The Flow of Practice

Our sitting last night felt precious. The warmth of Spring urged many of us to remain at home, so we were a small group. That intimacy helped us settle into deep stillness as we heard the dove cooing through the open window and the passing shower dripping from the eaves.

In our second hour, we looked into the flow of practice - how it begins with stopping, which allows mindfulness and concentration to arise, which in turn creates the conditions for new insights and responses.

Stopping is always the first step. Our lives have so much momentum that without intentional practices we find it hard to stop. The sound of the bell reminds us to stop all thinking and action and enter the open space of mindfulness. Stopping allows us to place our attention where we choose rather than where our habits dictate.

Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. We are mindful of the breeze on our cheek or our feet touching the ground or the piece of apple in our mouth, but we can’t be mindful of all of them at once. Sitting and walking meditationinvite us to be mindful of one thing at a time so that new insight can arise. Rather than allowing the monkey of our mind to bounce from branch to branch, we invite her to sit quietly. This sustained mindfulness is called concentration.

Concentration opens the door to insight. While stopping,mindfulness, and concentration bring us back to our self and our particular experiences, insight calls us back into the universal realm of interbeing. Insight is not personal - it is always inclusive and liberating. True insight calls us to act for the benefit of all. If we think our insight is urging us to go tell somebody off, it isn’t true insight. Insight always has the flavor of liberation.

The next step is to respond based on our insight. Thich Nhat Hanh asks, What is the purpose of insight if it doesn’t lead to action? Ours is an engaged practice that recognizes the interbeing of all. When one aspect of that interbeing has insight, the whole interbeing benefits from the action. True insight leads naturally to action. In fact, we don’t actually take action.Action takes us.

But insight and our response to it have a short expiration date. Often, insight leads to the creation of theories and points of view that, while once active and appropriate, become stale and outdated. David Stendl-Rast likens insight to lava flowing from the earth. It is hot and alive and creative. But it quickly cools into a mountain. People tend to worship the mountain and lose sight of the fresh lava flowing nearby. So our flow of practice reminds us to stop and return to mindfulness and concentration so we can renew the conditions for insight and its natural response.

This flow of practice is like breathing in and out. We breathe in this particular air into these specific lungs. We can’t inhale all air into all lungs. But the in-breath practices of stoping, mindfulness, and concentration lead to the out-breath practices of insight and response. We breathe in the particular and breathe out the universal. We come back to ourselves so that we can serve the whole world.

This flow of practice invites us to be exactly ourselves. Ours isn’t a self-improvement practice. It’s a self-acceptance practice. Being with to ourselves as we are is enough to generate insight and response. Whilepractice has the side-effect of self-improvement, it isn’t the goal. The goal is to be ourselves and find the ever-shifting middle way that includes care of self and other.

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