Three or four times a week I go to the gym to exercise for an hour. I work hard. I sweat. It isn’t easy, but I really enjoy doing it. My body has changed significantly since I started exercising this way. I’ve gained weight, my muscles have gained tone and definition, and my posture has changed. But more importantly, my long-standing chronic back pain is almost completely gone. I’ve gone from having daily pain to having moments of discomfort only every few months. Also, I’m much stronger, so everything is easier to do. I can walk much farther without tiring. When I have to carry a heavy bag of chicken food, it feels easy, and I don’t worry at all about my back. In the gym, I can clearly notice the changes in my body. Consistently, I can lift more, and I can feel my body working much more efficiently. The more I do it, the better it gets.
My exercise routine is a practice. It is something that I dedicate a significant amount of time to each week. Other practices that I give a significant amount of time to include cooking, working, and caring for my family. In all of those arenas, I can clearly notice that the more I do them, the better I get at them. I’ve been cooking for myself for so long now that it comes very easily to me. The food that I prepare these days is both nutritious and delicious, but I wasn’t always a good cook. When I was eight years old, I got into a stint of making “bagels.” I mixed flour, water and salt into a dough, shaped the dough into a bagel shape, and baked it in the oven. My bagels were hard, salty, and nearly inedible. I loved them. With practice, I became a gourmet chef, and even started my own restaurant. Similarly, I’ve improved in my work and in my family life, simply by dedicating a significant amount of time to practicing them. After numerous failed relationships, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and now I am a much better partner. As a father, I learn and grow every day, changing as quickly as my daughter. As she transforms into a woman, I become a better man.
Human beings are learning beings. We learn through practice. When we are young children, we practice moving our bodies randomly, until through trial and error, we crawl, then walk. In school we practice reading and writing. At first, we don’t know a thing about letters, but then with practice, we improve, until eventually, we can both read and write beautiful things. At work, on the first day at a new job, we don’t quite know what to do, but with practice, we learn, and improve. Everything in our lives is like this.
Of course, we can also practice unhelpful things and get good at those too. Our bodies and minds learn whatever we practice, so when we practice things like worrying about things that are totally beyond our control, we get better at worrying about things that are totally beyond our control. The tension of that worry builds up in our muscles, and our minds become agile worriers, finding more and more things to worry about. We always get better at whatever we practice, no matter what it is. A person raised in an abusive household is more likely to become abusive than a person who was raised in a loving family, simply because we usually mimic whatever our care providers practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect – it improves upon whatever we do.
When we talk about Buddhist practice, we are referring to Buddhist things that we do repeatedly. In order to do Buddhist things repeatedly, we have to first know something about what Buddhism is. Then, once we know that, we practice it over and over again, several hours a week or more. In doing so, we get better at whatever we’re doing, and the practices begin to make noticeable changes. Reading about Buddhism is just like reading about going to the gym. Reading about going to the gym isn’t going to make us physically stronger, and reading about Buddhist practices isn’t going to yield the intended results either. That’s just not the way we work. We learn, we strengthen, we grow, and develop, and change by practicing things over and over again for long periods of time.
One simple Buddhist practice is simply to relax. Just sit down and relax. Slow down. When we find ourselves thinking or doing something that is not relaxation, then we stop doing that, and start relaxing again. Imagine being at the gym. If we just stand there and talk to our friends, we are not doing our exercise practice. Similarly, if when we sit down to do a relaxation practice, instead we just sit there thinking about stressful things that make our bodies tighten up, then we are not doing a relaxation practice. We are at the gym, but not actually exercising.
This metaphor keeps working. When we’re at the gym, if we exercise constantly without any periods of rest, we will tire quickly, become uncomfortable, and stop early. When we’re doing a relaxation practice, if we try hard to relax it turns into non-relaxation, into something we have to do, so we try harder, until we tire, become uncomfortable, and stop early. Instead, when doing a relaxation practice it works better to relax for a few minutes, then allow our minds to drift, then relax again. In this way, we give ourselves the opportunity to witness the contrast between relaxation and non-relaxation. Noticing the contrast helps us to more clearly identify what is relaxing and what isn’t. In that way, the more we practice relaxation, the better we get at it.
I think it is important to note that Buddhist practice, even something as simple as relaxation, is just like every other very sophisticated skill. Learning to walk, learning to read, learning to play a musical instrument, learning to navigate successfully through the world – all of these things are sophisticated skills that take many years of practice. Perhaps the musical metaphor is even better than the weight lifting metaphor, since everyone knows that classical musicians practice for many hours each day, and are constantly improving. I’d love to be a great musician, but since I’ve never had a strong inclination to practice playing an instrument, I remain a mediocre musician. Similarly, if we want to get the benefits that Buddhist practices claim to give, we have to practice, just like musicians. It’s nice to think about our minds and bodies as being like musical instruments. We can become as insightful and sophisticated in our minds as a masterful pianist is with a piano.
Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?