Practice as life

May 10, 2013

The school year is just about over. There are only a few more papers to read and only a few more forms to fill out. And now, the same stirrings that have lifted my spirits every May for the past 27 years are starting to make themselves felt: a release from deadlines, an escape from the prison of daily teaching, real possibilities for relaxation & play, and maybe, some time for projects put on hold.

It all feels very familiar, except … this year I had resolved to live differently, to remind myself that every time I started to buy into work = prison, vacation = life, I was getting things wrong.

The love-hate relationship that many teachers have with their jobs is easy to understand, but a hard view to adjust. We have been training ourselves since childhood to see school as a jail and vacation as the only thing that makes it all bearable. Year after year, repetition has drummed in the same old message: we are truly alive only when we are on vacation.

The problem, then, is that for most of my student and teacher-life, I have been ruled by extremes. At work I have driven myself without let up, seeing everything that I did as necessary, and trying to fit myself into the role of He Who is Needed Lest Things Turn into Crap. At play I have been unwilling to accept that joy might also be found in work.

Today I came across the following dharma talk on meditation practice from Sensei Enkyo O’Hara (Like a Dragon in Water, Tricycle magazine, Summer 2002). The fact that practice sometimes feels like work, sometimes like play, makes it an interesting place to think about these issues.

“How, then, to put our minds in a space where practice is always there, whether tumultuous or in the doldrums? It requires a completely radical view of practice: practice is not something we do; it is something we are. We are not separate from our practice, and so no matter what, our practice is present. An ocean swimmer is loose and flows with the current and moves through the tide. When tossed upside-down in the surf, unable to discern which way is up and which is down, the natural swimmer just lets go, breathing out, and follows the bubbles to the surface.

And so it can be with our practice. Seeing our practice as our life, we just let go and do it. We just practice a steadiness in our daily meditation. Without expectations of any kind, we just practice, day in and day out, through the high points and the low. “I really doubt this practice is helping me. Okay, still, it is time to sit, right through this doubt.” Or, “Oh, I didn’t sit all week! Okay, right now I’ll sit for twenty minutes.” And each time we come back to our practice, we experience it as more inherent to our life.”

So. Practice as our life. Practice = life? Let’s try these words again:

How, then, to put our minds in a space where life is always there, whether tumultuous or in the doldrums? It requires a completely radical view of life: life is not something we do; it is something we are. We are not separate from our life, and so no matter what, our life is present. … Seeing our life as our life, we just let go and do it. … Without expectations of any kind, we just live, day in and day out, through the high points and the low.

work = vacation = life. To just live. My practice.

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