Practice can be stated very simply. It is moving from a life of hurting myself and others to a life of not hurting myself and others. That seems so simple–except when we substitute for real practice some idea that we should be different or better than we are, or that our lives should be different from the way they are. When we substitute our ideas about what should be (such notions as “I should not be angry or confused or unwilling”) for our life as it truly is, then we’re off base and our practice is barren. – Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011)
Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck had this incredible ability to cut like crystal through our illusions of what “practice” and “life” should be, including the notion that they were two separate things we do. Joko, who passed away yesterday, established the Ordinary Mind Zen School, founded the Zen Center of San Diego, and was the author of Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen. Her teachings and insight were instrumental in shaping American Zen Buddhism by challenging our assumptions about spiritual practice in a straight-forward and unpretentious manner.
To the end, she was right there. According to a tweet from Roshi Joan Halifax, Joko’s last words were: “This too is wonder…” You could spend the rest of your life pondering those four words.
We need more teachers like Joko; they shine a light into the dark spaces of our heart and show us that we are exactly where we need to be at this moment. This moment will give us the guidance we need for the next moment. And in that moment, there is wonder.
Spiritual practice is not about escaping our reality; it is about being truly present with life. By truly being present, we can begin to move from “a life of hurting myself and others to a life of not hurting myself and others.” There is a misconception that by being mindful and by engaging in spiritual practice that we won’t ever make mistakes, disappoint ourselves and others or do stupid, selfish things from time to time. Even when we are being mindful, we may misstep because the trajectory of human experience is saturated in greys, not black and white. And it can happen in a flash. We sit in practice, get up, experience something causes irritation or anger, then beat ourselves up for “failing” our practice. This is what Joko meant when she said that we spend our lives spent hurting ourselves.
We think that our spiritual practice – when we sit in meditation, pray, practice yoga, chant or whatever we do to connect back into our Original Self – is going to keep us in a state of perfect equanimity at all times. We think that it’s going to protect us from our emotions, our shadow, or the difficulties of daily life. If anything, spiritual practice helps us confront and accept those things so we are no longer a slave to them.
Spiritual practice doesn’t mean never being angry, sad, disappointed, heartbroken or frustrated. It means that when we feel the emotions rise up we’re able to face it directly, observe it, and then ask, “How is this of benefit?” If it’s not of benefit, then we have to work on letting it go (either all at once or in stages) without guilt, self-recrimination or judgment.
Through our practice, breath by breath, step by step, how can we awaken to the wonder of these moments?
(Image credit: Jen and a Camera on Flickr)
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