The Virtue of Variety: A Practitioner’s Toolbox

By Troy Rapp

troy rapp prajna yogaEarly in my meditation life, I found myself drawn to explore different styles of practice. I was in the midst of my first fall training period at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center after having spent two years practicing meditation in the Soto Zen tradition, when I found myself drawn to study Korean Zen that winter. A group of monks from this tradition had come to visit and brought with them an English translation of their teachings. I discussed this with the teacher under whom I had begun to practice Zen, and was strongly advised against it. The basis of this instruction was a belief that it was not possible to deepen a spiritual life without unwavering devotion to one style of practice. This type of admonition is not uncommon in the world of spiritual practice. I’ve encountered it from many teachers in a variety of traditions over the years. “If you’re digging a well, you won’t hit water by starting a new hole” goes the metaphor commonly used to support this perspective. I recognize its merit. There is a danger that students can dabble in many different methods, and use it as a distraction from making a sustained commitment to deepening their practice. In addition, the contradictions between different teaching styles can be confusing, and this can weaken the resolve of the practitioner. It is also important to recognize that different students have different affinities. Some students have a strong affinity for a particular tradition and will be well served by one-pointed devotion to that tradition. However, I would like to offer another perspective on the merit of exploring different traditions and integrating a variety of practice methods.

While devotion to a particular style of practice can prove valuable, it is also possible to integrate a variety of methods so that various practices support and enrich one another. In Buddhism, this is known as upaya, which is commonly translated as “skillful means.” In this approach, different methods of practice are cultivated in response to various difficulties. For example, if a particularly strong experience of fear, anger or hatred is arising, and the intensity is such that equanimity cannot be established, it can be helpful to cultivate loving-kindness (metta) as an antidote. This method of practice can be used to take the edge off the experience. When the intensity has dissipated enough that equanimity can be established, then it becomes possible to engage in other methods, exploring the nature of the aversion more directly. Similarly, if one is overcome by drowsiness or lethargy in meditation practice, it can be helpful to engage in practices which build energy such as opening the eyes wide, taking a standing posture rather than a seated posture, or engaging in more vigorous physical activity.

In my own practice, the primary meditation object I have used consistently has been the breath. It’s what I started with. It works for me, so I’ve continued with it. However, in addition to this method, over the years I’ve explored many other methods, and have integrated some of them into my own practice in supporting roles. These include the practice of metta meditation, counting the breath, mental noting of where the attention is drawn, reciting the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, contemplating death, yoga asana, pranayama, exploring the mental and emotional landscape through dialogue, and the study of sacred texts from a variety of contemplative traditions.

diggingEach of these has proven valuable and supported the deepening of my practice in some way. I’ve come to recognize the possibility of a perspective which sees the integration of various practice methods as akin to having a toolbox stocked with a variety of tools for working with different types of challenges.

I’m also proposing a different perspective on the metaphor of digging a well. Rather than viewing the adoption of another style of practice as digging a new hole, I’m proposing that a variety of techniques can work together to support the deepening of the well. Just as one might use a shovel, a pickaxe, a rock hammer, or a pry-bar to good effect when encountering different layers of material in the course of digging a well, so might one employ different practices to deepen their awakening.

Troy Rapp will be teaching “Prajna Yoga: Full Spectrum Practice” with Theresa Murphy at Shambhala Mountain Center on October 25–27, 2013. Click here to learn more.

Free Your Genius From Myth

 

Ronald Alexander Book

It has been said of Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Nash, Franz Kafka, Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Michael Jackson, Nick Cave, Kurt Cobain, Billy Stayhorn, Billie Holiday, Roman Polanski, Marlon Brando, Winston Churchill, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, well…anyone famous and Russian. The myth of the Tortured Genius dates back to the ancient Greeks who attributed to the god Dionysus the realms of music, wine, inspiration and madness.

Dr. Ronald Alexander sees it differently.

“The idea of the Tortured Genius is both a reality and a perpetuated myth.” He points out that the lives of many accomplished and inspired individuals, like those listed above, were afflicted with mood disorders. Depression and bipolar disorder, usually. Most of them suffered at a time when psychology was ill-equipped to address their needs, and society had little understanding of how the mind and body work together to create a personal experience. But it is important to separate the myth, and its false perceptions, from the reality.

The myth was that people believed the extreme moods, behavior and general affect were the source of a person’s creativity. Without suffering, there would be no inspiration. But in 1974, Dr. Alexander was doing clinical work in Hollywood, California. He introduced meditation and other mindfulness practices to patients who often came from creative industries: the recording industry, the film industry, fashion and media. And what he witnessed when his creatively inclined patients gained the evenness of mind from regular contemplative practice was that they could “dig deeper and more regularly” into the creative state of mind.

So much for the myth of the tortured genius. The reality is: Rather than lose one’s creativity, a regular practice of opening the mind and grounding personal experience reveals that one’s creativity is never conditional. This rang true with Dr. Alexander’s experience too. His father was bipolar, and he suffered from bouts of depression. At 20 years of age, he began to meditate. At 23, he went to see Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Nowadays, he maintains a practice grounded in Zen, Dzogchen and Vipassana, which he finds especially helpful for unblocking his own creative obstacles.

Ronald AlexanderSo how do we debunk our own myths about creativity? Dr. Alexander says the first step is identifying hinderances. Anything in our experience of consciousness can be blocking a richer, more playful way of thinking. Then, we cultivate the ability to tune-in to receive what is available. This stage is called Open Mind in the Zen tradition. To move into the next stage, called Wise Mind, we discover the capacity to let go of fixed positions/attitudes/forms. This allows us to play wholly in the present moment and be creative.

Creativity is not the sole property of the famous artist. In every life circumstance, there is the opportunity to open up and receive the wisdom and the joy contained in the present moment. Whether you work in the arts, play with art, or want to live your life artfully, the conditions required to do so are, in fact, unconditional.

Dr. Ronald Alexander welcomes you to his retreat based on his book, “Wise Mind, Open Mind” at Shambhala Mountain Center from July 5-7

Way Seeking Mind: A Meditation and Yoga Retreat for Women

by Katharine Kaufman

open pavilionI offer a women’s retreat twice a year, on the hottest, longest days in the middle of summer, and the coldest, dark winter days. I see myself as more of a facilitator of this retreat, rather than a teacher. We arrive alone and together, 12 or 15 of us, and we simply practice yoga, sitting, sharing. Something subtle and close transforms because of this turning our discursive gaze inward. There is a luxurious break in the afternoons to hike, read, rest, or visit with each other. Transformation is not always a smooth ride. We have our practices, the support of the schedule, teachings, to hold us—and each other.

My favorite part of this retreat is when we individually choose a place outdoors, and practice solo the four postures of meditation. These beautiful places we choose offer us the chance to simply be in one area in nature, with no agenda. We understand the gentle wind, grasses, texture of rocks, as good friends, not just scenery. We can lean against a tree, close our eyes, listen, create a temporary nest.

It seems natural to pause, reflect, sit, gently move, talk and find silence amongst other women. This phrase, ‘Way Seeking Mind’ struck me when I first heard of it during a Zen women’s retreat. I hesitate to define it. It should speak directly to one’s heart and marrow, and not pause too long in any cerebral place. We have a sense of what that mind is—what that journey is. Or perhaps it is a big mystery.

This women’s summer retreat is special to me since it takes place in the eight-sided pavilion, which happens to be built on the old Girl Scout’s fire ring. This rustic pavilion is separate from the main area, tucked in the pines. The winter walls will be removed so that we experience a space both inside and outside—a living metaphor for our practice. To me, this is coming home to a place that has always been waiting—wild, familiar, natural. It’s reflected outside but of course, also in us.

The gap between what we experience and what we desire—inside and out—is not so far apart as we had imagined.

This retreat is now full.