‘A Four-fold Practice for Living Well’ was originally part of a letter written for some dharma friends who had drifted into relationship difficulties with each other.
In Buddhist teaching, it is said that truth, or dharma, is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good at the end. Here is a fundamental dharma practice that I initially learned from Thich Nhat Hanh. I find it inspiring at many levels, from pragmatically useful to profoundly encouraging and affirming. It is definitely good in the beginning, in that it can help us deal with difficulties that crop up in our day to day lives. It is good in the middle in that it can remind us of the central work of awakening even as we engage in an expanding array of dharma practices. It is good right through to the end as it brings us back to the simplicity and straight forwardness of the path, and a life well lived. The practice can be summarized in four words: stopping, calming, resting and healing.
If you look into moments when you feel unhappy and not in the flow, when you are distracted and in the grip of difficult energies, you will inevitably find that you are not very present. Mindfulness is absent. Whirling in the contradictory breezes of planning, fantasizing, dreaming, and internal dialoging, there is reactive reaching in many directions; into the future, into the past — desperate attempts to make things better. This is the time to stop.
Stopping means to bring to an end the present state of mindlessness, forgetfulness, scatter and fragmentation. In stopping, we find ourselves to be richly in the midst of what is happening. We are exactly where we are; right here in this place; right now at this time. Think of stopping as if you were stopping by for tea or stopping over for the night, not stopping in the sense of blocking but entering, not bunging up but pausing to richly engage. We make ourselves at home; opening the six doors of perception and deepening into the immediacy of what is happening within and around us: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, mingling with the myriad forms of mental activity.
To support this practice, mentally say the word, ‘stopping’. At the same time, relax into an awareness of your breathing and open your sense doors to where you are.
Open the doors.
Open wide the doors, oh daffodil.
Breathe with it deeply . . .
Having interrupted the flow of unawareness by stopping, now we begin the work of calming. This is practiced in five progressive steps.
Supported by your breathing recognize the dominant state that is present for you right in this moment. It might be anger, frustration, irritation, yearning, or a sense of helplessness. It could be more neutral, for example, dull, frozen, distracted, or foggy and vague. It could even be a positive; happy, interested, blissful, or inspired. Whatever the state, having stopped the flow of unawareness, supported by a rich appreciation of our breathing, recognize the feeling/quality that is most dominantly present. It can help to simply name it.
Sometimes in recognizing a state, particularly if it is a difficult one, we find ourselves trying to push it away. To deepen the process of calming, having recognized our present state, rather that fighting against it, making excuses for it, justifying it or trying to deny it, we allow ourselves to accept it. In our stopping, and recognizing, we make space for this state to be.
Allowing this state to be present we then open further and embrace it with all our sensitivity, caring, and concern; with all our love and awareness.
(4) Looking deeply
Embracing this state with mindfulness and caring we look more deeply into it. Listening deeply, smelling deeply, tasting deeply, touching deeply, thinking deeply, reflecting deeply. Just as we might support a friend who is suffering, by giving them all of our attention and allowing them the space to unfold their own story, so too, embracing our own suffering with kindness and caring, we look deeply into what is happening and allow the actual situation to speak, to reveal itself.
In the midst of looking deeply, we begin to have fresh, or at least re-freshed, insights and understandings into how such a state has arisen. These patterns of need in my childhood gave rise to these tendencies to react to certain situations. This current physical challenge is draining my energies so I react with patterns of anger. I can see that it is a pattern that has arisen in other similar situations. Insight is the act of ‘sighting into’ and with it, a fresh and liberating understanding begins to emerge.
Recognizing, accepting, embracing, looking deeply and insight; these five, working together, will nurture the experience of calming.
Having arrived at a more calm easeful flow of being present with what is occurring, we can then truly begin to cultivate the art of resting. Our suffering and mindless fragmentation has consumed lots of energy and we now need to use this freshly experienced calm to support a period of rest and revitalization. Resting, simply refers to proceeding with whatever we need to do with the least expenditure of effort. This is not the rest of staying in bed and being inactive. Resting is a steady, gentle, experimental learning of how to do whatever we are doing with minimal effort. To sit, stand, walk and move with minimal effort. To think effortlessly. To work effortlessly. To engage in conversation and organizing with the least amount of effort. Gradually we learn the art of resting in the midst of life as we experience it.
True healing is to experience utter wholeness, pure and total presence in the act of knowing itself. This is not something we can make happen. It is not a matter of technique or expertise. It is not something we can force into being. It is, however, something that naturally flows out from deep stopping, deep calming and deep resting. Healing is a mystery, a moment of blessing and grace that reveals itself in the midst of moving mindfully in the fullness of what is.
Stopping, calming, resting, healing. This four fold practice for living well is straight forward and simple. It can be useful at any stage of life’s journey. For beginners it can give a clear sense of how to work with daily experience and how to make one’s life into a path of awakening. For more experienced practitioners it can be a reminder of the depth and profundity of Buddhist teaching and practice. For a being dwelling in true spiritual maturity, it can be a companion on the path with whom we walk in joy.
© Tarchin Hearn, Dec. 2011