Dharma practice is about how we live. For it to be relevant, it needs to show up in how we move through the world—in our relationships, in the choices we make and in how we respond to the times we live in. If we only practice the Eightfold Path on our cushion or at the meditation center, it may remain an interesting and uplifting exercise but fall short of its true potential—the profound healing and transformation so sorely needed in our world today.
So how do we do this? How do we really make our life our practice?
Formal Dharma practice provides an exceptional foundation for investigating our hearts and minds just as they are, in the real, messy experiences of our lives. Cultivating inner freedom is about being willing to turn towards these experiences, bring all of our wisdom and compassion to bear in how we meet them, and uncover something new.
To do this, we need to be completely honest with ourselves.
As a lay Buddhist, I find myself continually faced with powerful questions: What does it mean to have bonds of affection in a world characterized by change and loss? How do I live ethically in a global economy? What is a wise response when national leaders are unable to collaborate across the political divide for much-needed social, economic and environmental changes?
To meet questions like this and take full responsibility for our lives—our actions and reactions, our emotions, views and suffering—we need to be able to do more than just observe mindfully. We need to understand, to engage with wisdom and see what’s driving our experience. At the root, what is being touched in us that gives rise to this feeling or that reaction? For each experience, there is a point of contact in the heart where feelings and meanings meet and where reactivity coalesces when we do not see clearly.
To free the heart, we have to enter that space of reactivity and know it directly. We suffer because of our relationship with experience and with the things we value. When we bring an intimate attention to what matters most to us in any given situation and hold that place with tenderness, patience and awareness, something shifts. A profound truth can be known.
For at the heart of dharma practice lies our relationship with our own humanity—what it means to live in this sensitive body, ever vulnerable to an uncertain world, yet intricately bound to it for our most basic needs. The crux of the Buddha’s path rests upon our willingness to look deeply at the nature of our relationship with all experience—to investigate with ruthless honesty the range of joy and pain that arises at this point of contact where our heart meets the world.
This is where we wake up—where the world touches us. (“The world” includes our thoughts, feelings and perceptions.) The places we suffer, wishing things were different, are the very places that release into great freedom and energy when met with steady, empathic awareness.
Buddhist teachings on impermanence, suffering and nonattachment are often misinterpreted to mean cutting ourselves off—not caring fully about others, the world, or our own human needs. Yet the wisdom that accompanies the heart’s release is something much richer than what is implied in a word like “letting go” or “acceptance.” It is a subtle understanding that has space for the full range of being human.
On December 19, 2015, I’ll be co-leading a daylong workshop at Spirit Rock with my colleague Miki Kashtan, entitled “Cultivating Inner Freedom: Using the Power of Choice to Live with Integrity.” Together, we’ll explore specific exercises that help make our life our practice and that are essential to personal and collective transformation.
The practices Miki and I will share in December are applied Dharma: they’re designed to transform the patterns of resistance, overwhelm, attachment, fear and anger that keep us locked in suffering—individually and as a society. We’ll explore learning how to live in peace with unmet needs—an essential skill for being human, a core aspect of Dharma practice, and a prerequisite to working for change with a peaceful heart. Through investigating what we value at the core, we rediscover the beauty and strength in our own humanity.
We’ll also delve into an embodied practice for mastering difficult emotions and discovering insights and new responses to old feelings. Through all of this, we will offer tools to deepen our capacity to make choices in line with our values. By nurturing our awareness of what matters most, we can enhance our ability to navigate through life with more integrity.
Whether or not you are able to join us to explore “Cultivating Inner Freedom,” may your practice inform every aspect of your life, bringing the clarity of wisdom, the strength of compassion and the awareness of choice to each moment.