I have had several questions recently about which practices I do and how I manage to keep the Buddha-Dharma as my primary path and astrology / emotional-process-oriented bodywork as my secondary path.
Mainly, I want to point out that there will be times in our lives when we have the causes and conditions in place to practice Dharma like our hair was on fire. Yet even if we have the same desire and motivation, there will also be times when it is most skillful and kind to do less (outer) practice. I should also point out that I am a dedicated and devoted Buddhist practitioner (what that means I will explain over the next paragraphs), however, I am taking the role of devil’s advocate a bit with regard to how diligently and arduously we should practice and when.
I want to point out that you should always refer to a qualified spiritual master if you have questions about your spiritual practice. Or find someone who have vastly improved themselves by being on a spiritual path for more than 20 years. They probably have some wisdom to share [and you will know the wisest people because they are the most humble].
Back to practicing Dharma like my hair was on fire, about 10 years ago, for about 12 months total, I somehow managed to do a long refuge sadhana and do at least a 100 prostrations a day. Sometimes this took me 3 or more hours to complete. Those were great months, let me tell you. Obstacles just seemed to melt away as I approached them.
However… that was almost 10 years ago. There is a small chance that I could have continued that level of practice, but here’s the thing – the most beneficial thing for me to do after that initial plunge into serious Dharma practice was to go back to school and finish a graduate program. My Lamas even told me this – my practice they said was to do well in school. That could be a mind training practice in and of itself. Of course, when I had time I should do some prostrations and continue my personal practice on the side.
How does one know how much to practice? If you listen to the great masters – Tibetan Lamas, monks and nuns who have been on the path for some time, it would be ideal to be practicing a minimum of 3 hours a day, every day and always being mindful to keep our thoughts words and deeds virtuous. But is this realistic for most of us?
Which one of us has the causes and conditions like Milarepa – being willing and able to survive on starvation “wages” and food while always striving for enlightenment? I don’t. I thought I did – at my first 2 week retreat at TMC in Maryland, I would lie on the couch downstairs during breaks and just read the 100,000 Songs of Milarepa and be so inspired.
But now, having lived more of my life and seen more of my inner patterns and activity, I must be realistic. My Lamas tell me to get married and have a family (definitely not a Milarepa-esque lifestyle). That right there is evidence that I can only do but so much practice (on my cushion, in my shrine room for hours a day? Not likely.). Maybe my practice is relationship yoga. Being able to soften our edges, to have patience with a partner day in and day out, being able to bring the mirror of self-awareness around to show us our ugly shadow sides – this can also be a practice. I wonder how many people evade this type of yoga to do more formal Dharma practice? Maybe a lot, maybe just a few, I don’t know.
Yes, I intend to complete my Ngondro accumulations, but right now I only have one or two down with thousands of hours left to go! And that is after working on it for eleven years (some more diligently than others).
But if I were to die tomorrow, you know what? I have spent thousands of hours working toward grounded, embodiment. I have done hundreds of hours doing Zapchen Somatics retreats and practices (and this is practically a form of Dzogchen). I have done hundreds of hours of work on my self emotionally and psychologically – I have worked through countless double-binds from my childhood. And yes, of course I have done thousands of hours of Dharma practice. So if I die tomorrow, I would have very few regrets. And I could honestly say that I have accomplished A LOT in this lifetime. In spite of not having much money to my name right now. In spite of turning 38 this year and not owning a home (yes, I am still a little hard on myself), the I Ching tells me that I am a treasure of this nation. A literal diamond in the rough in this frequency-dense, Kali-Yuga-entrenched, degenerate world we live in.
The key is having good support. If have a history of trauma to work through (and this takes many many forms!), then having a good team around us of mentors, coaches, spiritual teachers, therapists, bodyworkers, medical practitioners is vital. Being open to their wisdom and advice and knowing when our own inner resistance (which is just suppressed anger manifesting in less-than-beneficial ways) is starting to prevent us from following good advice, is vital. Being flexible, being mindful, being aware of our own shadow areas – we need many great teachers and tools around us. It does not happen over night.
Also, if you are fortunate enough to have a qualified spiritual teacher in your life, make certain you are asking the right questions and that they understand what you are asking. Sometimes I have seen language barriers get in people’s way. They ask one thing, they get a slightly ambiguous answer back in return, and they assume they know completely what it means. They do not go back for clarity. But that is so vital. If you have any uncertainties, if you have any doubts, clear them up as soon as possible. However, find a good balance. Don’t be the person who arranges an interview with the Lama every time he comes through town, only to not do any practice when he is not around. In other words, don’t waste a precious spiritual teachers time.
Personally, in addition to being surrounded by potent and wise teachers and mentors, I use two tools mainly: the I Ching and Spiritual Astrology. Julie Henderson’s “The Somatic I Ching (Yi Jing)” [Revealing Story, Training Mind] is a phenomenal resource. It is an interpretation of the I Ching that is specifically designed for meditation practitioners, bodyworks and psychological explorers. Yes, I have leaned on it a little heavy at times and it will tell me if I am doing that (there is a line in the book that says, “You have made a premature move and are standing around with egg on your face”). Yes, it even has a sense of humor! And it brings the I Ching’s advice into the body, into energy, into awareness. Powerful stuff.
If we are truly willing and open to knowing what is true, then it is a vital and unrivaled resource. And of course we must know how to clear our minds so that we are actually asking the question that we think we are asking. And we have to have faith initially that its advice is specific and not a random combination of coin flips!
In conclusion, it is good to have a daily Dharma practice. But don’t let it prevent you from living a full and enjoyable life. If after five years of practicing the Dharma, you have less joy, less awareness or less contentment in your life, then you might be doing something less-than-kind! Surround yourself with teachers and support, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! And if possible, develop a relationship with a beneficial divination tool – that way you can get answers to questions without having to phone your teacher every day or every week.
Once you step onto the path of the Buddha-Dharma, it is good to stay on the path. Just be aware that there are various methods and manners of practicing kindly and efficaciously. Sometimes it is time to do more inner practice – to let go of the outer practices and rest down and appreciate the inner subtler essences. And this is why you need a qualified spiritual teacher – to know when to do what and what would be most beneficial to you at that time.
So good luck on your journey!
And thank you for reading,