155 - Avatamsaka Sutra - Each One of Us Has Unique Bodhisattva Gifts to Offer - Part 2
157 – Bodhicitta: The Critical Importance of Dissatisfaction

You can expect your Buddhist practice to go through a cycle of ebb and flow in terms of energy, inspiration, and focus. At times, hopefully, you feel motivated and determined, and experience a period of learning and growth. Then there will inevitably be periods where your practice loses momentum. It may feel dull or aimless, or you may fall back into old, not-so-healthy habits. It’s important you don’t give up practice in times of low ebb, but instead recognize this as part of a natural cycle.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Headings:
Ebb and Flow in Buddhist Practice
Recognizing Times of Ebb in Buddhist Practice
Keeping Our Practice Alive Even During Times of Ebb
Recommended Basics to Keep Our Practice Going
Ways to Re-Inspire Our Practice
Buddhist Practice Is a Lifelong Journey, Not a Sprint

 

Ebb and Flow in Buddhist Practice

Buddhist practice

As long as we don’t give up sincere practice during ebbs in our practice, we can trust there will again be a time of flow. “Ebb” means “in a tidal pattern when the tides are out” and “flow” is “when the tides are in.” And an online dictionary definition that I found was “ebb and flow, a recurrent or rhythmic pattern of coming and going or decline and regrowth.” (Definition from Oxford Languages)

I’m guessing that many of us have experienced something of an ebb in our practice, in recent memory, or are in one now, or are anticipating something of an ebb over the end of year holidays. This last year, with the pandemic locked down, political conflicts, renewed unrest around racial injustice, unprecedented natural disasters exacerbated by global heating, it’s been a tough year. For many of us, our regular schedules and habits and structures we set up to support our healthy habits, including Dharma practice, have been taken away or altered radically. Now, you might be the rare person who can just decide to do something and then do it. But the vast majority of us need more social support for our behavior, especially when making a significant change or doing something that requires energy and effort. 

I’ve heard quite a number of people reflecting on their practice in the recent months or even years and describing it as more or less a failure, at least as compared with their intentions. And when I hear this, I understand and relate, but I do worry that then people will get discouraged, decide Dharma practice is not really for them after all, maybe it was just a passing fascination or they just aren’t up to it. 

It’s also not uncommon for people’s karma to be that they get involved in a cycle involving a struggle with willpower over practice and other kinds of positive habits. We set an intention after intention, but usually end up with a sense of failure, and beat ourselves up. Despite the beatings, we’re still not able to summon the will to do what it is we think we should do. Often we’ll recognize this karmic pattern occurring with respect to practice and not know how else to engage it. People give up practice in frustration or disgust, figuring it’s better not to practice at all than to get engaged in that negative karmic pattern.

No matter our karma, times of ebb can be discouraging, especially if there have been times in our practice where we experienced something very profound or managed to make significant, positive changes in our lives. Maybe I think back to that time when I was doing all that reading, and listening avidly to the podcasts, and deeply inspired and reflecting. I was mindful throughout the day, sitting a lot regularly and tending sangha meetings, contemplating profound spiritual issues, working intensively with my karma, or I had an insight or shift of perspective I thought would permanently transform me. But now I’m lacking the motivation to do all that stuff, or maybe continuing to do it but rather halfheartedly without feeling the rewards or satisfaction that I’ve come to expect or at least hope for.  

A time of ebb may be a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, or many years. And like tides, sometimes ebb involves just a little less energy, inspiration and focus than we’d like, and other times of ebb are really low when we might more or less forget about practice entirely. In this age, when many of us have so many options, other ways we can choose to spend our time and energy, I would guess very few of you are in the position of most of our ancestors, who had to keep up with a religious tradition, at least externally, because of family or societal obligations.  Most of us, even if we were born into Buddhism, have a choice about how and whether we engage our spiritual practice. So in times of ebb, it may be tempting to make practice a much lower priority in our lives or drift away from it entirely.

Recognizing Times of Ebb in Buddhist Practice

I want to argue that if you’ve ever felt deeply inspired by the Dharma, if meditation or practice has ever brought about positive results in your life, then there’s something valuable in Buddhist practice for you, and it’s worth keeping it up through the times of ebb because they won’t last forever. Whatever in you responded positively to the Dharma at some point is still there. There are skillful ways to keep up your effort through times of ebb or to mix metaphors to keep the ember of our practice burning so it won’t die out.

The first step is to recognize a time of ebb for what it is – a cycle within our long-term Buddhist practice, when it’s actually good to turn toward and pay attention to our dissatisfaction, our sense of disappointment or frustration, things not quite working.

Fundamentally, our practice is about being real and facing the truth. And dissatisfaction is the first sign of an ebb in our practice. Fortunately, an ebb doesn’t mean we’re a failure. It doesn’t mean we actually don’t care that much about the Dharma. It doesn’t mean we chose the wrong spiritual practice and something else would probably work better, or that our past enthusiasm for Buddhism was just a passing infatuation. An ebb doesn’t mean that in order to practice, we have to get all embroiled in a painful karmic entanglement involving self-discipline and guilt.

A time of ebb is just what it is. Our choices may have contributed to it, and we may learn something from reflecting on those choices, but there’s no point in dwelling on self blame. Here we are. Times of ebb are going to happen no matter how long we’ve been practicing, no matter how diligent and determined we are. Recognizing an ebb as part of a cycle is encouraging, because it means there will again be a time of flow, a time of inspiration, clarity, renewal, energy, greater intimacy, insight and ease, a sense of growth and learning, a sense of progress – not in the ordinary terms of getting better versus worse, but in terms of our life’s spiritual journey, a sense of movement, a sense of moving ahead.

Keeping Our Practice Alive Even During Times of Ebb

Then, once we’ve recognized our practice is at a low ebb, the second step is to form the intention to keep it alive even though our sense of motivation and inspiration may be lacking.

This can be challenging, just like making yourself exercise when you’ve fallen out of the habit, sometimes there’s nothing more you could do than just force yourself to go through the motions. The practice we do needs to be at least as wholehearted as we can manage. We need to keep up the effort as best we can, because simply setting practice aside and counting on inspiration and motivation to arise again at some point in the future isn’t really a reliable approach. Our habits of body, mind and heart are too strong. And if we just rely on life to send us some circumstances that bring us back to spiritual practice, it may happen, it may not.

Supporting our practice through times of ebb is actually one of the primary functions of vow, and by that I mean anywhere from an informal, privately formed intention to a publicly stated formal vow. These vows keep us going on our intended journey, even when we momentarily lose our sense of direction, purpose or determination. 

In my personal practice, there were many years in the middle of my monastic training where I was just in a very bleak period, definitely a time of ebb, a time of self-doubt. I didn’t know that I would ever be able to achieve anything in practice that I wanted to break through, make any kind of meaningful transformation of my karma. I wasn’t sure what I was doing and why, but I had put myself in this circumstance where I had these vows. I just was part of a community. I had to get up and participate in the schedule and do all of these things. It kept me doing that until there was a time of flow later. If I hadn’t been so formally involved, maybe I would have just stepped away from the practice at that point. 

The good thing is, the longer that you keep this up, the more cycles of ebb and flow you will experience. The stronger your faith can become that in a given period of dryness and bleakness and lack of inspiration, lack of apparent self-discipline, you can have faith that that is an ebb, and that as long as you manage somehow to keep the ember glowing, to keep practice going, there will again be a time of flow. You also get more familiar with your own patterns and the way you experience ebb and flow and can sense when the tide is turning.

For example, I confess my meditation has been very unfocused and scattered for many months. I am involved in lots of different activities and projects that I care about very deeply, and that actually makes it hard to concentrate because as I sit there, I want to mull over all these different projects and all these different things that I’m involved in, and my imagination gets going, and it’s hard to let go of those things. As my podcasts on zazen have suggested, what we’re doing is just letting go of volitional activity. But recently I have found that very hard to do. 

 

Ordinarily I go away and sink deeply into Rohatsu retreat in December, and have a kind of reset. We did have a Rohatsu retreat with Bright Way Zen, but we had to do it online because of COVID. It wasn’t the same, especially because I was the leader instead of just a participant as I usually am for Rohatsu. Most of us found the at home, online retreat very sweet in some ways – doing a meditation retreat in the context of our homes and our families and our daily lives. But it was harder to concentrate and settle, so I didn’t have that ordinary reset. But nonetheless, I feel maybe because of recognizing this recent time of ebb, that there’s something shifting, if only my forming that intention: “Oh, OK. This is a time of ebb. I need to keep practice alive.”

Recommended Basics to Keep Our Practice Going

How do we keep our Buddhist practice alive? How do we keep that ember burning, at the very least? If you’re not quite at the point where you’re going to try to build the flames up again, if it’s hard to even keep it going at all, what are some of the minimum things that we can do just to keep that thread, just to keep the practice alive so that when the time of flow comes again, there’s some practice left to be revitalized? 

I would say set realistic expectations. What are you going to be able to easily keep up? Then push yourself just a little – not too much. The tendency is to set your intention, aspiration, or vow to be what you think you should be doing, but especially in a time of ebb, that’s generally going to be much more than you are actually doing, so it’s probably too much to expect of yourself. Set an expectation that seems pretty easy even to you at this moment, and then maybe just add a little bit. For instance, if I said, well, how about you meditate for 15 minutes a week? Probably many of you think, “Oh, well, that’s not very much.” Well, if it’s more than you’re doing, then that’s significant. I would say some kind of consistency is better than quantity. Even if it’s just once a week, you take a little bit of time to sit. That can be enough.

There are four things that I can think of that we want to keep up in this minimal way, as much as you can do, but at least keeping some kind of thread going, not letting these things die out completely.

  1. Regular zazen – regularity more important than quantity – just once a week, heck, maybe even once a month! But, you know in some ways it falls below a certain threshold that’s likely to go away entirely. So you want to keep it just above that.
  2. Participation with SanghaThere are many, many online opportunities now, including with my Sangha, Bright Way Zen. There seems to be, for the vast majority of us, something really important about maintaining connection with other people who are doing this. And again, you may have an ideal in your mind about how often you should be participating with Sangha, but if you can keep up some thread.  Once a week is awesome, once every other week, once a month, some kind of connection.
  3. Keeping the preceptsTo some extent, this is even more important than zazen, because keeping the precepts is about our relationships with others, it’s about how we relate to others. So this is something that feels for most of us, pretty natural to keep going even during times of ebb. We’ve allied ourselves, we’ve been inspired by this set of moral and ethical guidelines. Living our lives in the context of the precepts is a way that we can keep our practice alive.
  4. Living deliberately (paying attention, keeping faith that choice is possible) – This is a little more subtle. This means trying to pay attention to your life, facing what’s really going on, and keeping faith that choice is possible, that we don’t have to live on autopilot. We don’t have to live driven by our habits, that we have some choice in the matter.  It’s a kind of subtle thing, and it’s something we can hold lightly. Maybe our aspiration to be mindful and appreciative 24/7 is a bit much when we’re in a time of ebb, but in the back of your mind to keep this gentle aspiration to pay attention, pay attention to your life and look for those opportunities where you can make a choice.

Ways to Re-Inspire Our Practice

When we find ourselves at a time when it seems like the tide might be turning, when maybe we have a little bit more inspiration, a little bit more aspiration, space in our lives, and we’ve managed to keep that little ember of our practice glowing, but we want to build it up again.  How do we do that? How do we re-inspire our practice? 

Recognizing that you’re in a time of ebb and there’s some need for inspiration, some sense of patience about the whole situation, because you can’t force the ocean tides to turn, to some extent is just participating in and waiting out a natural process. Refuse to fall into self blame or discouragement, et cetera – that is not inspiration. What we need to do is reinspire our practice, not turn it into that negative karmic cycle of self-blame and guilt and struggling with self-discipline.

It was Arthur Schopenhauer who said “man can do as he wills, what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” And I agree we can’t just will ourselves into wanting something. A lot of times in our time of ebb, we don’t actually want to sit, we don’t want to study, we don’t want to be reflective for whatever reason, we don’t actually want to practice. Maybe part of us does, but we have competing desires within us and the desire not to practice is outweighing our deep aspiration to practice. So maybe we can’t will ourselves into wanting something, but Buddhism is all about things we can do to change our own minds, hearts and bodies.  Through our actions, we can have influence over what we will, over what we want, just not directly. It’s not through direct application of will on will. It is adopting actions and practices and turning our mind in such a way that we will have influence over the kinds of things that we’re drawn to and want to do in the future.

The first thing I can think of to re-inspire our practice is study, like listening to podcasts or reading books that inspire. When we need to re-inspire our practice, the kind of study we want to do should be something that really draws us naturally.  It’s probably not a time to do the kind of study that is rather challenging or difficult, that we just feel like we should do in order to increase our Dharma understanding. But this should be a study that is more the kind of thing that you listen to and it raises your spirits and gets you thinking and inspires.

The second thing I can think of is a meditation retreat. You may or may not be in a position where you can do this, but there are more and more opportunities available online. I highly recommend in-person when that is possible again, it can be for a day or a few days or a week. There is something for many of us that in the context of retreat, our minds settle, we gain perspective, it’s like a reset. It’s like a reset of our whole spiritual being. Out of that, inexplicably, can arise energy and aspiration and inspiration. 

The third thing that I thought of was reminding ourselves of impermanence. So there are classic teachings in Zen and Buddhism about this. There’s an ancient Zen gatha, for example, that is written on the han (a wooden announcement instrument in monasteries) and often chanted in monasteries as well. I’m going to chant it because it tends to be more impactful that way.  I may have chanted it on the podcast before:

“Let me respectfully remind you, Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. . . . . . awaken, Take heed. Do not squander your life.” – Ancient Zen gatha inscribed on han, chanted in monasteries

Then there is the classic teaching of the Buddha from the Pali canon, where he says there are five facts that one should reflect on often whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained:

“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?

“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

“‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’ …

“‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’ …

“‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’ …

“‘I am the owner of my actions,[1] heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’ …[1]

It may or may not benefit your practice to reflect on impermanence. It’s the classic Buddhist method, but I don’t recommend it if you are depressed. Just pay attention to what kind of effect that has on you. If it just stresses you out and makes you feel negative, then don’t do that. But if it does light a fire, in a sense, then it’s a good practice.

The next thing I was going to suggest is asking ourselves what we truly want. When you reflect like this on the cushion or at other quiet times, what is it you truly want? Not what you should want, and not the obvious things like I want to be happy or I want my loved ones to be happy, I want to be safe, those kinds of things. There’s a deeper and unique individual motivation that you have, something that you’re particularly touched by or drawn to. 

For me, when I explore that question, sometimes the answers will change over time. But essentially for me it is I want to help save life on this planet. I want to save it from destruction and extinction. Life is amazing and beautiful, in all of its forms. I’ve always been, throughout my life, drawn to wanting to help, wanting to participate, wanting to give my life energy to the effort to take care of life. Therefore, many of the activities I do in my life are aimed at that purpose. Which is exactly why sometimes it’s difficult to concentrate during zazen, or to let go of my volitional activity, because what I truly want is to help save life on this planet. 

When I recognize what I truly want is to help save life on this planet, I know that devoting myself deeply to zazen and practice serves that aspiration in a very potent way. I’m only better able to take action. I’m only better able to apply myself to those activities when I also incorporate zazen and practice into my life. I know that. If I can really connect with what I truly want, then I can also connect that to deep desire firing up my practice, deepening my practice so that then I am sitting zazen in service of what I truly want.

Perhaps for you, you want to be there, to be as present and open to intimacy as possible with the loved ones in your life, with your family, with your children. If you really examine the consequences of practice, you’ll know that really sitting, really keeping up this practice, actually serves your deepest intentions; it makes you more able to be selfless, more able to be present, more able to pay attention, so therefore you can practice for your loved ones.

Finally, I would say, in terms of reinspiring your practice – whatever works! 

This is one of the beautiful things about Buddhist practice. There’s really no limit to the skillful means, no limit to the practices. The only way you judge a practice is on whether it works. So maybe practicing Metta is what will really reignite your practice, maybe going to meditate in the woods or, maybe getting back into your artistic expression or something like that, something you just gotta try. But as soon as that intention is there to really reignite your practice, then you might look around and see some possibilities that you didn’t see before.

Buddhist Practice Is a Lifelong Journey, Not a Sprint

In the meantime, when we are in those times of ebb, the recommendation is just keep up the basics, regardless of how it feels.

Many of us are used to living our lives in such a way that, except for work or family obligations, we only want to do something if it feels good or feels right or it feels like we’re getting a reward out of it. But in times of ebb, if we want our practice to continue, if we want our practice to survive, we just have to keep on the basics, regardless of how it feels. 

Over the long-term, I would also recommend not getting self-identified with success in our practice. In times of flow, when things are going great and our meditation is really deep and we’re studying a lot and we’re fulfilling our own aspirations, that is a time for gratitude, as opposed to a sense of personal pride in your wonderful self-discipline. 

And then during times of ebb, the virtue that we need is Kshanti, which I’ve talked about recently (Episode 153), the paramita of endurance, patience and endurance, where we just keep it up and keep going, but for a larger purpose. Not just keeping it going indefinitely – it’s going to be unfulfilling indefinitely, but within this larger context of seeing it as a lifelong practice, as a lifelong journey, not a sprint.

There are going to be cycles of ebb and flow. We’ll get used to them after a while.

 

Endnote

[1] “Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation” (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html:

 

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155 - Avatamsaka Sutra - Each One of Us Has Unique Bodhisattva Gifts to Offer - Part 2
157 – Bodhicitta: The Critical Importance of Dissatisfaction
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