Saturday, February 2, 2013

Take it from the top, with love: The practice of starting over

Each time that we take our seat in mindfulness practice, it is to start over. Our intent is to be present with each new breath. Sometimes we try to make more of the practice, hoping for keen insight or longing for spiritual growth. But hoping and longing actually move us away from being present. You see, during practice, all the energy that we normally put toward desiring that things be different from how they actually are can be diverted to awareness of our breath. We sit; we breathe; we get lost in thought, get angry, feel calm, think another thought, stop feeling calm, and so on. Then we start over.

This starting over is good news. Each time that we practice in this way, we open ourselves to freshness. Every breath holds an opportunity to be with what is actually going on within our minds, our bodies, and our lives, without being confrontational with those things. When we learn to be with ourselves in this way, we can truly be there for others, as well.
No breath is more precious than the one you breathe in the current moment.
A monk from the US spoke about being among monastics from another country. The Westerners suggested to the non-Westerners that they could use some work on prajna (wisdom, intellectual acuity). The non-Westerners replied, "And you could stand to work on loving one another." Let's face it, in this country when we are told to sit still, it is usually as punishment, not to foster a gentle attending to our breath, body, and the moment just as it is.
A rock I came upon (heart added with the touch of a finger).
There is a line from a chant that we recite each day here at Gampo Abbey: May I be cheerful in the morning, kind in the afternoon, and inspired in the evening. That's a tall order! But something happens when we commit to starting over with our very next breath: we get glimpses of how precious each breath is, and how fleeting each moment is.

We all know these things in a heady way, but until we cultivate a meaningful experience of impermanence—in practice this involves being with the birth of each breath, its lifespan, and its passing awayimpermanence doesn't point us to preciousness; it points us to fear, grasping, and so on. 

Do you remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray's character does the same thing over and over, and along the way something happens without effort on his part: he becomes cheerful, kind, and inspired. That's the magic of starting over moment to moment, breath to breath. We can stop trying to manufacture peace and, instead, allow it to arise from the spaciousness of simply being still and breathing.

We sit not to become enlightened. We sit to remind ourselves that we already are.

Forget about enlightenment. 
Sit down wherever you are and listen to the wind that is singing 
in your veins. 
Feel the love, the longing and the fear in your bones. 
Open your heart to who you are, right now, not who you would like to be. 
Not the saint you’re striving to become, but the being right here before you, 
inside you, around you - All of you is holy. 
You’re already more and less than whatever you can know. 
Breathe out, look in, let go.
-John Welwood