Monday, July 09, 2007

What is our practice?

In one of her talks, Joko said, “we get good at what we practice.” It’s interesting to notice just what we are practicing, and how over years and years of practice, we’ve probably gotten awfully good at it: complaining, gossip, annoyance, resentment, judgment, and many other forms of self-centered and often self-destructive thinking. With Wimbledon in the air, I am reminded that she also said that any tennis player who goes onto the pro circuit, even at the bottom of the rankings, has a minimum of 18,000 hours of practice behind them. Of course I immediately did some calculations: that would be nine years of work at a typical 8 hour a day job: 2000 hours a year. It seems unlikely that a person can practice tennis eight hours a day, so in terms of years there is probably an even longer investment.

My next thought was to try to calculate the number of hours I must have practiced Zen, a humbling tally. It certainly took the impatience out of my practice. For all of my wholehearted and sincere efforts, I could not come close to those numbers. It is true that we get good at what we practice, and for this reason, we want to pay close attention to just what it is we are practicing from moment to moment.

But this is only one sense of practice, the idea that we practice in order to attain something: some mastery or excellence or skill, like improving our golf swing or our posture. Or that we practice to become some kind of “Zen champion,” or “pro,” like Roger Federer in tennis, or like the ancient Zen masters we’ve read about. I think of Zen practice now in a different way, not as something done to get enlightened or awakened or more wise or compassionate, to relieve my anxiety or reduce my anger or my blood pressure. Rather, we practice Zen in the way a doctor practices medicine or a lawyer practices law: not because of what we want to attain, but as an expression of who we are. And because of this practice, many other things are naturally occurring, including a reduction in stress, a focusing of attention, greater awareness, healthier relationships, and so on. And just as a skillful, attentive lawyer or doctor cannot help learning more and more about their practice over time, we learn more and more about what practice really is through our experience and dedication. We do not practice to achieve these things, but they are the natural fruit of intelligent, wholehearted practice.

What are you practicing these days?


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