How can I expect teachers, philosophers and academics to open up about their private, personal practice if I won’t do the same and lead by example? I’ve tended to keep myself out of the picture throughout the life of the podcast, and even the Turns were an act of service (believe it or not), as opposed to ego projects of self-congratulatory, insight porn of the sort you see constantly on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook.
Letting go of the personal is, in part, one of the great themes that runs through Buddhism. But there is a paradox at hand, and it is one that recalls our current age, and its concern with identities. No fear, don’t panic, I have no intention of going there; rather, I merely wish to suggest that the many Buddhisms give rise to their own dynamics of identities, non-identities, the sacred and the profane. The personal is sacred in many ways, and an essential bulwark against the trappings of collective identities, but perhaps we should appreciate its sacrality is always in passing. Paradox resolved.
As mentioned in the last podcast episodes, I will be embarking on a series looking at the personal side of practice with a range of quite different guests, many the Buddhist teachers I have been asked to interview over the years by regular listeners. This is an experimental season and it will be interesting to see how folks respond, what they share, and what we all learn from each other’s struggles with practice, and ideas about it. The critical element will remain but also, why not, autoarchaeology and insider-ethnography to mention a couple of highfalutin terms for something very simple.
There are two topics I should address before starting, however, then I can answer some of the questions I have pre-prepared for upcoming guests.
I will go first, so to speak. Start the ball rolling. Kick things off.
Two principles continue to guide my practice; post-traditional and the non-. Some summarising thoughts on the two;
Post-traditional doesn’t mean a mere reaction or rejection of tradition, but rather a change in one’s relationship to it. It becomes a re-imagined phenomenon viewed through a variety of lens in which one matures his or her sense of what tradition is and isn’t, and how our perception of it is shaped by both our personal needs and desires and the social mores at play.
Post-traditional here could be appreciated as a maturation in one’s relationship with tradition whereby one assumes authority for one’s lived experience, however positive, negative, promising or stunted, and owns the consequences either way. Tradition never goes anywhere. It lingers on and how we choose to relate to it once we have purged ourselves of our infantile desires and coveted fantasies about what it is, or isn’t, we can grow up and move on. To what? That’s up to you in part.
Post-traditional plants ancient wisdom, timeless techniques, hagiographic fantasies and the performance of reverence into the 21st century and a relationship with the insights of our time.
The non-. This approach can be summarised as a sequence of steps, or moves. I’ve spoken about them already so this will be extremely concise. Further context can be found in podcast episodes and blog posts.
- Wake up to enchantment. Know it, feel it, even be disgusted by it, be terrified of losing it.
- Accept the pain of the loss of enchantment, and the need to confront the pay offs and identity that accompany it. Lose the belief in certainty and the comforts such enchantment provides. Give them up. Go on, get on with it; there’s work to be done!
- Avoid mere reactivity (resentment) and the resuscitation of enchantment in the form of anti-enchantment: becoming a reactive subject, and probably a bore to boot. Don’t turn hating your old religion into a new religion.
- Renegotiate your relationship with Buddhism, the tradition you were part of, and the beliefs you held close. Forge a new role that doesn’t solidify into yet another mission to save or be saved (whether that be yourself, your mother, the dog, all humanity, etc).
- Learn from other perspectives, sources of knowledge; especially those that do not confirm your existing beliefs and assumptions, so that you may expand your knowledge, understanding, and the variety of thought that can be engaged in. Engage vigorously in re-educating yourself as an act of liberation and the discovery of hidden horizons.
- Explore the collective games that make up the above and how they form collective unspoken agreements that are the stuff of fiction, or reality conjuring. Look around and see what else is on offer, not as spiritual materialism but rather as a commitment to the greater human project of attempting to understand and come to terms with the human condition. Cease to look for final, total, all-edifying alternatives to God, the Buddha, the universe and everything.
Qs and Qs
So, that’s out the way. Now, here goes. Try asking them to yourself if you fancy it and avoiding pre-prepared answers and even Buddhist or spiritual or philosophical lingo if you want to make the process more interesting.
What is practice?
This is a terrible question for me to have proposed. How can we answer other than what we currently…do as a practice? I, like many, have played the spiritual but not religious card on and off for years. I too indulged in the idea that I could practice Buddhism as a non-religious path, a philosophy, blah blah blah. If you take Buddhism seriously, if you commit to actually taking its tenets seriously, and therefore stop using practice as a lifestyle option, a selfy makeover, an accessory to your life, then you must change deeply and profoundly and irreversibly and in ways you will not see coming or even desire.
In one sense, practice is accepting that kind of game and sacrificing what must be killed off in order to go as far you can with whatever central tenet of Buddhism inspired you or dragged you onto the path in the first place. Practice is taking something seriously, not yourself, but the practice, and being willing to sacrifice pieces of yourself in order to see what actually lies on the other side of the promises the path/s make.
Practice more broadly is simply a commitment to learn something for a given period of time. What you choose for that to be is up to you; Buddhism, bakery, athletics, pot smoking, whining on Twitter, the choices are many and mostly distractions to pass the time.
What’s your practice? Why?
So, I shall use the straightforward distinction that Hokai Sobol has used since I’ve known him; formal and informal, on cushion and off-cushion. In the widest sense, my practice is simply living from the morning to the evening, and sometimes during sleep time. I have different practices that are salient in different periods of my life; many of which come from Buddhism or are Buddhism related. Many are not. They may include simple every day acts, such as listening more patiently, or expressing opinions in contexts where I may be content to sit back and let others get on with it. They may involve long individual or collective shamanic ceremonies.
Buddhism is the topic here though, so I’ll say more about that. For you Westerners, meditation is probably what you care about. So, I can say that I sit for an hour a day on average; sometimes more, sometimes less. In my own words, I practice relaxing out of attachment, aversion and indifference to natural, naked, ever-changing being. It’s an optimal practice for where I am in my practice life.
My health situation means I am often fatigued so I also use walking, standing and moving to deal with it when it’s bad and get my energy up, or confront the awful range of reactive material that can be triggered on the worst of days.
I also use formal meditation to engage with salient challenges I am facing as a sort of contemplative, reflective practice. I use good questions as a means to reflect, and feel and perceive more deeply, or more creatively. These are actually tropes but I can’t think of a better metaphor in this moment, and they’re pretty accurate as phenomenological descriptions anyway. I use traditional meditation objects such as the four immeasurable in their traditional forms too, as well as in innovative ways that may appear thoroughly un-Buddhist to many, yet the two play off of each other and I get to feel the notion of sangha is very large indeed when I open these practices up and out of the Buddhist bubble.
In the (neo-) shamanic world, I dream and stalk, as that imposter Castaneda writes of.
What are the two or three main gains you have made since starting this practice?
The biggest gain is a liberation of existential tension, of a kind of profound relaxation of the mind, emotions and feeling and an unclogging of all the constipated shit my personal history burdened (or gifted) me with. Another is that I am far-less self-centred and less obsessive-compulsive. My mind seems to function far better as well; I can think far more freely, clearly and creatively than I have before and because my engagement with ideas is not centred on my own need to gratify some sense of self, or prove my tradition is the best, it’s far more pleasurable, ecstatic and amusing. I’ve also got pretty good at marrying intuition and what we might still call visionary knowing (for want of a better term that I lazily have not bothered to discover as yet), and rational, intellectual engagement. As I keep saying, the critical is creative.
What have been the two biggest obstacles?
Throughout my life, the devils’ advocate, which I now consider one of my greatest intellectual gifts (for me, rather than some claim of greatness compared to others, for example), has been a means for constantly destabilising any insight or intuition I had. I wasted a lot of time doubting myself.
Peers was another. Finding folks with whom I could engage critically with Buddhism was near impossible to find for the first fifteen years I was involved with it; I must have pissed off a lot of Buddhists in those years with my constant attempts to understand Buddhism more critically when most folks were just looking to worship a Tibetan daddy figure. Fortunately, the internet allowed me to find like-minded folks. We need others. Trust me, however convinced you might be of your own glory.
What are the limits that you meet currently in your practice life?
The big one for me is health. It was family, work and time. Nothing wrong with any of them, but I wasn’t mature enough to know how to make each workable whilst being authentic to my desires and fears, and refining my difficult character. Health now dominates. I am so often so tired mentally and physically because of this trifecta of illnesses that I struggle at times to make the challenges presented by this condition workable: I am working on it though, and if life is generous, I may make significant headway before the Gods deem this game over for me.
What are you learning from engaging with those limits?
Simplicity. Reducing commitments and taking greater care of what is immediate; I’ve become a better father, friend, teacher and am extremely grateful for this process. Gratitude is also a consequence and another nail in the coffin of my long-term tendency to enjoy dreaming a little too much.
What life lesson do you wish you had learnt sooner in life?
That there is no escape from the human condition. We either awaken through the human condition, one that is endless in its manifestations, or we dehumanise ourselves, life and others.
And that confidence cannot be given by others; you have to claim it from the world through recognition that you have every right to exist, but no right to demand the world adapt to your quirks of character and fantasies.
Where does meaning lie in your life at present?
These are good questions!
So, different ways of answering this. Meaning is everywhere. It’s abundance is impressive, humbling, exciting: Meaning both in terms of “This thing or situation or dynamic is a reason for living, engaging, caring, dedicating my attention to, etc,” and narrative elements that give life a purpose or direction to head in.
The sitting practice of abandoning the three forms of avoidance or resistance means that life is genuinely overflowing with meaning; this has pleasant and unpleasant outcomes.
In terms of a story I use to give my life explicit meaning, I am actually committed to two stories; that life is indeed a site of suffering and ignorance and that I must do what I can to reduce both in the world within my capabilities and current resources and nurture joy, sobriety and curiosity. Secondly, that I must honour my commitments and keep striving to mature in each; to family and work and the community I am part of and the wider projects I believe in.
What would you like to know?
There are endless answers to this question. I could offer up some random thoughts that come to my mind in this precise moment; How does one time travel? Where can I get one of those healing booths from the film Elysium? What would be the optimal use of my talents in this finite life looking back from my deathbed and what I know at that point? How do you make the perfect Jota? Why is it so easy to be cruel? How can we transform society without creating another iteration of collective cruelty and stupidity?
What’s the point of it all?
I love this kind of question mainly for the sorts of answers people throw up in response to it. I have no idea of course. At best there are multiple answers on offer and it’s the conviction that some hold that stands out as most interesting to analyse and explore. I guess I feel that we must all do our part to reduce suffering and ignorance and that is as good as any other point. What makes that worthwhile, which is kind of the underlying question that this one sits on, is seeing the grace and beauty of life in its multiple forms encouraged, protected, honoured and cared for whilst committing time and again to see the world as clearly and as fully as we are able to, knowing we’ll never see it all, know it all, have it all.
In terms of the podcast and coaching. I had a pretty difficult life up until my early to mid-twenties, when things dramatically improved. I was, in many ways, saved by mentors at crucial moments; At the worst moments, from very serious consequences indeed. I am eternally grateful to them. Sometimes it was just a look, a few kind words, or a second chance given by a figure I would never want to see again. Sometimes it was a teacher, person I met in passing, who actually walked their talk and mirrored what was possible in a human life. Most of them were not particularly famous, but each one saved me from my worst instincts and helped construct the tapestry of acts that led to me growing up somewhat, maturing a little, and shaving off the worst instincts of my rather difficult character.
I see it with my son. I see it in my coaching work. I see it when teaching high school students. And to some degree at the university, though as we age that vulnerability wanes and our sense of self-assuredness too often limit the possibility of being receptive to rare moments of change. I try to make sure I provide such opportunities. Gifting an insecure or struggling child, teen or young adult your full attention, a kind word, receptive ear, or a necessary challenge can be life changing for them. I believe we adults have a duty to help those growing up by paying attention to the world and the suffering and confusion that characterises so much of it without trying to save them, but rather help shepard their potential to mature and grow into balanced adults.
I hope to return the many favours I have received and do my part and that is a powerful meaning making apparatus for me that keeps despair, depression, despondency and cynicism in the room of self-indulgence where they belong.
Why do you continue to practice?
Because I must. The body is a complex organism and the mind does funny things: No matter how advanced one might believe themselves to be, biology is more powerful than the fantasies of spiritual super men. It’s funny, we talk about impermanence, interdependence, never ending change, and yet some folks still insist their ‘awakening’, their ‘liberation’, their ‘enlightenment’ their realisation is somehow devoid of such characteristics. They may pay lip service to the intransient nature of it all, but their language and behaviour betrays a belief in the eternal nature of their experience. That itself is reason to keep practicing and perhaps even change things up a little, or a lot, and to find company that will critique gains in constructive ways, or if you’re up for it, slap you out of complacency when you’re stuck in your own sense of grandeur.
A lot of awakened men should read the Flying Boy.
Where do you see a glut in your understanding?
My ignorance is more than apparent to me. In terms of Buddhism, I wish to continue to address the myths and fantasies that steal away the humanity of a practicing life. I should probably be better acquainted with the earlier works of Buddhism, though my heart always resided with Tibetan Buddhism, and this hasn’t changed, even as I have taken such a critical approach to the whole thing. I have matured to the point of giving up on the urgent need to learn anything and this is a sigh of relief for me personally.
What keeps you motivated to invest so much of your life in practice?
I am at the point of believing that some of us are simply driven to do so more than others. That some of us are disposed to making the ongoing, unexpected sacrifices that come from a long and deep practicing life. I am one of those people for better or worse. In another age, I would have likely become a priest of whatever religion was available in the land I was born into.
I am driven by a profound thirst for experiential knowledge and have a dogged desire to confront bullshit; this means the sacred and profane are jostling for attention in me at times and drive the subversive edge that characterises the work of the podcast.
This dynamic has been tamed somewhat by facing illness and my family commitments.
What have you changed in Buddhism?
In Buddhism itself, nothing. Who am I to make such claims? In my own small way, I have carried forward and hopefully popularised to some degree throughout the podcast, blog, and engagement with guests the notions of post-traditional approaches to Buddhism (stolen gratefully from Hokai and to his knowledge), and non-buddhism (from Glenn Wallis and with his blessing, I think.).
Some folks have been extremely grateful for this and it has helped them on their way and am I pleased to do my part.