Practice Is Not Magic

People sometimes tell me, “I’ve tried this and that but nothing has happened!” This no doubt means that they feel there is, or should be, some kind of magic that either they or a teacher can call upon to make something happen.  They believe that if they go through the right kind of incantation, do the right things, say the right words, or feel the right things, then, because of the magical power of this teaching or technique, wonderful things should happen to them.  Meditation still has a kind of magical aura that surrounds it.  This is obvious if one picks up a New Age magazine or New Age books that talk about meditation.  It’s all flowers and halos.

There is no magic.  Or rather, the magician is you.  To look outside yourself, to expect someone else or some system to do something for you is really putting yourself in the position of a slave.  If somebody can do something for you that is of vital importance, you’re dependent upon that person.   And this dependency is a form of enslavement.

One sees the truth of this particularly with the various political ‘isms’ and Utopias that have been offered: fascism, Nazism, communism, and nationalism.  People are dominated by the political system they have joined; they’re taken over by it, they’re ruled by it.  The abominable things that come out of these isms, the terrible things that people do to one another, come from their being slaves.  They are slaves inflicting punishment for their enslaved state on other slaves.

The only true value, the only true possibility, comes from your own power, faith and wisdom.  This means that you are already free.  You do not need a teacher or a teaching.  All that a teacher or teaching can do is allow you to work for yourself.

But, you must have a single-minded desire, or longing for the truth. Ultimately all our desires are the desire to find ourselves.  Even joining the various isms that we can join in the world is done in the hope that it will lead us home.  People do not use the words “lead us home;” they use instead words like ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘fulfillment’ or ‘perfection.’  But these are substitute words.  Where is there fulfillment, perfection, happiness, and success outside of yourself?  When are you most happy?  It is when you’re most at one with whatever it is that you’re doing.  When you can give yourself over to it without reservation.  When you want it and, at that moment, want nothing else.

Our problem is that we cannot seek to know ourselves unconditionally and without reservation, except after much practice and much suffering.  People often ask, “Why does it take so long to come to awakening?”  And the answer is, of course, that we want something else.

People feel that it’s enough simply to say they want this or that, or even just to think they want it.  Sometimes I ask people, what is it you want from practice?  And they say, “Oh, I’d like to come to awakening.”  And very often they give a little laugh afterwards.  They reply much in the same way as they might say, “Oh, I’d like a new hat.” A Hindu story tells of a guru and his student walking along the seashore.  The student told the guru that he would very much like to come to awakening.  The guru seized hold of the student and thrust his head under the water and held it there while the student thrashed around helplessly.  Eventually the guru let go of the student who arose spluttering and coughing, sucking in the air as fast as he could. The guru said, “”When you want awakening as much as you want air at this moment, nothing can stop you.” When the pain gets so bad, when you really do feel that you have reached the end of the road and that you have exhausted all your strategies to avoid seeing the truth that life is suffering, then it will be possible for you to say truly, “I want nothing else.”

Basically, everyone wants to come home and nothing else. And, in a way, everyone will eventually come home.  If we are just contingent, accidental things that happen to exist, and if within this several pounds of flesh there is a spirit that floats around somewhere, then of course, such a statement is absurd.  But if everything comes out of and returns to  One Mind, then such a statement is a truism; it is scarcely worth saying.

When you’re practicing with Mu or Who or when you’re following the breath, this practice will enable you, if you are sincere and honest, to come to the point where you will truly want nothing else.  But this means that you must practice without protest.  You must practice without complaint or self-pity.  And also, of course, you must practice without expectation.  Protest and complaint simply undo the work that you’ve done so far.  Protest and complaint set up a counter current to the current of the work.  It sets up a conflict and it generates it’s own kind of pain.  Truly, only by trudging through the desert of the mind will you find the truth.  You do not find the truth in lush meadows.  In the desert everything is taken away from you.  People very often say, “I’ve even lost the taste of practice.  I don’t know, I’ve got no feel for the practice.  The practice means really nothing to me.”

That’s good!  Why should practice mean something to you?  It is because you still have the belief that Zen practice is in addition to the question “Who am I?”  One keeps touching this ‘practice’,  stroking it, feeling it for reassurance. Some people ‘practice’ just in the same way that they carry magic pebbles or wear crosses.  In the desert, even this is taken away.  All of your talismans, your magical charms are taken away.  One feels, I have nothing to look forward to.  That’s right!  There is nothing to look forward to.  This is the problem: ‘looking forward to’ is the lure, is the bait that constantly attracts you out of yourself.  You are always looking for the Promised Land. But in the desert, the Promised Land just dries up and shrivels.

You do not even have feelings in the desert; just flat emptiness.  This is again a good thing because so many people feel that to ‘turn inward’ is to turn into their feelings.  In the sixties feelings were themselves a new religion.  In the New Age philosophy, feelings­­–– feeling good about yourself, feeling good about others, feeling good about one’s life, one’s situation­­–– were all that mattered. But in the desert, the feelings dry up and all that is left is a naked, bare, austere possibility.

This is the master’s furnace.  It is during these moments, during this time in practice that the real work is done.  The dross is burned off and only what is true remains.  Don’t back off the desert!  It’s true that during these times it seems that the practice is so remote, so uninteresting.  You feel so feeble, so futile.  But it is the personality that suffers. You must go on even so, although now it is no longer the personality that goes on.  It is what is true that does so.  Do not force yourself.  Just be there; just stay there, moment by moment. Come back again, and again and again.  Not with force or fury, not with gritted teeth, not with clenched fists.  You just come back, and then you come back again.

In this way you are starting to be honest with yourself.  And you’re starting to really want nothing else.

The problem is not that we have other desires, but that these other desires are so often in conflict.  How many people are there that have the real need just to live a life that gives them the possibility to turn in on themselves fully and completely?  And yet at the same time they have the need to become engaged as fully as possible in the world, to be lost in some profession, undertaking, or project.  It is as though in each of us there are the two: the hermit and the professional.  A monk and a businessman.  The nun and the business-woman.  And they both have their own agendas and  their own set of conflicts. Sei and her soul are separated!

These conflicting needs and desires that we have are what Buddhism calls the Wheel of Samsara.  The need to escape from it, the need to be the businessman but then the need to be the monk, keeps the wheel turning.  In the same way, the need to lose oneself, to give oneself over to something outside oneself yet also to live a meditative life just keeps the wheel turning.

Sometimes people phone to ask whether I could recommend a monastery where they could go to live and ‘really practice.’ Unfortunately there are still Zen Centers that encourage this kind of activity.  I say ‘unfortunately’ because it does give the impression that the real work that one does in the world is not ‘spiritual’ work, and only work that one does in a monastery, center or ashram is real.

These people who phone have the yearning to retire from the world that many of us have.  The nun or the monk part of us longs for this kind of life.  As a consequence we tend to look slightingly on our day-to-day activities, the work that we have to do, the mundane work that seems to be so boring, tedious and inconsequential. I’ve heard people who have undergone extensive training in a profession say that they feel their lives and their work are meaningless.  While it is true that, in terms of the absolute, whatever is relative is inconsequential, even so, the only way the absolute can manifest is through the relative, through what we look on as inconsequential and contingent.

A disciple said to his master, “Everything is an illusion.” and the master said, “Don’t insult Brahman.” Layman Pang said, “My magical power and miraculous activity are chopping wood and carrying water.”

Even to sweep the floor is magic.

When we are told that we must want to see into ourselves and nothing else, this is not an invitation to depreciate what we do on a day-to-day basis.  On the contrary, it means that we must see whatever we do on a day-to-day basis is the fullest manifestation of our true nature.  In that way we would do it with full awareness, full commitment.  Whatever you do, do it!  Don’t judge it.  If it’s necessary to change your job, you’ll change it.  But it is not necessary constantly to spend time wondering whether you ought to do so.

Many people keep themselves in a state of suspension in this way.  Their inability to commit themselves, their unwillingness to commit themselves, prevents them from finding the fulfillment that they seek. They want to have their cake and eat it. And yet in this very suspended state, they lose the cake altogether: they lose the possibility to be at one with what it is they are  doing.

So many people spend their time wondering how they can get into more activity, do more things, meet more people.  In the extreme, they are workaholics who are always busy, are always on the go.  Never do they have the possibility of just sitting and enjoying the possibility of just sitting, or of reading and just enjoying reading,  or of just gardening or of just walking.

Christ said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added unto you.” Find yourself and do as you please, because everything you do then will be fulfilling.  But first you must find yourself!

Let me repeat: finding yourself is possible in sweeping the floor, in carrying out the garbage, in doing whatever it is that your work calls upon you to do.  It is true that if situations were different you could be employed better.  It’s almost certainly true that most people are not fulfilled in their work in a way that might be possible were the society organized in an ideal way.  But it is also true that if pigs had wings they could fly.  It is a waste of effort, time, and energy to dwell on what is possible: everything and nothing is possible.  But it is not a waste of time to keep bringing yourself back to the moment wherever you are, and giving yourself fully to what you are doing.  When you do something, do it simply because it is there to be done, and not because of the rewards that you will get or the results that you will attain.

All great art comes naturally out of the artist.  For example, if you read the letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, you will see that he was just painting. That was Van Gogh: painting. It wasn’t “a person” painting.  He wrote a letter in which he says that he hadn’t eaten more than a crust of bread every other night for several weeks because he had used the money that he had received from Theo to buy paints, paper, and to pay the models.  His brother was supporting him by sending him money. Van Gogh did not sell a painting throughout his whole life.  And as you know they sell now for sixty million dollars each. Schubert also hardly ever heard any of his music played while he was alive.  Van Gogh painted, Schubert wrote music, because one does it.  It’s there to be done.

They worked beyond all thought of loss and gain.  This does not mean that we are not pleased when others appreciate what we do.  Of course we are.  But this is not why we do it.  We do it because it is there to be done. This, too, is how to practice.  Some people are proud of their practice.  They feel that they are superior to others in some way.  They feel that they are on an inner track.  Others are disappointed and dejected about their practice.  They are not getting anywhere so to say. On the contrary, give yourself over to the practice because that is what is required.  Interestingly enough, when we really give ourselves fully to the practice, we know this is right.  This is it!  This is what I’ve been looking for.  We have a sense of completeness such as we can get in very few other situations.

Doing something because it is there to be done is particularly important when helping others or ‘doing good.’ There was a master who used to live in a tree.  He would never go into a monastery or a temple.  But he would sometimes sit in a tree outside.  And he did this up to a very advanced age,; even when he was about eighty, he still sat up in trees.  And a monk came along on one occasion and said, “What you are doing up there old man is dangerous.” The master looked down and said, “It’s not as dangerous as what you are doing down there.”  The monk asked, “What do you mean?” “You don’t even know how to live,” replied the master. “All right, how do you live?” responded the monk.  “Avoid evil, do good, save all sentient beings.”  “Oh, a child of eight knows that!” snorted the monk. “Yes, but an old man of eighty can’t do it,” retorted the master.

What is interesting is that the master says, first of all “avoid evil.”  So many people want to do good, and yet they do not know how to avoid doing evil.  This need, this wish, this longing to do good is naturally an expression of our true nature.  But once it becomes a desire that people have––the desire to be a good person––it becomes a form of sentimentality, and sentimentality is the desire to experience  pleasure without having paid the price to do so.

“Avoid evil.”  And how do you avoid evil?  The only way to avoid evil is to know yourself.  It’s to see into one’s own conflicts and go beyond them.  Because it seems that all evil comes from people acting in dreams.

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5 Responses to Practice Is Not Magic

  1. janine says:

    Thank you so much for this posting! Good timing too.

  2. hélène says:

    Allô Monsieur Low, je ne vous ai pas rencontré depuis des mois et ce texte est pour moi un docusan! Merci beaucoup et à bientôt. hélène

  3. Axel Jacksties says:

    Firstly thank you for your kind monthly writtings. Each month you reveal little insights bringing together from so many sources a way out of darkness returning us back to ourselves.

  4. Monique D says:

    “This is the problem : ‘looking forward to’ is the lure, is the bait that constantly attracts you out of yourself. You are always looking for the Promised Land.”

    We don’t live in the present. We don’t accept the present. We want to be absolutely. It will happen… somewhere in the future… !

    Thank you so much for this posting.

    Chamfort, ce grand humoriste français du 18ième siècle, a écrit :
    « M. de… demandait à l’Évêque de… une maison de campagne où il n’allait jamais. Celui-ci lui répondit : « Ne savez-vous pas qu’il faut toujours avoir un endroit où l’on n’aille point et où l’on croie que l’on serait heureux si on y allait ? » M. de … après un instant de silence, répondit : « Cela est vrai, et c’est ce qui a fait la fortune du paradis ».

  5. Jane says:

    This post has been a fine reminder and help for me in recent times of loss. Heartfelt thanks to you.

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