Earlier this week I crossed the halfway point of my 100-day daily practice challenge. I’m happy to say that I’ve maintained my morning practice every day for 54 days now, even including the days that I was in Denver for the Phowa retreat.
That said, I have modified my daily practice somewhat from my original plan due to physical difficulties and new commitments. In regards to the former, I’ve been having a lot of back and neck pain for some time. I’ve had difficulty with sitting meditation for a while, though I had hoped that my body would adjust in the face of consistent daily practice. This has not occurred. The problems worsened at the Phowa retreat where I was sitting for hours at a time on a cushion, often in great discomfort. Our daily session began each morning with a half hour of yoga, which definitely helped, but the pain would return later and pain medication was no longer helping. I realized I needed a new approach.
I have started seeing a physical therapist, who has advised me that not only do I have very poor posture, but that I am sitting far too much each day. My long work hours staring at a computer terminal, my long daily commute, and my sedentary pastimes of sewing and reading, are all contributing to the problem. I’ll be doing treatment and exercises to adjust my posture and making changes to my daily routine to incorporate more standing and walking. I’ve also changed two aspects of my morning practice.
Each morning I am now only doing the three prostrations that are required in Vajrayana practice on entering a shrine room. I have added five or ten minutes of stretching in lieu of the other prostrations I was previously doing. For the 20 minutes of sitting meditation, I have now accepted the inevitable and moved from sitting on a cushion on the floor to sitting in a chair. The past few mornings I’ve been splitting my sitting meditation period evenly between wind energy practice/sitting meditation and slow walking meditation.
The wind energy practice is something I learned from Anyen Rinpoche at the Phowa retreat. It is a Vajrayana-style breathing practice described in detail in his and Allison Choying Zangmo’s book The Tibetan Yoga of Breath: Breathing Practices for Healing the Body and Cultivating Wisdom. It is of great benefit as a daily purification practice that stabilizes the breath and thus the mind. The second change to my daily practice that I’ve made due to new commitments is to switch my Chenrezig practice from the text I previously described to one that I learned at the Phowa retreat. This new text is the one used as part of the Phowa practice that Anyen Rinpoche teaches. My short sutra reading remains unchanged.
I was uncertain at first as to whether I really should make changes to my daily practice until the 100 days were up. Then I remembered something I’d read in the Tibetan Buddhist classic Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. Pabongka Rinpoche explains the analogy of the spiritual master being like a skilful doctor:
The medicine is the thing that helps the patient, but perhaps you don’t follow the doctor’s advice and instead just leave the medicine prescribed for you by your bedside. If you do not get better you cannot blame the doctor, because you haven’t done the things he has told you; and you cannot blame the medicine because you have never even taken it.
The spiritual guide is like a skillful doctor, but if you listen to many oral instructions – which are like a medicine to pacify the disease of delusion – and do not put them into practice, they will not benefit your mind-stream, no matter how profound or extensive they may be. You should not blame the guru; you should not blame the Dharma. You yourself are at fault.
He then gives the following example of how one should properly receive teachings and put them into practice:
One should put everything into immediate practice, just like Geshe Chaen Ngawa. He was reading a section of the vinaya that discussed leather and hides; he saw that it forbade someone ordained from handling animal hides. He happened to be sitting on a hide at the time. He immediately threw it out. Then he found when he read on that this rule could be relaxed in remote countries and the ordained there were permitted to handle hides. He retrieved the hide and spread it on his seat again.
I should note that I have yet to finish reading Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand; however, that story apparently made a big impact on me as I still remember it very well! After recollecting these words, I realized that I would be remiss in waiting until the end of the 100 days to make changes, especially since the changes I had in mind were complementary to the practice I was already doing. Therefore, I decided to begin at once with the new wind energy and Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara) practices and one other new practice I’ve added: mantra accumulation.
I’ve used a mala (Buddhist rosary) before to count mantra recitations during a sadhana, but I’ve never before attempted to say a certain number of mantras over a longer period of time. Mantra accumulation is often used in Vajrayana Buddhism to purify negative and transform ordinary speech and breath energy; it is often a prerequisite to other practices. The words of a mantra are considered to be sacred syllables, imbued with the power not only of the sounds themselves but also with the long lineages of Dharma practitioners who have recited those very same sounds for hundreds or even thousands of years.
A mala consists of 108 beads and each time you say the mantra you count one bead. With the assistance of the mala counters that I’ve now added to my mala, I can keep track of how many malas’ worth of mantras I’ve said. Some traditional mantra accumulation numbers are 100,000 recitations, 111,111 recitations, 600,000, or even 1,000,000! At the moment I am trying to say as many recitations of Chenrezig’s mantra as I can before I return to Denver in March to see Anyen Rinpoche again. My intention is to cross the 100,000 mark by the end of this year and so far I am on track.
Finally I have found a beneficial use for my long commute! Now I just need to work through the feelings of self-consciousness that arise whenever I use my mala in public. I have been reminding myself of how fortunate I am to live someplace where the worst repercussions I face are strange looks whereas people in other parts of the world might risk being beaten or jailed for doing the same. This reminds me of what a precious human rebirth I enjoy and how important it is not to squander it, but instead to be diligent in my practice.