Contemplative practices aim to help us deepen our already real but obscured capacity to live wisely and compassionately, and to love. They help us tune in to the only life we have, as it is, right now.
“In the Taoist tradition, if you are in a position of receptivity, active or passive, you automatically develop a tenderness toward the world. You can’t help but develop tenderness, because this place we live in is endearing.” ~Gretel Ehrlich
Contemplative practices involve cultivating consistent mindfulness together with practices that help us grow in harmless and conscientious ways of living.
If we practice these wise and compassionate ways of living we eventually stymie our self-centeredness. We tune in.
Contemplative wisdom traditions invite us to adopt these practices, not so we can smugly look down from self-made towers of self-righteousness, but because these practices help us wholeheartedly tune in to the wonder and mystery of our lives, and of our world, just as it is, moment by moment.
The advanced stages of tuning in to the way things are is called the fruit of practice. Some call it liberation. Others call it Awakening.
What thing or experience are we supposed to tune in to?
In the world’s wisdom traditions what we tune in to has many names. One might say we are tuning in to Nature or to the true nature of things. Depending on culture and tradition, some say we tune in to God, or Wisdom, or Buddha Nature, Love, Mind, Compassion, or Shunyata.
Gandhi said he was tuning in to the Truth.
What we call it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that tuned in people are good to be around, good to have around.
They don’t burden others. They take responsibility for themselves.
To meet their needs they don’t use or advocate violence, intimidation, or cruelty. They are not fear mongering or exploitative. Knowing what counts as enough, they are content. They are compassionately and joyfully sensitive to the needs of other people and to the needs of other beings.
In my view, dedicating one’s life to getting tuned in in ordinary, everyday situations is what life is all about.
And, I think this is the true aim of Zen Buddhist practice. Yet, it is also the aim of the forest traditions in Theravada Buddhism and of the practice traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This getting tuned it is, in my view, is also the aim of the contemplative traditions within the more familiar expressions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
“Those who see worldly life as an obstacle to Dharma see no Dharma in everyday actions. They have not yet discovered that there are no everyday actions outside of Dharma.”
– Dogen Zenji
The Buddha’s seminal teaching on the direct path to Awakening is called the Sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Here’s a summary: “Tune in to what’s immediate and accessible in your life. Tune in to what’s happening now.”
That is, this ancient teaching gives us instructions so we can consistently and objectively observe and contemplate the breath we were born with, all the parts of the body and their functions, the natural elements that make up the human body, and the behavior of the body along with its thoughts and emotions. It also teaches us how to tune in to the natural order of things outside the body.
And through tuning in to these “ordinary” things and events our minds quiet and grow tranquil.
To what end? Nirvana, in this very life.
Here is the final section of this ancient teaching.
“The path of the four grounds for the establishment of mindfulness is the most wonderful path, which helps beings realize purification, transcend grief and sorrow, destroy pain and anxiety, travel the right path, and realize nirvana.” ~Gotama Buddha
And the word “nirvana” like the word “God” or “Wisdom” is simply another name for letting go of the confusion and doubt that springs from the ignorance and craving at the heart of self-centeredness.
Since they’ve let go of mindlessness and craving, the person who cultivates mindfulness and morality in everyday life does not escape the world with all its joys and hardships. Yet, that person is no longer pessimistically despairing or idealistically deluded about the world.
That person actually finds the spiritual home they’ve been looking for right here in the everydayness of the world. Having fully known the world, they finally arrive at their true home for the first time.
That person can actually then begin to selflessly love the world together with all its beauty and bliss, ugliness and terror. And because her delusion decreases and her fearlessness grows with practice, she can begin to take care of the world, not as some alien thing outside herself, but as her true and rightful place.
“If you understand, things are just as they are… If you do not understand, things are just as they are…”
– Zen saying
I love Gretel Ehrlich’s writing. She has a deep love of home informed by the wisdom and compassion I’ve been writing about. Her essays describe her experience working as a lowly ranch hand and then as a ranch owner on the forbidding, unspeakably beautiful, and unforgiving rangelands of Wyoming.
“In this world of vast suffering, you have to cultivate your own field first and work out from there. The development of peace and tolerance and acceptance has to start in your own heart. The little forays of regression we all indulge in are warning signs that we could better work on cultivating peace.” ~ Gretel Ehrlich
Cultivate your own field and work out from there: That’s a pithy way to get a handle on what contemplative traditions are all about.
Here is an interview with Gretel Ehrlich. It’s focused on her life and writing and how she managed to recover from being struck by lightening… twice.
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We’re located in historic Gloucester which is about 40 miles north of Boston on Cape Ann. Cape Ann is on the far northeastern end of the North Shore of Massachusetts.
The steeple on the left in the photo is on the Gloucester UU Church. That’s where we meet.
I hope your life goes well this month!