In practice we talk about climbing up the trunk of the tree and being careful not to stray off along a side branch. As you can see from this tree, once on a branch it is just so easy to get lost in the maze of little branches leading in every direction.
So how does one go directly. Climb the tree, so to speak, and not waste time exploring this that and the other thing? During an introductory talk recently I found myself constantly bringing the focus of the talk to ‘returning’. Simply returning. One could say it is to the trunk, the fundamental, that one returns having noticed oneself dangling dangerously from a twiggy branch, waving in the wind.
Side branches have their place in practice, helping to reestablish where the trunk is, however I’d advise against lots of side trips if you can avoid them.
The absolute upright holds within itself,
Many phenomena within it’s own delicate balance,
Both function rest reside within.
Lo! Hear! Set up not your own standards.
The ripening of practice has it’s own time table and that is where patience and taking the long view really helps the practitioner. There is no fast track and nobody who can do the practice for you. We have a saying, Buddha’s do but point the way, you must go alone. That’s alone in the sense of doing ones own practice, doing something about oneself. This takes a considerable level of sustained effort, it’s the same for everybody what ever form life is taking.
Each morning, in our particular tradition, we re state our resolve to continue by reciting a verse aloud before the kesa is put on. It is a statement that brings one out of the mists of past and future to a vow to practice within the already enlightened Universe, today. For just this one day.
To be resolute and to wake up and remain awake carries spiritual merit, however that is not enough. It is the rising up and walking on, and keeping on walking on, that counts. For all of us, practice and enlightenment which are not two, are given expression in being the best person one can be. This is real gratitude.
Retreats have a particular place in the life of a Buddhist practitioner. If one is fortunate enough to be able to join others to do that, all well and good. They are not essential and not to be clung to either. It is rare to have the opportunity to devote oneself to simply just sitting still without the usual daily life distractions. (Even so, life circumstances have a way of throwing up opportunities to sit, right in the midst of distractions. See comment from yesterday.) Having found the time, and settled down, the mind can spew forth, in all the weird and wonderful ways imaginable, each of us according to our own particular inheritance. Memories, thought patterns, emotions, sensations all march through body/mind. Nothing permanent, just passing though. However, when you are dying of thirst a lake in the desert can become all too real, and ultimately disappointing of course. A mirage certainly can appear real.
At the time of the Buddha’s enlightenment the hordes of mara came to call shooting arrows, that fell around him as flowers. The Buddha unmoved, knew enough about the workings of the mind not to take False Evidence Appearing Real, as real. And that is what one learns, and re-confirms over and over again during a retreat. That is, to recognize fear for what it is, and refrain from being afraid of it. That fearful images and thoughts arise, or their equally alluring opposites, are not a problem. If not clung to as me and mine. As real. And yet moving on and out into everyday life, there may be good reason to be afraid, and to take note and to act accordingly.