A Spread for Daily Practice and Ritual

One of the biggest things that has influenced my life since becoming Buddhist actually has nothing to do with Buddhism specifically: daily practice. Many religions have daily practices built into them, and there are many daily practices that also have nothing to do with religions: exercise regimens or the practice of an art. The important thing is that we devote ourselves to doing something daily because it is the process doing a continuous practice–no matter what the practice is–that actually trains us, in the words of Martha Graham, to be “an athlete of God.”

I say this as someone who struggles with cultivating and maintaining a daily practice. I was raised in a Protestant culture where daily practices were not really a thing. (Sorry, Protestantism, but you kind of suck at this one.) I was also raised in consumerist US culture, which doesn’t really encourage people to have self-discipline. So–living the first 25 years or so of my life without a daily practice or any models of daily practice, it was difficult to begin to meditate daily.

The worst part is that the Protestant, US culture I was raised in also has a very quick, very simple-minded view of failure. It’s easy for our self-hatred to talk us out of commitments because we have “failed” at them–fallen off the wagon, missed a few days of practice, broke a vow or commitment. Only recently have I realized that the point is not about being perfect at practice–it’s about recommitting over and over. That’s the moment when practice actually happens.

This morning it occurred to me in a flash that tarot–or any kind of divination tool, really–could reflect some interesting things about my practice back to me. And so I created this five card spread–what I might call the Five Eyes of Practice (Buddhists love numbered lists, after all.) They are: discipline, sincerity, joy, hindrances, and encouragement/admonishment. (Note: there is probably some traditional Buddhist version of this, but I just made this up.)

I–rather casually, actually–mapped out the spread, drew cards from my Wild Unknown deck, and was surprised by the result. Lately, practice has been a bit of a struggle for me. I’m willing to accept that struggle (rather than be ashamed of it, as I would have been a couple of years ago) and investigate it a little bit. Here’s what I got:

20151030_103834Discipline: The Magician On one hand, my discipline does have power. I have learned to listen to the voices in my head that offer excuses for why we should not practice today. I know those voices do not operate in my true interest, but only in the interest of my ego. I have the ability to sit down and do the practice despite them and that’s my power. On the other hand, my practice is a little flighty. Just like the juggler/conjuror/magician who can do all kinds of tricks, I tend to go from one aspect of my practice to the other, favoring or disfavoring them, rather than being more solid and stable.

Sincerity: The Heirophant, reversed. Yup. I have definitely been getting this feeling lately of just going through the motions. The reversal of the Heirophant is showing me that I don’t have the Key right now–that is, I am doing my practice but it is not allowing me to access deeper things. My heart is in a dry spot.

Joy: The Chariot. The joy here is in getting the practice done, in checking things off the list. The joy is in the doing, rather than the being. As long as I do my daily practice, certain kinds of self-reproach and guilt won’t be allowed to surface, so I blast through the practice.

Hindrances: The Father of Swords. There is beginner’s mind–which in the Korean tradition we tend to call “don’t know” mind. So the Father of Swords is “I know” mind. Hindrances are living in the head, rather than the body and allowing the intellectual satisfaction of “I did my practice today” to get in the way of practicing right NOW. As Suzuki Roshi famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.” I need to keep my expert’s mind (lovingly) in check.

Encouragement/admonishment: The Son of Cups. (I include “admonishment” here because Buddhism ain’t all sweetness and light–sometimes you get hit with a stick instead.) This encouragement is: “Take heart.” But it also shows me how to bring more sincerity into my practice: fall in love with it. Let it make things feel rich, juicy, and enjoyable.

Retreating and Advancing

Over the past couple of years, I have had the immense privilege to go on several multi-day meditation retreats. I say it’s an immense privilege because it really is–I don’t have children, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to take the time off, and I have the funds to pay for it. But it’s also kind of funny, because retreats are hard, so it’s like paying money for the experience of being miserable. Whenever I tell people I’m going to a meditation retreat, they usually say, “Oh, that sounds so relaxing.” That’s how you can tell a person has never been on a meditation retreat.

Basically, on retreat  your job is to meditate all the time, whether you’re sitting on a cushion, walking, eating, resting, working, peeing–all the time. At my temple, there are about 9 hours a day of formal meditation interspersed with other activities. By the end of the first full day (which feels about as long as 3 normal days) your knees hurt, your back hurts, your ankles hurt, and every mental demon you have has decided to come out of the woodwork and do a merry jig on the living room carpet of your consciousness. You don’t have a choice as to how you spend your time, what food you eat, how much sleep you get. You can’t talk or write or even look at yourself in the mirror. (Well, of course you can do all these things, it’s not like the Buddhist police are going to throw you in jail if you do. But these are the guidelines for the retreat and pretty much everybody follows them.) As a friend of mine put it, “I can’t believe we’re going to pay money to sit on our asses for five days!”

But I do it, and continue to do it, because retreats build stamina, concentration, stability, quietness, and the capacity to be happy even in less than ideal conditions. You also gain a close connection with your fellow retreatants in a way that doesn’t happen in the small talk of our everyday lives.

Before going to retreat last Thursday, I thought it would be an interesting experience to consult the tarot about it. I’ve never really thought of tarot as having a lot of insight about my meditation practice, but I was surprised by the results. So before I left, I asked the question, “What am I carrying with me into this retreat?” and after I returned I asked, “What am I carrying with me as I go back to daily life.” I didn’t have any set spread–just pulled three cards–but the answers were quite illuminating.Continue reading “Retreating and Advancing”