I propose that effective practice with any issue we face requires five things: Recognition of the issue that is causing stress or suffering; Faith that change is possible though practice; Willingness to do what it takes to bring about change; Practice in the sense of actually doing something we think might help bring about that change, and Patience in the sense of the perfection (paramita), or a determination to keep walking the path of practice even if it takes longer than we’d like, or the results aren’t exactly what we’d hoped for.
Quicklinks to Outline Headings:
The First Requirement for Effective Practice: Recognition
The Second Requirement: Faith
The Third Requirement: Willingness
The Fourth Requirement: Practice! (Do Something)
The Fifth Requirement: Patience
An important aspect of Buddhist practice is practicing with our stress and suffering. This means identifying something in our experience or behavior we would like to change, and then setting about changing it. I like to say Zen is not a self-improvement project, and much stress and suffering is relieved simply through radical acceptance of things as they are. At the same time, Buddhist practice offers transformative and effective tools for freeing us from harmful habits of body, speech, and mind. As long as we don’t get too attached to results, many of us find our experience and behavior changing with practice in ways we didn’t think were possible.
Practice = things we consciously choose to do to make the situation better/ decrease suffering, increase ease, equanimity, wisdom, compassion. How we can gain some freedom from, insight into, these experiences…
Different ways to slice the Dharma tomato…
Recently I conceived of 5 necessary requirements/ingredients/steps for effective practice with any issue: 1) Recognition, 2) Faith, 3) Willingness, 4) Practice, and 5) Patience. Recognition of the issue that is causing stress or suffering; Faith that change is possible though practice; Willingness to do what it takes to bring about change; Practice in the sense of actually doing what we think might help bring about change, and Patience in the sense of the perfection (paramita), or a determination to keep walking the path of practice even if it takes longer than we’d like, or the results aren’t exactly what we’d hoped for.
In this episode, I will use a particular challenge many, if not most, of us experience: Intrusive thoughts and emotions. My podcast episode 70 (Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts and Emotions) goes into more detail about practicing with this issue, so here I’m using it as a case study for how we practice. I’ll start by defining and describing the problem of intrusive thoughts and emotions. Then I’ll discuss each of the five requirements for effective practice in a general sense (such that you can apply them to any practice issue), and then talk about what it might look like to meet the requirements when dealing with intrusive thoughts and emotions.
First Requirement for Effective Practice: Recognition
Mindfulness/presence of mind
Noticing what’s going on… first? Perhaps feeling of stress, anger, anxiety, depression…
Tightness in the gut, chest, shoulders?
Nausea, lack of appetite, or compulsive habits?
Recognition/Mindfulness means we shift attention from the content to the experience (or from content to the container through which everything moves)
Sometimes just this provides some relief! (As soon as we become aware of our experience in this way, we’re not completely caught in the content)
Case Study: Notice our minds returning again and again and again to the same topics… Feeling helpless, can’t control the mind…
“Intrusive” thoughts and emotions repeatedly arise with enough intensity for them to be disturbing or distracting, but aren’t objectively relevant or helpful as they’re arising.
aren’t actually limited to thoughts and emotions – sensations and basic reactions of aversion or attraction can also be intrusive.
I’ll just say “thoughts and emotions” to cover the gamut of our internal experiences, both positive and negative, including:
fears, worries, anxieties, obsessions, infatuations, resentments, preoccupations, fantasies, catastrophizing, and hypersensitivity
E.g. social paranoia
Sometimes intrusive thoughts and emotions are extremely disconnected from reality (may be easier to see in others… completely fabricated in their own mind)
Subject matter isn’t bad, but obsession or intrusion ends up being distracting, even unpleasant, may interfere with our daily lives, responsibilities…
E.g. practical difficulties (e.g. financial, health, family)
Real events – distressing or exciting? Can’t stop thinking about them. Natural but…
At certain point not helpful, or troubling, exhausting, or at least distracting
E.g. fear or excitement about something that might happen (we know it’s “not worth worrying about,” but…)
E.g. anger with someone, rehearsing and rehashing your argument with them
Being subject to intrusive thoughts and emotions can be differentiated from useful thinking and processing by looking at the results:
- greater clarity or peace of mind? good decisions? necessary part of processing?
- Or, alternatively, do you find yourself perseverating – that is, thinking the same thoughts over and over?
- Is your experience of the thoughts and emotions causing stress, insomnia, depression, or health problems? Is it interfering with the life you want to lead?
Disclaimer about mental health – there’s a time and place for availing ourselves of other tools, including counseling, therapy, even medication… and we can practice, but sometimes we need some more direct and specialized help in order to settle our minds and hearts just enough to be able to practice, or be free from anguish.
Recognition: Oh, I’m experiencing intrusive thoughts and emotions! (Generally speaking, there is going to be both thoughts and emotions involved, although sometimes a persistent experience is more physical in nature)
Fulfilling the requirement of recognition: Many, many teachings and tools in Buddhism to help us become more mindful, to turn toward our experience…
Some aspects of recognition not so often discussed (although Tara Brach and the teachers of RAIN do a good job with this): Humility and courage and compassion, so we can face and admit we have problems – or at the very least have experiences and behaviors we’d like to change in order to live a more free and fulfilling and beneficial life – even though it can be daunting to admit we have a problem, and/or it may not fit with our ideas about who we are or should be.
“I shouldn’t have this problem at my age/after all this time/because I’m a strong person/etc.”
“I can’t have this problem because I’ve got to hold it together…”
“I’m happy with who I am…”
Important: None of us are perfect. Traditional Buddhist view: we wouldn’t have been born if we didn’t still have karma. Practice in Sangha long enough: See everyone has karma, it just appears differently for different people.
Also, we don’t have to subscribe to a self-improvement project in order to admit there’s something we’d like to change about ourselves. Instead, it can be about growth and learning – doing everything we can in this lifetime to live in a more enlightened way.
Second Requirement for Effective Practice: Faith
So, we recognize there’s something in our lives it would be good to change if we can. What’s next? Even before we get to practicing with a particular issue, two prerequisites.
If we don’t have these, we will not be able to practice at all. It may seem like whatever practice we’ve chosen is not “working,” but actually we’re just missing one or both of these prereqs:
1) This all has to start from a place of faith in practice (faith in your ability/capacity to do something to improve your situation, at least your internal situation)
This is extremely important
Sometimes that faith might feel strong, sometimes weaker, but if we lose it – if we lose hope, if you will – we are unlikely to gain freedom from an experience or behavior like intrusive thoughts and emotions until they have their way with us and burn themselves out, leaving us vulnerable to the next attack
Faith we can do something… it may not be easy; results may not be immediate; the results may not be exactly what we expect or hope for; we may need to persevere in our practice as opposed to just doing something one time and everything is fixed
Central teaching of Buddhism, I think! Life inevitably involves old age, disease, death, loss, situations that cause us pain and stress, etc., but our experience of life is largely dependent on the state of our own body-mind.
This is what makes Buddhism optimistic… this is the amazing thing the Buddha discovered and taught.
Faith in practice = Faith we can do something about our internal experience and our behavior. These our areas of influence and choice. Changes in our internal experience and behavior often has effects on our situation and other people (better able to deal with things, etc.)… but that is not what practice is about. Practice is about our own bodies and minds.
Fulfilling this requirement of faith in practice: Can help to find teachers or fellow practitioners we trust and admire, follow their recommendations or avail ourselves of their encouragement
Faith builds over time, we need to take the first step…
The Third Requirement for Effective Practice: Willingness
Another prerequisite before we get to practicing with a particular issue:
2) This all has to start from a place willingness. Even if you have faith in practice, even if you have some idea of what you might do (sit zazen, take a break, practice mindfulness of breathing, let go, get advice from someone…), it’s not going to be effective if you don’t actually do it.
Usually there is something intoxicating or compelling about our intrusive thoughts and emotions, and part of us wants to keep indulging in them…
Sense of righteousness, we’ve almost got this figured out, we can’t let down our guard, etc…
Pivotal moment of recognition: Something unhelpful is going on, and I want things to change, I want to do something about it. (Or you don’t, yet… that can also be useful to recognize)
Renunciation – literally, physically, Buddhist monastics renounced involvement with the world, but the most important renunciation is renouncing that which causes suffering! Are we willing to let go, for example, of these intrusive thoughts and emotions? Kyojukaimon says: “They who release their suffering and embrace all beings are called the Sangha treasure.”
Are we willing to do what it takes? Sometimes it means facing difficult truths about ourselves, facing the hard work of changing habits, making choices that will shift our relationships or circumstances in uncomfortable ways, doing without indulgences we’ve grown used to or feel entitled to…
Sometimes what’s required is a shift in perspective – letting go of attachment to cherished ideas or beliefs, for example – and we find ourselves unwilling to make the change. Change can be scary! We often don’t know what we’ll find on the other side of it. Will things be better, or worse?
Case Study: Are you really willing to stop perseverating on the subject of your intrusive thoughts and emotions? Are you willing to let go of your anger and resentment? Are you actually willing to spend some time in silence even though you have a million worries?
Fulfilling this requirement: You probably can’t force yourself to will differently, but if you look at things clearly, the part(s) of you which want to apply practice and change your situation may end up being able to convince the rest of the committee which is your mind to go along, at least for a while.
Often, when I think I’m determined to practice with one of my issues and I find change isn’t happening, I can trace the cause back to a lack of willingness. I may see the problem, have the faith I can change, and even know what I should do about it, but for some reason I resist doing it. The reason behind resistance may or may not be rational or admirable, but until I recognize it I usually remain stuck. Once I recognize the reason for my resistance, though, things usually start to shift, at least a little bit, toward being able to change.
The Fourth Requirement for Effective Practice: Practice! (Do Something)
You’ve got the first three prerequisites for gaining freedom:
1. Recognition: You’ve just recognized you’re caught up in an experience of intrusive thoughts and emotions…
2 & 3. You’ve got the two prerequisites for faith and willingness covered, more or less: You’re willing to do something to improve your situation, and you have at least some faith that such a thing is within your capacity.
4. Practice – Conscious choice about what you do with your body, speech, and/or mind that can improve your internal situation regardless of what happens around you.
Two meanings of practice both apply: 1) Noun (a practice) – some technique, approach, something you can try, 2) Imperative Verb (Practice! Do it!) – actually applying said approach.
Practice (noun): “Action” of body, speech, or mind
It can be a physical practice, or a change in the way you’re expressing yourself, or a change in your mindset, or of course a practice the involves both body and mind, like zazen or mindfulness of breathing, or…
A Buddhist “practice” is about your body speech and mind and is not dependent on the actions or responses of others, or on your situation
This isn’t to say you don’t also take action in your life to try to influence or change your circumstances, but that’s not the realm of practice. Of course, a positive change in your internal situation is likely to have positive effects on your external circumstances, but that’s not the primary focus. The telling question is: Is this practice (this conscious choice about something you do with your body, speech, and/or mind) going to beneficial even if it changes nothing in your external circumstances?
Practice can be short term or longer term – Dealing with momentary symptoms, breaking the mind out of negative loops, or longer term, such as investigating your karma and gaining insight into why certain things upset you so much
Practice can be formal (“Buddhist,” something that could be recognized from the outside), or informal and personal (improv, finding whatever works)
Case Study: Examples of practices for working with intrusive thoughts and emotions
Grounding in body – Focusing on/observing bodily sensations, or something present/physical
Decreasing ID with content, increase ID with space through which everything moves
Cultivating attitudes that serve as antidote – Letting go of outcomes; yielding/acceptance; letting go of judgement about topics; cultivating sense of spaciousness, joy, compassion, or faith in ourselves; metta practice (e.g. toward the person with whom you’ve had a difficult interaction)
Forbearance/endurance/immovability/nonreactivity – Staying with the feeling, radical acceptance for your situation; allowing whatever is there to be there; responding instead of reacting
Investigation & Discernment – What am I thinking or feeling? Is it coming from the ego, or ___? Coming from where?
Fulfilling this requirement: Two steps – finding practice(s) to do (Zen/Buddhist study, asking a teacher or experienced practitioner, asking Dharma friends, trial and error, inventing things), then doing it!
The Fifth Requirement: Patience
Naturally, we hope that once we apply a practice to a situation, everything will be quickly fixed!
Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Habits take time and effort to change.
When we’re practicing with something, I think we can be satisfied with our effort as long as it feels like some growth is happening. Things may not shift as quickly as we’d hoped, but if some movement, some insight, some change is happening, it’s a good thing.
If things feel stuck, or like the effort to practice with something ends up feeling slippery and elusive – like it keeps slipping out of your grasp, or even out of your conscious intentions – then it may be time to check the other four requirements for effective practice: Have you recognized what the real problem is? Do you have faith that you can actually improve your internal experience or your behavior? Are you willing to do what it takes to change, or are you willing for the change to occur? And finally, is the practice you’re trying the right one for the situation, and if so, are you actually doing it?
We need patience not just with the process of change, but also with this entire process of making sure you have all the requirements met for effective practice. We may need to regularly re-evaluate our situation!
I don’t know how to cultivate patience except to recognize the need for it. It can help to talk to others who have faith and experience in practice, who can affirm that it sounds like you’re on the right track, and can encourage you to keep up the effort.
Each requirement/ingredient/step reinforces and supports the others, like so many lists in Buddhism…
Experience in practice helps you get better at recognizing obstacles and issues in your life, and any successes you have will increase your faith, willingness, and patience.
Like ingredients in a good stew…