Continuous Practice

Our country is in a serious crisis. When the world is falling apart all around you, does it help to have a spiritual practice? Do you reserve spiritual activities only for when times are good? If you do, I'd like you to seriously consider what your life might be like if you lived a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity in the midst of change and uncertainty. When you are filled with anxiety and unease and your attention is scattered and fragmented, you are more vulnerable to over-reacting by experiencing increased anger, anxiety and fear. Living a Zen-inspired life can help you cope more effectively with these unexpected events. But to live such a life you must practice meditation regularly. It is no small thing to change your lifestyle in this way. But then again, it is no small thing to remain unconditionally present and open, empathically connected to those around you and in service to a higher and larger purpose.

It's a tall order, but the way forward is clear. You must practice continuously, and that means, you've got to meditate. When you mediate regularly you strengthen your hub of awareness. This kind of undivided attention helps you fully engage in whatever you are doing. And this is what I mean by continuous practice. Your meditation practice takes place both on and off the cushion. And you find that this focused, calm and stable awareness makes a significant difference in your daily life.

For instance, if you do things with a distracted mind or in a half-hearted way, you will always leave things undone and unfinished. And this will begin to burden and weigh you down. When you invite fragmentation and chaos into your life, you are more vulnerable to mistakes of judgement or even serious accidents. It's easy to get stuck in your thoughts and emotions. And as you spin off in your head, your thoughts become more busy and complicated.

So continuous practice is really important. You need to find a way to sustain a spiritual journey that can weather the ups and downs of the world around you. When you ground yourself in the regular practice of mindfulness meditation, you begin to create some order out of the chaos. You take small steps that put you in delightful connection with the small and mundane details that make up your daily life.

When you become too preoccupied with your worries it's hard to focus or enjoy your life. So as you deepen your continuous practice you may also begin to glimpse a larger sense of your self taking place. When you treat yourself and others as objects, it seems that you are like a noun. But when you begin to see through the fiction of ego you can appreciate that you are more like a verb and your are connected to everything and everyone.

Eihei Dogen is one of the great teachers of the Soto Zen tradition. There is an often quoted phrase of his from the Genjo Koan which is as follows:

"To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. "

When your actions are full of preconceived ideas you will leave a trace in whatever you do. In another passage from the Genjo Koan, Dogen says, "Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again." In other words, when you burn yourself up completely in your activities, you leave no trace. This is how you live a Zen-inspired life by continually practicing leaving no trace.

by Robert Althouse