Friday, 1 May 2009


Practice means "to do". I am thinking of spiritual practice here. But the same is true of a doctor's practice: it is what they do. We expect that a lifetime of doing means we get better at it, but the "getting better" is quite different from the advancement expected from a student, for instance.

Consider waves moving sand and pebbles up and down a beach. That is what waves breaking on the shoreline do. We glibbly say that waves shape the shoreline rocks, but there's a lot more going on. These waves give some insight as to how spiritual practice brings about spiritual change.

For the wave there is power in each moment. Sometimes it is shoreward, until the power over-reaches itself. The surface water moving fastest begins to move faster than the body can sustain. The finest droplets, more mobile than the rest, leads the way but it has gone too far; there is no water beneath it so it drops. The wave's momentum means solid water follows, falling into the undertow beneath to create swirling eddies of foam. This is our daily experience.

Having lost its power, the water falls onto water and moves with it. But this water is directed by the sloping ground beneath, and the cyclic movement of the waves would leave a vacuum if this undertow were not there to rush in and fill it. So more water surges upward for a new wave, driven half the time back toward the shore by the tide's rhythmic flow. Our interaction with our surroundings have similar self-sustaining patterns.

Water is heavy, and like a child on a swing the movement reinforces itself, driven by the shape of the shore, wind and tide. This power is dispassionate and relentless. Anything small enough is caught up in the motion — sand, seaweed, flotsam, pebbles. It isn't intentional, but these have their own movement, their own actions and consequences. Of course, we aspire to include intention and consciousness, but the same is true for us: our activity has its own power.

Consciousness, as something we do, has the power to move cliffs. If we can truly be, aware of the present moment and acting from that consciousness, our intentional mind can (at some point) have the power of the wind and the waves. For then we are an agent in the only place Life happens — Now. But for most of us that is patchy at best. No surprise then, that more of us aren't "rock-shapers" yet!

The relentless movement of the shore has its own dynamic, its own shape and rhythm. Variation at this level is with the tide, the weather and the seasons. Every wave is part of this unchanging pattern: slow changes that build sand in one place while dredging it from another. The sand has its own movement. They are interdependent: if the sand was not there, the wave would break somewhere else. Each wave has no control at this level. Behaviour is a cummulative concequence of particular, habitual, interactions.

On a time scale unknown to wind and water, sand and pebbles, the rocks themselves are also changing. Scientists might talk of friction and erosion caused by a grain of sand or a stone rubbing on the rock's surface. But we may as well say that raindrops causes a flood for the amount of understanding that give us. The incessant waves are part of an equally obdurate form. Swirls and eddies maintained by the to-ing and fro-ing of mobile matter have their own relentless cycles. These are the energies of life (and why I practice Taiji).

Sand and pebbles are the same stuff as the rocks they move over. It is inconceivable that their effects would not be mutual. So pebbles become sand, and the rocks themselves also yield of themselves under such an uncompromising onslaught.

Do the waves form the cliffs? Maybe, but it is futile to think each wave sculpts the cliff it breaks upon. In the same way, it is futile to think each practice shapes who we are. It is neither the water nor the sand it carries that makes the rock the shape it is, but the the pattern the waves fall into. The pattern is a nebulous thing without matter or energy, hardness or strength, yet without it the rocks would never change. It is the pattern of our daily life that is our power, too. This is a much bigger investment than an interest, something to try.

In the same way spiritual (or any other) practice is just activity. It is what we do, and can have no more effect than that. I for one tend to take my spiritual practice too seriously. But when I look at the waves, they play! Frolicking and dancing or angrily pounding, they do what they do with their whole being, having no thought or intention except to be what they are. Practice does not change us in the way we learn to drive a car, for instance. That just changes the practice.

But if it is in my nature to practice, having formed a lifelong habit of sitting in meditation, I miss it when I miss it. Like a swirling pebble wearing a hole in a rocky outcrop, it has made its own shape. In turn, the water that drives the pebble flows differently because the hole exists.

Is it the habit that changes us? No, that is just change at the level of behaviour. Perhaps change occurs in the dynamic equilibrium we call living, the rhythm of action and withdrawal, doing and reflection, interacting with our surroundings. Part of that scenario is us, how we are. Some parts of us are the sand and some parts are rock. Do our individual actions changes us as people? Superficially perhaps. Can singleminded patterns of behaviour change our being? Its inescapable.

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