Using the North Star to guide our practice

Taking a mindfulness program, we acquire many skills to pay attention to our lives as it is in this moment.  During and after the course, we can benefit from ways to encourage our practice to be consistent and continuous.  A steady practice is beneficial for sustaining well-being and requires appropriate effort and direction in practising.  Let’s look at some ways a strong practice can emerge from our efforts. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhist practice (in our case, the Five Skillful Habits) as being a North Star that guides our practice.  The point of using the North Star is to keep us on course; it is not about getting to the North Star.  In other words, we aspire to live out our intentions and not live up to some ideal of practice or of life.  Even in living out our intentions, it’s important to remember that we are constantly adjusting our course and adapting to circumstances.  Again, practice is in the letting go of concepts like “good” or “perfect.”  For example, if our intention is to get to the grocery store, we pay attention to the route we take and stay alert for detours or minors adjustments in our path there.  We don’t assume that getting on the road is the same as arriving at the store. Both during the course and when we meet with our Alumni, we emphasize three commitments to sustain well-being. 

The first is practising continuously.  Potential participants who come to the information sessions ask how many hours they should put aside to do the homework.  We tend to be very straightforward in answering this question: 24/7.  Practice is a constant returning to what is happening in this moment.  In that sense, it is continuous and seamless. 

The second commitment is to see practice as completeAnother Zen teacher who is also an artist teaches that an enso (a Zen circle drawn in one stroke of the brush) contains the perfect and imperfect.  In that sense, it is complete.  So it is with practice.  It will contain the perfect and the imperfect.  It will have moments of sloppiness and single-pointed concentration.  It will always be complete.

The third commitment is to look up to the horizon.  In a moment of pain, we tend to fold over and become clutched around our pain.  This is the source of our suffering.  When we lift our vision up from what has captured us, we see the larger context of what we are experiencing.  There may be pain and there is also a multitude of other experiences that are occurring at the same time.  Buddhist teacher Tara Brach speaks of being caught in the trance of our experience.  Looking up from that experience breaks the trance and opens up the possibility of meeting it differently.

–excerpt from our clinic’s guidebook:  Sustaining Well-being through Compassion, Chapter 7 of Right Mindfulness – A guide to skillful living by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten

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