What is Practice?
July 31, 2016 § 3 Comments
Practice is being in the present moment and returning to it from each distraction.
There is a tendency when reading this description to isolate the idea of the present moment and assume that success in practice is a continual state of undistracted awareness in the now, something we might call ‘enlightenment’. This, however, is not the case.
In psychology there is a process called habituation. It happens when repeated exposure to a stimulus results in the stimulus fading into the background making it, for all intent and purpose, unconscious. As practice is as much a psychological process as a spiritual one it is not immune to habituation. As a result it is not possible to hold the present moment in focus for a prolonged period without becoming distracted into drowsiness or thinking.
The reality of practice is that unbroken awareness of the present moment will always meet with distraction. This reality is the reality of life where something always comes up and nothing ever remains the same. Practice is the continuous “waking up” to this ever changing present that is nothing other than your everyday life.
Usually considered a temporal event, the present moment is actually known only in spatial terms. Hence, the typical instruction for practice is to focus upon some point in space, such as the breath, the posture or a wall. Or, as in mindfulness, upon whatever task is at hand. When thoughts and feelings arise to distract, the instruction is to let them go and return the focus to that point in space as it is in the present moment. Letting go and returning to the present are just different ways of saying “waking up”.
In the immediate experience of practice when the attention is turned to a chosen point in space, the awareness is brought into the present moment. When a thought arises that is followed by more thought, or the mind becomes drowsy and is pulled into imaginings, the awareness of the present moment becomes foggy.
This ‘fogginess’ can easily be experienced with a simple exercise. Take a moment to focus on some object about you. Then start thinking about something else. Note the immediate shift away from the outer object to the thought inside your head and how this shift acts like a veil to cover or fog your awareness of the object. When full attention is returned to the object the fog lifts, and you momentarily waken to the present moment.
Practice is not so much the continuous waking to the present moment as it is the attempt to waken to each moment. That is why it is called practice. In the course of practice we go from thinking to drowsiness to the present, back to thinking, back to the now, and so on and so forth. Continued daily practice over the course of years will bring greater clarity to the moment but as each moment is in a process of continuous creation, practice, too, must be continually renewed. Exercising this ability to wake up to the present moment and returning to it after each distraction is practice and why, perhaps, Zen master Dogen said, “Our practice is enlightenment itself.”