by Clarence Ratliff
I’ve often heard Buddhism referred to as a religion of practice rather than a religion of belief. This stems from the fact that in Buddhism, generally speaking, you’re not asked to accept things just on faith. You’re asked to practice certain things and let experience validate the underlying philosophy. When two Buddhists meet the conversation usually falls to questions about the content of each other’s practice. The upside to this emphasis is that once you begin to practice, not only do the propositions that frame the practice prove to be valid but through doing you start to see tangible results in your life. The downside is that practice not only takes effort but time as well.
Therein lies the rub for the layperson. Time to practice. If your life is anything like mine, time is a precious commodity that you always wish you had more of. Between work, family, relationships, education and hobbies our lives are often overscheduled and occasionally frantic. The very hardcore adherents of any activity, religious or secular, will be quick to tell you to ditch anything but that particular thing. This, of course, is the underlying basis for monasticism; to focus most if not all your energy on the task at hand. But how realistic is it to chuck everything else to focus solely on once an activity, even a very important one? Most of us don’t have the option to renounce the world and become a monk or nun.
I faced this conundrum a long time ago in a different context – the practice of martial arts. The martial arts are a very practice intensive activity. To get better and see the benefits you have to put in the time. There’s just no other way to improve and see progress. The same is true of any skill-based activity from playing tennis, painting or learning the piano. There’s just no way around putting in the time. So how do you progress with limited time and competing responsibilities? I call it ‘Everyday practice”.
In the martial arts context, I started incorporating martial movements into commonplace everyday activities. I often walk down the hallway while moving into and out of various postures or practicing footwork. Every time I press the button on an elevator or a doorbell I use my thumb mimicking a certain kind of strike. I tap things with the first two knuckles of my fist mimicking the striking area for a typical punch. I even go so far as touching things and hitting the light switch with a stick, staff or wooden sword to keep in practice of judging distancing. There are all kinds of simple little quick things I do to incorporate body movements into my normal everyday activities. I may look a little silly, but it works! I get the benefit of repetitive practice without having to schedule dedicated training time every single day. I do make time for dedicated practice, but not every single day. I’ve been doing this for years and see results. I’ve incorporated teaching this “everyday practice” philosophy to my martial arts students and see the results in their development.
But how does that translate to spiritual practice? I still do schedule time for meditation most days and sutra chanting once a week. But I try to incorporate little things into everyday activities. I frequently throughout the day stop, take three deep mindful breaths in a mini meditation. I have a small altar/SPOT at home that I will occasionally stop as I walk past, gassho and bow to bring myself back to mindful awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion of washing the dishes in mindfulness works wonders, at least when I remember to do it that way! The Bright Dawn newsletters have many different little gassho practices that are really great. And last but certainly not least, Rev. Koyo Kubose’s book Bright Dawn gives many great ideas of how to incorporate little practices into everyday living. The key is making it part of your normal routine. It helps you see the Dharma in everyday life, as opposed to only during specially scheduled times. It makes it part of who you are, rather than being something “out there” separate from you.
Making the time for dedicated practice is important. I certainly don’t mean to dismiss it. My ideas for everyday practice aren’t meant to replace it. But with busy schedules, it’s a great tool to maximize your practice and supplement your dedicated sessions of longer activity; whether at a service with a physical sangha for those fortunate enough to have one close, or regularly scheduled home practice (or both). So make your spiritual practice a little part of your everyday activities, you’ll be pleased with the long-term results.
Clarence Ratliff is with the Bright Dawn Way of Oneness Sangha. For information about Bright Dawn and the Lay Ministry program please visit our website.