Saturday, September 6, 2008

Don't Give Up on Your Practice

There are ups and downs in our practice. Sometimes we progress, sometimes we seemed stuck.

Let's look at the simile of spiritual practice with the simile of a romantic relationship:
Romantic relationship:
Two persons meet and fall in love. There are periods of bliss- both persons can't wait to see one another and seemed to spend forever together- nothing seemed to be able to tear them apart. When they do not meet, the mere thought of one another makes one wants to float up the air, and so on and so forth. So both the lovebirds eventually got married or perhaps they just move in and stay together. And then, one day, the honeymoon's over.

Both realise each other's bad and sometimes disgusting habits. Sometimes, what had attracted the person to the partner becomes the very factor that repels the person. At this stage, ie after the honeymoon's over and reality sets in, both persons need to work on the relationship. There have to be compromise, understanding, agreement, and each person trying- after all, both the persons are borned from different parents, so of course living habits will be very different.
Couples who are able to work out a compromise and have mutual trust and understanding, the relationships stabilise and lasts for a long time. In fact, genuine contentment sets in- the relationship progress to another level.

But what happens if both are too self-absorbed and intolerant? Then the relationship will die a natural dead, ending in separation. Most relationships today ends in that state. Even though the couples may not officially divorce, they are separated emotionally.

So it is the same with spiritual practice. Sometimes, we encounter Buddhism with feelings of awe, we felt so inspired and felt that we've found answers that we have been searching for. We get so inspired that we can even fly to an unknown country, sometimes alone to search for the teachings of Buddhism. We asked to stay in the monastery- and we feel joyful. Finally, we felt we have found the teachings.

Then, the hum drums of daily living finally dawned in- we follow the daily schedules- eating together, chanting, meditation, sweeping monastery grounds, listening to Dhamma talks, making new friends, etc. And one day, we got fed up. Perhaps it is due to the fact that we ran into problems with someone, or our meditation seemed to be stuck and not progressing. Or we got homesick and miss all the stuff that we used to do like shopping, hanging out with friends, dancing, clubbing, etc. We got fed up and one to go home- we thought, well, this is not for me, I've made a mistake! So it is quite similar with the simile of a romantic relationship.

Before you take a plane to go home and decide to forget about the teachings of the Buddha, I want you to understand that many seekers, before they become successful masters, goes through this. They get stuck, they ran into obstacles, and they want to give up.

During this time, the presence of a good teacher to clear doubts is invaluable. But even though a good teacher may be present, we may be just too angry with ourselves or fed up to try. Like a marriage or relationship that ran into problems once the reality sets in, the natural reaction is to want to give up.

If you give up at this stage, you will miss your chance to progress. Understand that this is the stage where the reality of the practice sets in. And as you are integrating the teachings of the Buddha internally, you are bound to run into your kilesas (defilements) or perhaps ripening of some bad kammas. If you get past this stage, your practice will progress. The problem is, can you get past this stage? Are you willing to put up with it and seek guidance to solve the problem? Use perseverance and patience with constant mindfulness to examine the state of your heart?

Luang Phor Liem Thitadhammo, disciple of Luang Phor Chah and current abbot of Wat Nong Pah Pong, wrote about this in his book, No Worries:


Excerpt from the book at page 19- Subduing Mara:
"There are periods when we face problems and unwholesome states of mind in our practice, caused by how we relate to the sensual realm, where the three daughters of Mara, "Miss Raga" (lust), "Miss Arati" (aversion), "Miss Tanha" (craving) come to challenge us.

In these periods, try to hold on and ask yourself: Where do these challenges come from, in what kind of form do they arise? They all comeby way of perceptions in our own minds. They are mental food that we have created for ourselves, they are sankharas. This is a very important point to understand. Otherwise, the doubts and worries that we may experience (about ourselves and our practice) can become so strong that we might think it is better to get up and leave or to put down our efforts towards our task to attain enlightenment.

We are tempted to give it all up, but there is still this tiny bit of feeling deep inside of us that tells us that we shouldn't resign. Do you know the type of Buddha image where the Buddha is shown in the posture of subduing Mara? What exactly is the meaning of Buddha's gesture? Can you see, the Buddha's physical body already wants to get up: his knee already is lifted upwards, but his hand still is pushing it down. It is as if he were saying, "Hold on, wait a second, let's have a close look at this first." This is how we need to face this kind of situation.

Excerpt from the book at page 54:
"Motivation and intention to practice can turn into quite an obstacle. At first we all come to practice with a mind of faith and the feeling that our aspirations are being satisfied. But at some time the satisfaction will become less and the feeling of dissatisfaction naturally will increase. Eventually we become discouraged, tired and fed up. It is normal that there has to be some discouragement in the practice too. In the times we feel strong, we say we can do our job, but in times of weakness, we say we can't stand it any more. This is the way it goes.

We constantly have to be aware, keep observing and questioning ourselves in our practice: "Why do these states of mind come up?" We might not be able to prevent these states of mind, but what we can do is to keep our minds focused one-pointedly. At least we practice to be careful with those factors that lead us into delusion and danger. In doing so, the feeling of being tied up, depleted or enslaved into some narrow perimeter where we don't have freedom any more will become less and less severe and we will be composed and restrained.

Luang Phor Liem also mentioned in his short biography on the times he had been tempted to give up and how he had overcome it. You can read the book online at Wat Nong Pah Pong's website.

Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadaro, disciple of Luang Phor Mun, also wrote in his autobiography on the initial feelings of motivation and awe he had when he first discovered the teachings of Buddhism. But, he had wanted to disrobe a few times when he was new in monkhood. But he presevered and used mindfulness and wisdom to analyse the situation.

I find the writings very motivational, having undergone periods of my practice where I want to just give up, but I fought it and try to seek solutions, only to realise that my practice is able to progress to a higher level after that. I know all Dhamma seekers will eventually reach the stage and I hope that you will not give up. Some of us make very ardous journeys and plan for years (settling of family, financial and unfinished business), then take the risk and venture into the unknown to search for the Dhamma. We would normally carry rose-tinted ideals and imagine ourselves practicising all the way to Nibbana without obstacles. But when we ran into problems and obstacles, we thought to ourselves that we've probably make a big mistake- flying thousands of miles into unknown land, eating unfamiliar food. There will be obstacles, periods of regress and frustation, regret when we stir up our inner defilements. The problems and challenges may make us seriously doubt ourself and our practice.

Only when the defilements show themselves that we are able to identify and pull out the roots once and for all. Defilements will not show if we are high up cloud nine or feeling blissful. If we are true to the teachings of the Dhamma and work in all earnest, the Dhamma will not let us down.

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