Take Charge of Your Practice
by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
Nowadays, even older people in their seventies feel they have a lot of time to fool around. I don’t know where this comes from. Maybe it’s because in modern cultures people stay healthier, active, and mobile longer due to a better diet, more vitamins, and the latest medicines. Elderly people also have more things to distract themselves with: packaged holiday cruises, workshops, and different kinds of physical activities. You hear people say, “The forties are the new thirties, and the fifties are the new forties…” People put a lot of effort into staying and looking young. This kind of thinking changes our concept of aging and how we relate to growing old.
When I first came to the West, most of my students were quite young, except for a dedicated group of women who were forty and older. They started a dharma study group, which they affectionately called the old ladies’ group. I asked one of my older students in her seventies if she attended the old ladies’ group, and she got offended. People are a little eternalistic in this way.
In more traditional cultures, seventy is considered old, and people have no problem saying so. These cultures recognise old age as a time to prepare for death. People who in their youth engaged in naughty, unwholesome behaviour often start to soften and go in the direction of practice as they get older. Instead of being diligently naughty, they diligently dedicate their remaining years to saying mantras and doing prostrations and prayers. I see this happen all the time, even in myself.
In Tibet, as people age their children will say, “Mom, you’re getting old, go do some mantras and circumambulations!” This has a dual function: the children know this will get their parents out of their hair, but it is also a cultural push — a push to prepare for death. People expect this; it helps them get ready.
It’s good to look at life pragmatically, rather than as how we might want it to be. Taking care of our bodies is intelligent enough; we certainly don’t want to get old and infirm prematurely. We don’t want to lose our sense of curiosity and interest in life, our spark. But the focus on prolonging life rather than accepting death is futile. Youth goes by in a flash, and then we enter adulthood and old age. That’s about it. Patrul Rinpoche suggests we look at our life cycle as the length of a day: infancy at dawn, childhood and adolescence in the morning hours, adulthood at noon, and old age with the setting of the sun. If you want to prepare the mind for death, putting time into perspective is a realistic thing to do.
ORGANISING YOUR TIME
I’m not a planner by nature, but some years back I realised that if I didn’t take charge of my schedule, it would take charge of me. So now I fill my schedule with as much dharma practice and activity as I can. I fill the pages of my calendar — one year in advance — with my mind’s intention, then I follow and meet it. I know how many hours of practice I want to do each day, and I organise my time to complete that. I figure, this is my life, and if I don’t take charge no one else will. I find myself thinking a lot about time, how much I have, and what I want to do with it.
Practically speaking, there are only twenty-four hours in a day. How do we want to spend them? Some of that time we need to sleep. But how much sleep do we actually need? More than seven or eight hours usually doesn’t support us, unless of course we are a teenager. Most of us have jobs. We may work nine hours a day — that seems standard. This still leaves us with seven or eight hours of spare time. Then there are family obligations, and we need to tend to those with care. With our remaining hours, how can we fit practice time into our lives?
I am a night person, so I practice late at night. Some people prefer to start before dawn. These are quiet hours — guaranteed practice periods — because everyone else is asleep, or maybe practicing too. Sometimes at night I get sleepy, but when I stay with it for a bit, I find a whole new reserve of energy that sustains me throughout my session. Anything that brings our actions together with our intentions energises us and brings deep meaning to our lives. I used to have trouble sleeping, but now that I have a regular practice schedule, I have a restful unbroken sleep.
MAKING A CLEAR DECISION
If we have an aspiration to practice, we should make a clear decision to do so. It won’t help to have a “split mind.” In Tibetan there is a term: yi nyi te tsom. Yi nyi means that we have two minds, or in other words, conflicting interests. Te tsom means that we have doubts concerning which way we want to go. We may want to practice, yet somehow we fail to bring our aspirations together with our actions.
I see a lot of people wanting to practice yet not finding the time. It affects their self-esteem. We need to ask ourselves what prevents us from meeting our aspirations in life. Are we using our life well, or are we simply working to maintain it? How are we using our time? Are we considering what’s at stake? Are we tending to our desire for a meaningful life, or are we simply avoiding it? If so, why?
How we spend our time depends on how we organise our time, and how we organise our time depends on how we envision our lives. Once we have sorted out these questions and have made a clear decision to make room in our lives for practice, we have to exert ourselves rather than let the mind become too loose and unorganised, and just wait for something to happen.
BEWARE OF DISTRACTION
Distractions come in all sorts of disguises. Sometimes we feel we need to manage everyone else’s problems. If we have this tendency, there will always be someone who wants to pull us in, in some way. They want to consult, but they don’t necessarily want to hear what we have to say. They just want to vent. They feel stressed, and then we get stressed and no one profits in the end. Or, if in our work we are too meticulous and fixate on perfecting everything, we may never get anything done and run out of time for practice. We may also feel that we are the only ones who know how to do anything , so we end up doing everything. Some people can never say no. These kinds of distractions don’t even include the constant need for entertainment and fun, and all the foreign, high-maintenance elements we invite into our lives, such as puppies, personal-entertainment systems, and fancy computers.
Even in retreat, people can find all kinds of ways to occupy themselves and avoid practice, like spending hours each day pondering over their shopping lists. In India they say, “All you need are two chapattis a day.” I don’t think this means we need to subsist on two pieces of Indian bread a day, become a sadhu [an ascetic who renounces his body and all worldly things], or rough it. I think this is a metaphor for doing without. How much do we actually need? How often do we get distracted by what we want and figuring out how we can get it? Can we free ourselves from this kind of distraction through simply doing without? Whatever our tendency, it won’t do much good to blame anyone else for our distractions. Kunchyen Longchenpa said, “Distractions are limitless; only when you quit them will they leave.”
A RELAXED AND OPEN MIND
If we don’t have a focus, we meander around like a restless tiger, not finding any pleasure in anything. We find ourselves laying on the bed, then turning on the TV and flipping through the channels, eating when we’re not hungry, then picking up the phone. What are we trying to do? We are trying to connect with the phenomenal world. But how can we when we are not connected inwardly?
The times we don’t feel connected inwardly are the best times to practice. When our minds are restless, this might sound about as appealing as dental work. We are tormented and distracted by our thoughts, emotions, and fears. We come up with all kinds of physical sensations too. We have a pain in our neck, then it moves to our back, then our foot. All of a sudden we hear a ringing in our ears, or our eyes start to itch. It’s a little suspicious, don’t you think?
We need to give ourselves time to allow the nervous and restless energy to settle in our bodies. When the body rests, the mind rests. When the mind rests, the emotions rest, and we feel a profound sense of contentment and relaxation, or shenjong. When the mind relaxes in a state of shenjong, it is available to us, to serve us or at least help us understand what’s up. The space of shenjong means less vulnerability, so our thoughts and emotions cannot simply shove us around and rough us up as they usually do. All our fatigue falls away. The heart clears. The body lightens and feels as weightless as feather.
IT TAKES MIGHT AND CLARITY
We need a little strength to resist the habit of grasping at distractions, even if we are halfway in. We don’t want to be like a freshwater salmon that swims all the way upstream, and just when it is halfway into a bear’s mouth, rather than trying to wiggle out, thinks, “Oh well, I’m halfway in anyway.” Wiggling out of distraction takes some might and clarity.
I’ve heard people say, “I’m too lazy and love my ego too much to dedicate my time to practice.” That kind of laziness and lack of intention will never support realisation. The Buddha said that if flies, grubs, and bacteria had a capacity to aspire for enlightenment, they would attain it. That would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it? A grub attaining enlightenment before we did. In the sutra it says, “All things are circumstantial.” The circumstances we need are created by the might and clarity of our intention and how we carry it out in our lives.
It’s not as if we have no diligence. The alarm rings, it’s 4 a.m. The temperature has dropped into the single digits. We don’t want to get out of bed, but it’s Monday and there will be consequences. We get up. We scrape the snow off the windshield, heat up the car, and head to work for nine hours, maybe more. To do this every morning takes a little vision, a little might and clarity. Surely if we can do this, we can find a little time to practice.
A MODERN-DAY MANGO GROVE
If we can put time into perspective, organise our schedules, wiggle out of distraction with might and clarity, and think about what makes life meaningful, we will surely find time to practice, to relax the mind. Ordinarily, relaxing means taking our minds off our daily routine, laying on the couch, and watching a movie or going to sleep. Usually relaxing means distracting ourselves from the stresses of daily life. But we have spent half our lives sleeping without ever feeling rested. This is because we haven’t focused on relaxing the mind itself.
What could be more relaxing than letting go of preferences and worries? What better way is there to reduce our self-clinging than by contemplating bodhichitta? What can liberate our hopes and fears other than letting them arise and disassemble themselves naturally in the space of an open mind? Meditation leaves plenty of room for everything: all of our hopes, fears, and anxieties as well as our joys and aspirations. There is no need to control our thoughts, because when we practice we have committed ourselves to letting them be — not judging them as good or bad, spiritual or not spiritual, helpful or harmful. Is there any other activity that can accommodate the mind and its various arisings in this way?
The only thing we need to practice is a quiet place to sit: a room, a park bench, or our own bed. The sutras describe a peaceful mango grove as an ideal place to practice. The Buddha and his disciples practiced meditation in such a place. If you think about it, in the midst of our busy lives, any quiet place to sit can be our modern-day mango grove.