By Ezra Bayda, Yoga Journal
On the first day of a four-day meditation retreat, a student went in to see the Zen master with whom he’d been studying for many years. Sitting at the teacher’s feet, he asked, “Can you tell me how I’m doing in my practice?” The Zen master thought for a minute, then said, “Open your mouth.” The student opened his mouth, and the teacher peered in and said, “OK, now bend your head down.” The student bent his head down, and the Zen master looked into his hair, then said, “OK, now open your eyes really wide.” The student opened his eyes, and the Zen master glared into them and said, “You’re doing fine.” Then he rang his bell.
Because the teacher rang his bell, the student had to leave. The next day, he returned, quite perplexed by what had happened the day before. “I asked you how I was doing in my practice yesterday,” he said, “and you made me open my mouth, bend my head, and open my eyes. What did all that have to do with my practice?” The Zen master bowed his head in thought. Then he said, “You know, you’re not really doing very well in your practice, and the truth is, I am not sure you are ever going to make it.” Again he rang his bell.
The student walked out. You can imagine how confused and angry he felt. The next day he went back, still fuming, and said, “What do you mean, I’m not going to make it in practice? Do you know that I sit in meditation for an hour every day? Sometimes I sit twice a day. I come to every retreat. I have really deep experiences. What do you mean I’m not going to make it?” The master just sat there, apparently thinking. Then he said, “Well, maybe I made a mistake. Perhaps you’re doing pretty well after all.” And again he rang his bell.
On the last day of the retreat, the student went back to see his teacher, utterly exhausted. He felt distraught and confused, but he was no longer fighting it. He said to the master, “I just wanted to know how I was doing in my practice.” This time, the teacher looked at him and with no hesitation, in a very kind voice, said, “If you really want to know how you’re doing in your practice, just look at all of your reactions over the last few days. Just look at your life.”
Three Pillars of Practice
It’s important to have a daily meditation practice, to have a developing ability to see thoughts clearly, and to reside in our bodily experience. But having deep experiences during meditation is not enough. If we want to know how we’re doing in our practice, we have to examine our life. Unless we begin to connect it with the rest of our life, our practice—however strong, calm, or enjoyable—ultimately will not be satisfying.
The reason it won’t be satisfying is that we’re ignoring one of the three basic pillars of practice. The first pillar is a daily sitting practice, in which we slowly develop both the strength and the willingness to do what we’ve spent our whole lives avoiding: reside in the physical reality of the present moment. The second pillar is the more intensive training offered in retreats, which pushes us in a way that we rarely push ourselves at home. There is no substitute for the learning we can do at retreats—where our illusions are dismantled and the real value of perseverance becomes evident. The third pillar is practicing with the messy, unromantic, ordinary ups and downs of daily life. This pillar is essential to a genuine practice. Without it, we will never truly be satisfied.
However, understanding the connection between practice and the rest of our life means addressing many different concerns. For instance, how are you practicing in your relationships—with your spouse, your children, your parents, the people at work? How many resentments do you still hold on to? Do the same people as ever in your life trigger anger, contempt, or other believed judgments? To what extent can you say, “I’m sorry,” and really mean it? When a problem arises, can you say yes to practicing with it, even when you hate what’s happening? And when criticism comes at you, are you willing to work with your reactions when they arise, instead of justifying them?