Why view our zen practice as path? Our whole life, no matter what happens, can be ennobled by seeing it as path.
Path implies movement, progress, change, development, growth, discovery, and purpose. We don’t just turn 18, or 25, or 30 and then stop growing and learning. Thank goodness! Instead, there’s no limit to how much more skillful, wise, compassionate, and authentic we can become, and we continue on that path of development – hopefully – for our entire lives.
When we approach our lives and practice as path in Zen, it’s not about specific goals. There’s no timelines or deadlines. As long as we continue on this path it has the potential be a source of joy and strength. It’s the journey that matters.
That said, sometimes we don’t see our lives or practice as path. One of the key characteristics of depression or despair is a sense we’re stuck or not getting anywhere. At other times we may be kind of blissed out, seeking or enjoying pleasure, and see no need for a sense of path. Sometimes we’re dull and distracted, and likely to react with annoyance or resentment when we encounter difficulties instead of seeing them as opportunities for learning and growth. Even if we aspire to see our lives as path, we may resist doing so because it’s hard to accept our lives as they are. (Sure, I want to walk a path, but not this path!)
Here are a few ways to strengthen our ability to see our lives and practice as path:
1) Simply make a habit of framing your practice as path. Just opening up to the idea may shape the way you see things. There’s no need to evaluate the past, just from here on out notice growth, learning, discovery, greater freedom, etc. There’s also no need to keep track of your progress; just walk the path and enjoy the scenery.
If you notice a sense of repetition in your path (that thing coming up again?!), take heart in knowing this is very typical. We have personal koans that keep popping up in our lives, but each time we encounter them it’s a little different. For this experience my teachers offered a metaphor: Imagine you’re walking up a mountain by circling it over and over; you’re gaining altitude and progressing, but you keep returning to more or less the same views many times.
2) Pay attention to your “edge” and get more and more familiar with it over time. What are you working on, struggling with, curious about, longing for, still trying to understand? Who or what do your really want to be, or do? (In the deepest, non-materialistic sense?) Your edge will always be at least a little uncomfortable, so this means turning toward your discomfort, confusion, and resistance. In order to keep moving on your path, you have to go in the direction of your edge, or point of growth.
You don’t need to concentrate on your “edge” as if it can be nailed down or kept in sight so you can “work” on it in a normal, agenda-driven sense. You also don’t have to conceptualize it; that’s difficult to do anyway, as it’s a moving target. If you’re simply willing to pay attention whenever your edge makes itself felt, and are curious about it, over time you’ll get more familiar with it.
3) Appreciate your edge/challenges/difficulties/limitations/etc. These are your way forward. After a while, the path of growth is rewarding in and of itself, so even difficult and painful experiences have a positive side to them. You can even get to a point where recognition of a mistake you’ve made or a limitation you have strangely excites you, because you wonder what you might be able to learn.
4) Always look deeper. Underneath every one of our neuroses, negative habits, overreactions, fears, etc., is a fundamental spiritual koan. If we cultivate the habit of profound thought, we look below the surface of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and question why they are so. Why do you want that? Why do you care so much? What’s behind your resistance? What are you afraid of? What do you think will happen?
We don’t look deeper with our intellect. Instead, we just stay in contact with our edge, like keeping our hand on a closed door so we can feel when it starts to give. Our curiosity and openness will invite insight, and insight into our deeper koans can have a profound effect on our daily life and behavior.
5) Recognize and be satisfied with small or subtle changes. In order to embrace our own path, we need to let go of comparison and ambition and learn to recognize what’s shifting and changing for us – even if the changes are slow and subtle compared to our ideals.
6) Talk about our path with teacher and/or Dharma friends. This gives path a reality, supports framing our lives and practice in that way, and encourages us!