking. I woke up one morning and made that one decision (actually I made it the night before as instructed by my Zen teacher). When I got to the meditation room, I remembered that a friend had said doing yoga really enhanced her ability to sit. So I did some yoga. But that ate up the time I had allotted for sitting – and the self-bashing ensued. Two things are crucial here: I made a different decision AND beat up on myself for not holding true to the first decision. I became a “constant struggler” despite my intention to be a single decision maker. The key to being a single-decision maker is in seeing that thoughts which arise are parenthetical to the moment. We can make a decision to do something else; if so, engage in those actions without looking back.

The rote runner is the equivalent of a fully realized being. Having made the decision to run, they never revisit it. (Kinghorn points out that “rote” here doesn’t mean being on automatic pilot or thoughtless.) Practice then is simply one intentional action after another. I see that in my teachers. Sometime in their lives they made the decision to practice deeply. Every action after that manifests that decision. In many ways yet blind to it, I think I’ve also done that (but being blind to it means I’m not a realized being). I know I made a decision at some point in my life that practice in all its forms is crucial to my wellbeing and that of others; embedded in that decision was a commitment to sustain practice. But I’m still vulnerable to the seduction of my thoughts. This is where informal practice is important. It resets my thought process: pay attention when drinking tea, walking, listening, stopping, calming, and so on. It’s all practice. And when I pay attention to every action moment by moment, I’m honouring my original commitment to practice and strengthening my thinking process so it’s more resilient when derailed.

I’ve become intimate with the constant struggler that arises most days. The struggle – any struggle – is thinking that I don’t want what’s being presented to me in the cold, dark morning. I try to remember that I’m good at cultivating habits; many a tub of ice cream has been consumed skilfully while mentally chanting, “I don’t feel like getting fat.” Equally, many a sitting session can be (has been) consumed more or less skilfully while reciting, “I don’t feel like it.”

At different times in our path, we are one of the three types of runners/practitioners. I don’t believe it’s a linear progression nor do I think it’s helpful to see it that way. Life happens; we get derailed. Just noticing that it happens perhaps is the best practice to sustain.

Thank you for practicing,
Genju

Guest blog post by Genju/ Lynette from 108 Zen Books

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