Q&A: How to maintain practice in one’s daily life

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How does one bring one’s practice to bear, 100% effectively, 100% of the time, with no lapses in attention, poise, tranquility, and natural confidence, in daily waking life? If this is not happening, what does one do about it?


Thank you for introducing this topic, because it is a very important one. You have already received some good suggestions and I hope there will be more to come. Here is what I have to offer, and there are multiple interdependent aspects to it.

First is your level of dedication and commitment, the priority that you give to practice as compared to the rest of the things that occupy your time and attention. To bring your practice into your life 100% of the time with maximum effectiveness, it has to be the single most important thing in your life. As Richard Hamming says in the wonderful article that Frank posted, “Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don’t become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.” He was talking science, of course, but it is equally true of anything else, including Dharma practice.

But you don’t get to that place all at once, you have to begin where you are and you have to cultivate that degree of dedication. Dick Hamming spoke to that as well. Wherever you are in this process when you begin, most likely your knowledge and understanding of the Dharma, your practice of the Dharma, and the goal of Awakening will probably not yet even be combined to form a single cohesive objective. That’s OK, they will fuse together over time. And as a priority, they will be only one (or three) among many competing priorities. At first you likely won’t even be aware of all of the other attachments and priorities that they are competing with. But that is one of the things that will become clear in the course of practicing mindfulness in daily life.

Be mindful of your motivation. Review it often. Penetrate it deeply. If you find yourself thinking, “I want to experience Awakening”, ask yourself Why? Awakening from what? Awakening to what? What do I really know about how to do this? See what the Buddha and others have to say, then look inside yourself. What is it that you really, really want, and why do you want it. Especially, why do you want that rather than anything else the world has to offer? Whenever there are pressures on your time to do other things, which there always will be, never miss the opportunity to review and ask yourself, “How important to me is this, really? What am I willing to change or sacrifice?” One of the greatest dangers we face in life is unconscious decision making, the workings of habitual karma. Every time this kind of situation arises, it is an opportunity for the application of mindful awareness and the generation of a new kind of karma.

Seek inspiration from others. Attend inspiring events and listen to inspiring talks. Read inspiring books. Associate with people who are excited about the Dharma. When others start to describe you as obsessed, then you know you are on the way to 100%. Even 50% is admirable, but don’t cut yourself short. Do you want admiration or Awakening? Go for it!

Second are the changes that you must make in your life to make both time and energy available for formal practice and study, to reduce or eliminate the stresses which rob you of energy and motivation, and to eliminate the sources of agitation of the mind that will obstruct you in your practice. Richard Hamming had a lot to say about that as well: “The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things.” This is absolutely necessary. Do you read the newspaper? Do you watch TV? Do you read fiction? Do you golf? Do you attend movies, sports events, plays, or other entertainments? Do you volunteer your time to organizations for social, political, environmental, charitable, or humane projects? Do you socialize with people who are not involved in the Dharma? I am not suggesting that you should not do these things, but if Awakening is your top priority, you will look at every one of them from a different perspective, you will notice the time they consume and the effect they have on your mind, and you will probably make some major changes. And whatever remains must become a part of your practice if your practice is going to be 100%.

Becoming a full-time Dharma practitioner has a radical effect on a person’s social life. They find they have less and less in common with most of their friends and family, and many of the interests and activities they used to share with those people are no longer important. The relationships they maintain and the time they invest in these relationships becomes more a matter of loving-kindness, compassion, and the practice of fully-conscious, full-minded awareness being applied to the understanding of desire, aversion, delusion and dukha. In other words, the relationships that continue become a part of your practice. You will most likely find that many of your old friendships fade away and are replaced by new ones that are more Dharma related. This can be difficult for some people, and there can be a period of alienation and loneliness before becoming involved in a supportive sangha of fellow practitioners.

You will most likely end up simplifying your life enormously. The Buddha asked people to leave everything behind — family, jobs, possessions — in exchange for a robe and a bowl, the fellowship of other bhikkhus, and a spot underneath a tree to sleep and meditate. The weather, insects and wild animals were a bonus. That is not very practical today. Of course you could sleep under a freeway overpass and eat at soup kitchens, but you probably wouldn’t find that was very conducive to the kind of practice you want to do. But we can still learn a lot from the “going forth”. The Buddha’s bhikkhus were restricted to one meal a day, which was obtained by knocking on a few people’s doors, bowl in hand. How much time do you spend every day eating and preparing meals? Do you really need to eat three times a day. For many, many years I only ate once a day. Recently, for health reasons, my healthcare providers insisted that I start eating three meals a day. I find it takes a huge amount of time out of every day to do that. The Buddha didn’t allow the bhikkhus to collect extra food and save it either. It might seem to be more efficient for a monk to knock on a couple of extra doors and collect enough so that he doesn’t have to go on alms rounds tomorrow. But then there would be all the time and energy consuming and emotionally agitating problems of storing and protecting the saved food from animals, deciding how to share the surplus, etc. I think it was a wise rule.

What do you own (or does it own you?) and how much do you really need? Deciding what to do about your job or career can be a tough one, but you can’t afford to stop asking the question: How much money do I really need? What does this job cost me in terms of time and energy, stress and agitation? How does this job contribute to my practice and eventual Awakening? Where and how do you live, and what is really necessary? For ethical and moral reasons, I cannot condone the abandoning of spouse or children or aging parents. Instead, caring for them and time spent with them should become a part of your practice. But look at the effect your sense of responsibility towards them is having on you and your attachments to worldly things. While you shouldn’t abandon them, you probably should renegotiate their expectations of you.

I am not suggesting that you drop everything. These are all decisions you will have to make for yourself, and you do need to take care of yourself now and provide for your future. But whatever you decide not to set aside must become part of your practice if you are shooting for 100%. There is no other way. The fact is, examining these questions is a mindfulness practice in itself and it is one that must be ongoing.

Finally, there are the different techniques you can utilize in order to turn ordinary life activities into meaningful practice, and, most importantly, the things we can do to help ourselves to remember to do so. Other people have made suggestions about actual practices, so I will focus on how to remember to practice mindfulness all of the time. Learning to be continuously mindful has an exact parallel with learning to be continuously aware of your meditation object while sitting. At first you frequently forget the meditation object entirely and your mind wanders for long periods of time. In the same way, at first there are long periods, most of the day in fact, when you have forgotten to be deliberately mindful. After a while, you only forget the meditation object briefly before realizing the mind has been caught by something else, and then you bring the meditation object back into focus. Likewise, after a while there are lapses in mindfulness during the day, especially when strong mental afflictions arise, but you quickly recognize the lapse. Then you can mindfully reflect on what has just happened while it is still fresh, and can continue with your mindfulness practice thereafter. Finally, just as your mindfulness eventually becomes uninterrupted during your meditation sit, so too in daily life will your mindfulness eventually become continuous.

I have found a daily reflection and review to be very useful in cultivating continuous mindfulness. Another teacher I know has people keep a book with them which they write in six times a day to help keep them mindful. Whether you do it once a day or six times a day, the idea is to recollect how mindful you have been since the last reflection, and congratulate yourself for your success (rejoice in it even). Then you reflect on the times when your mindfulness has lapsed and make a resolve or imagine yourself to be more successful in maintaining mindful awareness in the future. I suggest that a person start off by using the precepts and the perfections of generosity, virtue, and patience as a tool. Pick one thing to begin with, irritability and anger, lust, false speech, etc, whatever happens to be particularly significant and important to you personally. Use the daily review of occasions upon which these mental states arose in which you were and were not mindful to bring yourself to a place of always having mindful awareness in the moment when these things are arising. Build on that success by adding more things to your list of specific things to be mindful of. Don’t restrict yourself to overcoming negative traits, but also cultivate positive ones. The result will be a powerful habit of mindful awareness throughout the day.

I wasn’t going to get into specific techniques for practicing mindfulness, but I will suggest one. In the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (Two Sorts of Thinking, MN 19) the Buddha describes how, as a Bodhisattva, he practiced being mindful of wholesome and unwholesome thoughts and mental states whenever they arose. By mindfully examining how unwholesome thoughts and mental states make one feel physically and mentally, the speech and actions they give rise to, and the affects they have on oneself and others, one recognizes them as leading to “my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbana.” Please note that this is simply about being observant, it is not about guilt, judgment, or analysis. All that is necessary to see what needs to be seen is open, non-judgmental, mindful awareness directed at what is actually happening as it happens. The conclusions described by the Buddha make themselves obvious, you don’t need to dig for them, and analytical thinking will only create obscuration. The Buddha goes on to say, “When I considered thus, it subsided in me.” That is the desired effect, and illustrates the powerful effect that mindful awareness has on the arising and passing away of habitual thoughts and mental states.

The Sutta goes on to tell us that the Buddha, who was then only a Bodhisattva, did the same thing with wholesome thoughts and mental states, observing that,

“this does not lead to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, or to the affliction of both; it aids wisdom, does not cause difficulties, and leads to Nibbana. If I think and ponder upon this thought for even for a night, even for a day, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes disturbed, and when the mind is disturbed, it is far from concentration. So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness and concentrated it. Why is that? So my mind should not be disturbed.

“Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of renunciation, he has abandoned the thought of sensual desire to cultivate the thought of renunciation, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of renunciation.

“Tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was tranquil and untroubled, my mind concentrated and unified.”

I hope you find these thoughts helpful, and may your practice bring you to the final goal.

Added at Sept. 26, 2020

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