In order to practice, we have to surrender, we have to take a risk. Otherwise what we’re doing is standing back in order to judge, in order to feel superior. Often the obstacle is fear: we don’t think we’ll ever succeed. And so we’d rather stand apart and be cynical, to feel protected in that way, not having to try.
One of the strongest experiences that I had of this happened somewhat early in my practice when I was living in India. The first teachers I sat with were all either Burmese or had been trained in Burma, so they had different approaches stylistically in terms of technique, but they were essentially the same. Then one day, somebody showed me a picture of a Tibetan lama. I was very taken with his face, and traveled all the way to the other end of India to start practicing with him. I very quickly became confused. Unable to decide between the two traditions, I would sit to meditate and mostly I would just think, “Should I do this or should I do that? Maybe this is faster, maybe that is better; well, I like these people better who do this practice, but then again, I don’t know them really well. I know the others really well and so, you know, maybe I should practice with them, they’re doing the best they can.”
I wasn’t really putting anything into practice. Having removed myself to a safe distance from the process, I’d just sit and think about practice. What was almost worse was that whenever I was with my Burmese teachers I would ask them what they thought about Tibetan practice, something they knew about mostly through centuries of a cultural divide. They’d spent their entire lifetime completely and intensively devoting themselves to the study and practice of the Burmese tradition, not Tibetan practice. And whenever I was with my Tibetan teachers, who were incomparable masters of the tools they were offering and the metaphysics they had immersed themselves in, I would ask them what they thought of Burmese practice. They also primarily knew about this other tradition from the other side of that great historical-cultural divide. I wasn’t really learning a lot from my practice since I wasn’t really practicing much. I was mostly just thinking about which practice to do. And I wasn’t learning nearly as much as I could from my teachers, because I insisted on asking them about the things they knew little about as opposed to the things they knew a huge amount about. Finally I said to myself, “Just do something. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, just do something for the sake of the doing, for the engagement, for the involvement.”
After much vacillation, I concluded, “Well, I’ll just do one form of practice for six months,” and that’s what got me into actually practicing. It’s not that one needs to do only one practice forever, and I certainly haven’t. But the quality of doubt I experienced early on is a good example of the quality of doubt that removes us, that keeps us stuck at a crossroads, unable to fully engage. We need to be able to utilize the positive energy of wondering, of wanting to know the truth for ourselves and working to do that, and not get lost in cynicism or endless speculation.
From a talk given at Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts, February 2001.