For most people by far, the most prominent hindrance to spiritual practice – although not the most obvious one – is procrastination. Meditation is so often the thing that can wait until tomorrow. When did you last think, “I must just sit and do nothing”? Sure, sometimes we are desperate for quiet or space, yet the tendency is often to look for these outside of ourselves, which is of course easier – but less fruitful.
Often spiritual practice is the last thing on our list because it is considered to merely be the cream on the cake or the cherry on top; or in other words, usually in turning to spirituality, we are seeking to put a spiritual gloss on our lives; but this is just spiritual materialism and it is simply barking up the wrong tree, because all true spirituality has a renunciant flavour: It’s about letting go. Letting go of all the things that don’t really matter.
The traditional way to counteract this procrastination and instead seek a sense of urgency is to contemplate death. However many people getting nervous about this topic tell me, very hurriedly, “There’s nothing you can do about that!”
But in the light of our mortality we are drawn to re-examine our lives and see what really matters.
I offer this for your reflection
I practised for about twenty years in lay life before I ordained, at age 36. The factors I found most important in order to maintain my practice as a lay person was the job I was doing and the company I was keeping.
In terms of my work, I chose to become a physiotherapist in order to be able to investigate body and mind and also to try to help people. So in other words my knowledge was always aimed at practical application; I saw the dangers of abstract theory and didn't get lost in it. I also specialised in my work and dug deeper as much as I could. I found that if I was doing the same thing over and over or considering the same thing in more and more depth, this was less exciting than seeking new challenges, but much more conducive to meditation. Moreover I worked a lot with the elderly to try to slow myself down and also found this very sobering. Today, looking back on these days, I think I would also have done a mindfulness course to take the practice even more into the workplace.
Another aspect was that in my work I was more and more faced by the fact that some people had huge problems and suffered very little, these were the ones with the strength of mind; others had small problems but suffered a lot, these were the ones without such strength. So working with the mind and teaching this to others made more sense than trying to solve their problems in themselves. And all I had learned about body and mind along the way of my career was to be equally of value in my monastic life, this time in the supporting role rather than in the lead.
In terms of company I sought out any kind of group I could find connected to eastern spirituality – yoga and T'ai Chi classes for example, and I developed a social life with the people I met there. The formal meditation practice was not so important to me at this time, it was a support to mindfulness and a way of relaxing, not much more than that. And T'ai Chi at that time was a very helpful aid to mindfulness of the body and also integrated well into my daily life. It took me years to appreciate how deep it could all actually go. Eventually I chose the monastic form as a way of committing myself more fully to the meditation practice.
Now I can regret not having got more into the meditation a bit earlier, but I was very energetic in my youth. I also look back and realise that I did help other people, I feel good about that, and it was all sowing the seeds for the deeper investigation of Dhamma that ensued. We have to start from where we are and try to bring that into our Dhamma path.
I offer this for your reflection
Looking around, I can think that a lot of people practising yoga are first of all out to stay healthy. I don't see anything wrong with this, as far as it goes. This I see as simply benevolence and I can have a lot of muditā (sympathetic joy) for the health and well-being of Yoga practitioners. It can be a shame, although, to not take the practice a bit deeper and add the meditation to it – where you can be as benevolent to your minds as you are already being to your bodies. It is also the case that problems can arise if we attach to being healthy – we are simply very unhappy when we get sick. The wisdom of the Buddha's teaching, brought alive through meditation, can help us to prevent this attachment without limiting our enjoyment in the moment.
So let us consider how Yoga fits with Buddhist practice philosophy. Yoga was already a highly developed science in the Vedantic tradition at the time of the Buddha. As I understand, the Buddha incorporated the meditation practices of the yogis into his own practice and teaching. Within Buddhism we can see the physical practices of Yoga as a preparation for the meditation and as representing an overall discipline of benevolence in relation to the body, the body being the first,mfundamental, foundation of mindfulness.
So the Buddha is encouraging us to meditate and explore our bodies with a calm, benevolent and accepting mind. In doing so, we discover that there are many ways in which the body and mind are woven together, so we find this also yields methods to gain emotional and psychological benefits. In particular there is the awareness of the breathing cycle. Here, on the simplest level, there is the possibility of a physical means for breaking cycles of stress. Stress tends to push the respiratory process into chronic overdrive. We can learn to arrest these patterns and reset our body's alarm systems. Combined with stretching we can also release the chronic muscle tension associated with stress. Furthermore we can greatly enhance our awarenessof our bodies, particularly in relation to posture. We can avoid the physical problems associated with poor posture and introduce a positive poise and grace to our lives that can take our hearts and minds in a similarly upright direction. Mindfulness of the body, if it thus becomes continuous, provides the ideal basis for the skill of mindfulness as a way of life – there is a lot of evidence for the value of this in preventing mental problems such as anxiety and depression.
We can discover that our attitude towards our own body is formative of so much or our mental and emotional life, of our view of ourselves and others. Not only is a healthy body in many ways a healthy mind, but a healthy view of the body is also in many ways a healthy mind. In this respect the Buddha also teaches us to recognise and then both accept and see beyond the limitations of the body in a way that these limitations need not dampen a positive attitude to life. It can be important to realise that the sickness of the body is not necessarily a source of suffering in life if we have the right attitude, one formed by the correct view of the body and our relationship to it.
On the deeper and more subtle level, through meditation we can learn to deeply energise the body and mind. This is associated with the deeper benefits of long-term meditation practice – the possibility of the peaceful and blissful mind states of samādhi, which come with heightened awareness of the body and breath together. These can transform our lives –we will never be the same again. If you have not experienced such things yourself it is well worth meeting people who have experienced them, to learn to know these people: they are likely to be the happiest people you have ever met. Yet these states of mind are only experienced by those whose Yoga represents a broad and dedicated spiritual path, including the keeping of moral precepts – only then can our mindfulness be clear enough to go this deep. Being part of a spiritual community is of enormous help in establishing and maintaining this kind of dedication. If we have discussed so far principally the place of Yoga in Buddhist practice, this is perhaps the most important place for Buddhism within the practise of Yoga.
I offer this for your reflection