I have always known, conceptually at least, that spiritual practice has to be a constant and consistent endeavor. Rohini has said it thousands of times: to make any progress, you have to practice no matter what you are doing, whether teaching a class, riding a bike or cleaning a toilet. But somehow I am only just now discovering that I twisted that truism to mean that I need to be focused on doing something in order to practice. In other words, I need to be teaching a class, riding a bike or cleaning a toilet to practice. In the absence of such activity, I stop practicing altogether.
Over the years, I have worked hard to make sure that when doing things—particularly things I deem important—I redirect my will to the center of my chest and bore in. I have become increasingly comfortable with simultaneously looking in and looking out at the world while engaged in “meaningful” activity. And when I have a deadline or something specific to accomplish, using my will to practice is not as hard as it once was.
But in the absence of purposeful activity, I lose all will, discipline and commitment.
My professional work ebbs and flows; long stretches of nonstop activity can be followed by periods of idleness. A few weeks ago, I ended a six-week stretch of constant travel and hard work. Facing a spell of inactivity, I was forced to recognize that the break from work coincided with an abandonment of spiritual practice. For me, spiritual practice had become not an end in itself, but a means to the end of doing my work better. That was a wrong turn.
Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras distinguishes between sabīja samādhi and nirbīja samādhi. Whereas the first is absorption with a seed—an object of absorption—the latter is seedless. Nirbīja samādhi, limitless and unconstrained absorption in the Absolute, is the goal.
One might say, therefore, that what I have been doing is sabīja sādhana—spiritual practice with a seed. In other words, to engage in sādhana, I need an external focal point. Only now am I realizing how much I need to work toward a sort of nirbīja sādhana, so that, regardless of whether I have an external task at hand, I am constantly and consistently practicing.
Rohini has always taught me that there is a difference between knowing how something is done and knowing how to do it. It strikes me that this notion of seeded versus seedless spiritual practice is the sort of lesson one can only encounter when actually engaging in spiritual practice. From an intellectual standpoint, I have always “known” that spiritual practice should be persistent and uninterrupted. But only recently, when I have stopped being consumed with external activities, have I discovered how imperfectly I understood that principle.
Seeing that I have not been practicing all the time is a fairly fundamental realization. I have been constantly and consistently misconstruing the very notion of constant and consistent practice. Recognizing that error now also makes me ask the uncomfortable question: what other simple and fundamental truths have I thought I understood, but actually twisted in a small-self-serving way?
Last week, I took advantage of an open floor in a Saturday class to ask some questions that had been confounding me. What ensued was a helpful discussion, exploring a foursquare that dates back to my childhood. If I had proceeded from class into a highly structured schedule throughout the ensuing few days, I would have managed to work into my schedule some time to work on that foursquare. But in the absence of such seeds, I defaulted to operating within that foursquare and stopped practicing when I walked out of class. That sort of selective practice is sabīja sādhana at its worst.
We live in a society that values expertise less and less. We are encouraged to think we have “learned” something when we have only gained a passing familiarity with it. When it comes to life lessons and spiritual practice, however, the moment we think we know something is the moment we should be concerned about how little we know. I have the credentials to prove that I am, in relative terms, an intelligent person, but despite years spent thinking I understood the statement, “Spiritual practice must be constant and consistent,” I am now able to see that I had no clue what that really means.
I share these reflections recognizing that I have a long way to go to get where I thought I was. And I encourage others to join me in taking a second look at what we “know” about spiritual practice. We may think we know how it is done, but do we really know how to do it?
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