198 - Renunciation as an Act of Love
200 – Story of My Spiritual Journey Part 4: Enlightenments

It’s not unusual for our practice to languish at times. “Languish” means to be or become weak or feeble, to lose vigor or vitality, to be subjected to neglect or prolonged inactivity. How do we recognize when our practice is languishing and revitalize it, without falling into the dualistic trap of striving? How do we avoid the trap of striving without then falling into the opposite trap of complacency?

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
Is My Practice Languishing?
The Middle Way with Respect to Practice
Formal Practice Languishing, Formless Practice Languishing?
Using Dissatisfaction with Our Practice as Information
Why It’s Sad When Our Practice is Languishing
Aligning Ourselves with Our Deepest Aspirations

 

Is My Practice Languishing?

A few weeks ago, I held a Q&A session with my Sangha. One of the questions was, “How do I know if my practice is languishing?” I thought this was a good question at the time, but I became even more impressed with it when I looked up the definitions for the word “languish:” to be or become weak or feeble; to lose vigor and vitality; to undergo neglect or experience prolonged inactivity; to be subjected to delay or disregard; be ignored.[i] It’s definitely possible to let our practice languish!

On the other hand, it’s usually not helpful to set up ideals or expectations, or to draw negative conclusions about our zazen, ourselves, or our practice. Evaluating our practice is a tricky matter, which is probably why someone asked this question. If all we had to do was look for telltale signs of weakness or neglect in our practice and then address them, this would all be pretty straightforward. Instead, I suspect that we often find ourselves in one of two situations:

  • I think my practice is fine, but maybe it’s actually languishing and I’m fooling myself, or
  • I think my practice is languishing but maybe I’m just getting stuck in duality and making a problem where this is none.

Before I get into today’s discussion, let me give a short and simple answer to this episodes main question: If you’re wondering whether your practice is languishing, it probably is. But don’t worry too much about that: It’s normal and natural to go through cycles in your practice – times where it’s more lively, active, and engaged, and times where it ends up languishing a little.

The Middle Way with Respect to Practice

When we’re reflecting on the state of our practice, it’s essential to remember the Buddhist Middle Way. The Middle Way is a vital and dynamic path of not getting stuck in extremes. It is not a fixed position, or a compromise, or even a middle-of-road approach. The Middle Way is a third option – a way to be free when we are tempted to get caught in duality.

When we notice tension or suffering arising in our life, it can be helpful to ask, “What would the Middle Way be here?” We start this investigation by trying to identify the two sides of the dualism, the two extremes we might see as our either/or options.

In the case of reflecting on the state of our practice, one extreme is complacency. We tell ourselves: “There’s nothing to be gained. Practice is all about accepting what is. Judgments of good or bad are dualistic trap. My practice is good enough, or at least it’s as good as it’s going to get. I don’t want start getting ambitious and then risk feeling dissatisfied or inadequate.” When we’re complacent, we pretty much avoid the whole question of whether our practice might be languishing.

The other extreme in terms of our attitude toward our own practice is striving. We constantly compare the inadequacy of our practice, understanding, and behavior to an ideal, whether that ideal is based on our own aspirations, on what we’ve read, or on comparisons to others. We push ourselves to do more or better but are often aware of falling short. We may feel frustrated, inadequate, or just quietly ashamed.

Neither of the extreme of complacency or the extreme of striving is very helpful in our practice. If you have to err on one side or the other, though, I recommend striving – if only because Buddhist practices are devised to deconstruct your delusions, so you may be able to use the energy of your striving to learn and grow, but then let go of it. However, it’s not necessary to indulge the extreme of striving in order to grow in practice, and it can be rather painful.

You might wonder whether we should evaluate our practice at all. Isn’t evaluation of any kind falling into the extreme of striving? If we didn’t pay attention to the state of our practice at all, it would be like deliberately blindfolding ourselves when walking, or wearing mittens to do a fine manual task. Fortunately – and I’ll be going into this more later – there are ways to reflect on the state of our practice in an honest and objective way without falling into the extreme of striving.

Formal Practice Languishing, Formless Practice Languishing?

We need to explore an important related question at this point: When we ask whether our practice is languishing, what do we mean by “practice?”

I like to think of practice as having two aspects: Formal and formless. “Forms” are things and behaviors you can witness from the outside, such as Sangha practice, sitting zazen, study, chanting, or trying to behave in accord with the precepts. You can quantify your formal practice – number of hours spent, pages read, etc.

The formless aspect of practice is an orientation toward reality you can take anywhere, at any moment. Moment-by-moment practice is living deliberately. It’s a choice to meet reality and respond with as much wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness as you can. In order to respond in this way, you must perceive clearly, so you also have to try to be open and set aside your self-centered agendas. Once you see what’s going on, you ask yourself, “What choices can I make in this moment to minimize suffering and maximize real happiness for all involved? What positive choices can I make within my own body and mind, regardless of what happens around me, regardless of whether circumstances change, and regardless of what choices other people make?”

Formal practice supports formless practice, but it’s possible to go through the motions of formal practice without your formless practice being very lively. And, alternatively, there may be times you don’t have much formal practice in your life, but your formless practice may be right on.

Therefore, the question of whether your practice is languishing can be answered in terms of formal and formless practice. When it comes to formal practice, the answer is pretty simple: You add it up. How much time have you been spending, how engaged have you been? There’s no prescribed amount of formal practice to be a good Buddhist – it differs widely by person depending on their interests and other responsibilities – so how do you know whether your formal practice is languishing? That is, how do you know if it’s lost vigor and vitality, or been experiencing neglect, delay, or disregard? You know for yourself.

You know from experience how much formal practice, and what kinds of formal practice, help you feel good. You know what a nice, sustainable, and sustaining practice looks like for you, assuming you’ve been at it for at least a few months. So, you also know when you’re neglecting your practice. For example, maybe you know trying to attend Sangha once a week is ideal, but at least three times a month helps keep your practice strong. Your formal practice is probably languishing if you look back at the last year or so and realize you’ve barely joined Sangha once a month. In this respect, maintaining a Buddhist practice is like maintaining any other kind of healthy habit, like exercise or eating well – at a certain level, you’ve just gotta do it.

What about reflecting on the state of your formless practice, which is living deliberately moment by moment? This can’t be measured, and frankly our effort in formless practice always falls short of what’s possible. This is like Dogen’s perception of the ocean as a circle. He says that when we’re out in the middle of the ocean in a boat, we look around and perceive the ocean as a flat circle. Of course, the ocean isn’t round or flat. Dogen says it has “inexhaustible characteristics.” The ocean is perceived completely differently by a fish, a fisherman, a bird, or a person looking down at it from the space station. Where are the boundaries of the ocean? Similarly, as we navigate our daily lives, it’s impossible to perceive every aspect of everything, and therefore our responses will always be best guesses.

As long as we’re in human form, our formless practice will be imperfect. Still, we have a sense of the diligence of our efforts when we recall our aspiration to meet each moment fully and to respond with wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness. We know for ourselves whether we have been sincerely trying to avoid wasting a moment of this short and precious life by indulging in oblivious self-centered daydreams, or by nourishing anger or resentment, or by chasing desires that will never ultimately satisfy.

Using Dissatisfaction with Our Practice as Information

If we ask ourselves, honestly, if our formal and formless practice is languishing, and we conclude, at least to some extent, yes – what then? Is this the first step toward the dualistic trap of striving? Should we risk complacency instead of striving by telling ourselves, “Oh well, this is just my practice, if I accept it, I can instantly make it all okay!”

The important thing is that our sense of dissatisfaction with our own practice is information. We don’t have to leap to conclusions or weave an elaborate, self-centered narrative around it. We just notice, “Hmmm… I’m thinking my practice might be languishing somewhat.” This dissatisfaction is direct perception, like your hand sensing heat or cold. It is not objectively right or wrong, it simply reflects your inner experience. You looked within and inquired about the state of your practice, and you saw that your behavior doesn’t quite match up with what you know is best for you and for others.

When dissatisfaction with our practice is due to a sense that we’re letting it languish, the thought may occur to us that we’ve been rather lazy. I once read a Buddhist definition of “lazy” that I think is extremely useful in this situation. (I can’t for the life of me find the source of the definition now, but I think it captures the essence of the word.) Laziness is failure to apply what is wholesome. According to this definition, in order to be lazy part of you needs to know what would be wholesome. Part of you is aware that you are turning away from something healthy and beneficial. If you aren’t even aware something would be wholesome, you aren’t lazy when you neglect doing it. I think this is why Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron suggests that our very laziness can be a teacher:

“The path of awakening is a process. It’s a process of gradually learning to become intimate with our so-called obstacles. So rather than feeling discouraged by laziness, we could look into our laziness, become curious about laziness. We could get to know laziness profoundly…

“[Let’s say] We are sitting in front of the television eating chips, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes. Hour after hour after hour we sit there. Then for some reason, we see ourselves clearly. We have the choice to eat the tenth bag of chips and watch the sixteenth sitcom, or to relate with our depression and laziness in an honest and openhearted way. Instead of continuing to zone out and shut down and close off, we lean in and relax. This is how we practice.

“So maybe we open the window or go out for a walk, or maybe we sit silently, but whatever we do, it occurs to us to stay with ourselves, to go behind the words, behind the ignoring, and to feel the quality of this moment of being, in our hearts, in our stomachs, for ourselves, and for all of the millions of others in the same boat. We start to train in openness and compassion toward this very moment. This very moment of laziness becomes our personal teacher. This precious moment becomes our profound and healing practice.”[ii]

Why It’s Sad When Our Practice is Languishing

Why do we fail to apply what we know to be wholesome, or beneficial? Many reasons, of course. Most of the time, for one reason or another, we’re simply making different choices. We’re spending our time on other things instead of formal practice. Or we’re directing our attention to less wholesome things moment by moment instead of meeting each situation wholeheartedly the way we aspire to.

The sad thing about laziness, about allowing our practice to languish, is that we aren’t acting in accord with our own deepest desires. It’s not about meeting some external ideal or reaching some goal. It’s not about attaining some particular level of mindfulness, or moral perfection, or spiritual insight. It’s about living the way we really want to live when we honestly reflect on ourselves while taking the widest possible perspective. Sure, in this moment I might rather scroll mindlessly through Facebook, but when I think about what it will be most satisfying to have done when I reflect on my day, maybe I get up and exercise, or sit zazen, or take my dogs for a walk in the sunshine.

If my life was drawing to a close tomorrow, I would want to be able to reflect on my practice and conclude that had done my best to fulfill my own potential, to appreciate each moment I had, and to work diligently on myself in order to become wiser, kinder, and more generous. In the light of those aspirations, letting my practice languish isn’t so much a moral failing as it is a sad and unfortunate waste of the precious opportunity of human life.

Aligning Ourselves with Our Deepest Aspirations

Once we identify that our practice might be languishing, we can respond without falling into either the extreme of striving, or the extreme of complacency.

Falling into duality means to take the dissatisfaction with our practice and weave it into a narrative about the self. My practice. Where do I fall on spectrum between good and bad practice? How do I make my practice better? Falling into duality means to create concepts of good and bad practice, whether we reject those concepts or embrace them.

Practicing the Middle Way – not falling into duality – means to stay with your direct experience. There’s no need to conceive of what good or bad practice looks like. There’s no need to measure your practice or make judgments about it. There’s no need to compare yourself to others, or even to some ideal you hold for yourself. There’s no need to beat yourself up or conclude you’re lazy or inadequate. Instead, you turn the light within and recall your deepest aspirations – your utterly sincere, deepest, truest desires when you consider your human life as a whole – and then align yourself with those desires as best you can.

Practice is always a direction, a process, a path. The question of whether your practice is languishing is the question of whether you are remembering to, bothering to, align yourself with your deepest aspirations. It’s totally up to you.

How do we know when our practice is not languishing? When (contrary to languishing) it’s strong, vigorous, vital, active, attended to, and nurtured? We may be able to draw a few objective conclusions about our formal practice, but the state of our formless practice is entirely experiential. How do you know you’re living as deliberately as you can? This is a tricky question because evaluation invites the discriminating mind to get involved. It’s important to stay with your direct experience of body and mind when exploring this question. For example, I feel a sense of movement and growth when my practice is strong. Note this is a sense of movement and growth, not intellectual conclusions about my movement and growth. It’s a sense of flow, of possibility, of willingness, and of being on a journey which will involve more opportunities to learn and grow.

 


Endnotes

[i] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/languish

[ii] “Looking Into Laziness” by Pema Chödrön, November 23, 2021, Lion’s Roar magazine. https://www.lionsroar.com/start-where-you-arelooking-into-laziness/

 

 

198 - Renunciation as an Act of Love
200 – Story of My Spiritual Journey Part 4: Enlightenments
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