We’ve known each other for many years, since we were (once upon a time) ‘Young Buddhists’, leading our local groups, and went on many retreats together over the years!

Stepping off the lotus

The title of the day was ‘Stepping off the lotus’ - a reference to the image of the bodhisattva Tara, who is said to have been created from the tears shed by Avalokiteshvra when he saw the suffering of the world and that he could never hope to help all beings alleviate their suffering.

She’s typically depicted with her left leg drawn up in meditation posture, and her right leg extended, the foot resting on a small pale-blue lotus and moon mat. This is taken to symbolise Tara stepping out compassionately into the world, ready to respond whenever she is called.

I find this theme very interesting and inspiring - my experience of Buddhist practice has been the strongest ‘in the world’ surrounded by its constant challenges, rather than on the cushion (although both are important).

So what is practice anyway?

A really vibrant and enjoyable day kicked off with us being asked to write on lots of small slips of paper, what practice meant to us. We wrote them quickly, without too much thought or dithering, and after a few minutes we all put them on the floor in a circle, and each had a small candle to place on any that we would like to know more about or explore.

If people who wrote the slip with a candle on felt comfortable, they shared what it meant to them, or we just discussed why we were interested in that topic and what it meant for us personally. It was a really great way of expressing our individual practice and what was alive for us. We had all kinds of things, from meditative methods to connecting with nature, ethical practice, caring for the mind and body and more.

What is Buddhism? What is the Dharma?

We then went on to do the same exercise with the questions of ‘What is Buddhism’ and ‘What is the Dharma’ - again, writing quickly on small slips (different colours for each question), then sharing and talking about things we found interesting from what had been shared by others.

After a (very awesome) shared vegan lunch, we looked at these concentric circles but then we changed it up, with the inner circle representing what was specific to the Triratna Buddhist Movement, then the next circle what was specific to Buddhism, and the next what was a Dharma but not exclusive to Buddhism.

It was fascinating to see how things moved, and how the colours were dispersed between the different circles. Some things spanned a couple of circles, some were easier to place than others, and some sparked quite some debate!

I really enjoyed the day, which we ended with the Midnight Star Puja to Tara by Vessantara, and found it a great way to bring the subject of our own views around what is (and maybe more importantly, what we view isn’t, practice) into the light. It was a fun, lighthearted but deep adventure into all of our experiences and I found it very validating hearing the breadth and depth of peoples’ practice.

So, what is practice?

For me, my strongest ‘Dharma Door’ has always been the Dharma - the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples - that have really drawn me in and opened my mind to reality. 

My path has always been one of taking the Dharma out into the world, with my core values being trying to live an ethical and altruistic life in service to others and of benefit to the world. I see my work, leading and managing communities in open source projects, as a direct expression of those values.

My strongest practice over the last decade has been learning to live with the physical and mental challenges faced as a result of having a chronic health condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Living in a body that is often painful and rarely does what I want to be able to do can be a real challenge, especially when you are relatively young. Living life to the fullest, looking for and cultivating joy, and working with the often destructive mental states that can arise on my worst days, has certainly pushed my practice to my limits over the years.

Communicating practice can be tricky

Sometimes I struggle when communicating the depths of my practice. Trying to explain to someone your experience when they've never seen the world through your eyes, can be a challenge for both parties!

For example, many people will find that their deepest moments of realisation come about during meditation, which is awesome!  Sometimes, however, that can lead to a view that I've bumped into more than once, that this is the most important or best tool for anyone who wants to work on creating supportive conditions to move towards developing deeper realisations.  That view can sometimes slip into a further view that it's not possible to have those same realisations or meditative experiences 'off the cushion'.

My experience has definitely been that some of my greatest 'a-ha!' and significantly transformational moments have occurred off the cushion within my daily life. There have also been deeply moving experiences in meditation, mostly during retreats, I'm just not drawn to meditation as my primary practice.

I've also found that I don't always share with people how challenging it can be to sit in meditation (especially for long periods of time), or how coming into the body as part of a meditation can at times be something that doesn’t generate stillness or supportive conditions for concentration.

Sometimes the very act of living with that condition and managing to maintain positive, supportive mental states is a huge practice in itself, requiring immense work on self-metta, acceptance and working with the mind creatively rather than reactively, which can also be overlooked because most of the time I'm just getting on with it, and don't necessarily think to communicate about that aspect of my practice.

Be curious about what you don’t understand

What I learned from this day is that sometimes the best thing to do is to get into dialogue - open, curious dialogue - about what practice actually means. It gave everybody the space to explore and share their own experiences without feeling judged, compared or that their version of practice wasn’t good enough or wasn’t what was expected.

Bringing curiosity to situations you don’t understand or fully know how to respond is such a great teaching, and one that I’ll definitely be trying to bring more fully into my life!

What are your experiences? Please do leave a comment below!