When we come together to practice in the meditation hall, or when we do our daily practice at home for the time we allot for ourselves, we approach and can sometimes touch something that seems quite different from the experience of our minds during daily life. When we are in our daily lives, we are typically busy communicating with others, making plans and solving problems. During our formal meditation practice, we temporarily set aside these efforts, and instead bring awareness to the simple experiencing of being itself – the direct experience of this conscious awareness. What we touch during practice relates not only to our own individual being, but to the experience shared by all sentient beings.
A question that repeatedly comes up in different forms is basically, how does this help me live my life? How is it possible to even have this awareness when I am caught up in my daily life, and how does it help me deal with the problems I face when I go about my day? This is really the great task we all face – learning how to integrate what we touch on the cushion into our broader life. There are of course some simple things we can do to help with this integration, like pausing periodically throughout the day to bring nonjudgmental awareness back to the activity of our body and mind, but many people find even this difficult in the beginning. It’s hard to remember to come back, and it is all complicated by the fact that we each have our own life with its unique challenges and contexts.
There isn’t a simple answer to these questions, but I would like to share a metaphor that describes my experience over many years of practice. If one takes a large cloth, and drapes a corner of it over the lip of a bowl of water so that a corner of the cloth is submerged in the water, over time, the entire cloth will eventually become wet. In this simile, the cloth is our life, and the small corner that is submerged in the water is our formal practice. Even though only a small portion of our life is spent in meditation, if we can keep a corner of our cloth in the bowl by being consistent with our practice, eventually what we touch in meditation naturally permeates more and more of the cloth of our life.
In this metaphor, the water that we dip our cloth into is universal. It is the awarenessing of the original nature of Mind, and it naturally brings wisdom to all beings. The teaching of the Buddha is not specific to any race, gender or sexuality. It’s not even confined to humans. The suttas make it clear that it is also applicable to animals and beings that may exist in other dimensions like devas. It is simply about helping conscious awareness comport itself in a way that leads to finding happiness and dropping off suffering. In this metaphor, we each have a different piece of cloth. There are new cloths, old cloths, male and female cloths, cloths of different colors, gay cloths, straight cloths, trans cloths, queer cloths, privileged cloths and oppressed cloths, but the water we touch together in our practice is universal. Though the water is universal, its dampness manifests in different ways with the saturation of each unique piece of cloth. I believe it is for this reason, that the lay and monastic teachers in the Mahasati tradition don’t usually give much direct advice on how to live your life. This can be disappointing for some people who might be hoping for a guru to just tell them how to solve their problems. Instead, we just point people back to our shared practice of bringing attention back to our bodies and minds, and developing self-awareness.
The teachers I have encountered in the Mahasati tradition have demonstrated a sense of humility regarding their ability to tell anyone else how to actualize their practice in their life. It’s not possible for anyone to know what it’s like to have a different cloth. We can be allies and support each other, but we have to each find our unique way. Combined with this humility, there is also a deep faith in the wisdom that develops naturally from our shared universal practice. There is the conviction that if we tend to our self-awareness, we can each be our own guru. This doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t necessary. A teacher encourages us to practice, and helps make sure our corner of cloth is actually dipped in the water. Sometimes one may think it’s in the water, but it’s really just draped over the lip of the bowl, or we might think that our cloth is wet enough and our practice can lose energy. The purpose of the teacher and sangha is to encourage and support this shared practice.