The Ruts That Lead to Better Places

The early days of practice can be an amazing time. You are full of enthusiasm, bursting to learn everything you can, champing at the bit to throw yourself into new challenges, and every day feels like a progression. Naturally this level of intensity wears off as your practice stops being something new and becomes part of your ordinary routine.

What we don’t talk about very often is how hard it can be to maintain a consistent practice day in, day out, year after year. The thing about a serious meditation practice that makes it so hard to sell to a mainstream audience is that it takes an inordinate amount of time and effort to get results, and even then it isn’t guaranteed. One of the nuns at Amaravati said someone asked her for advice on how to reduce their anger, she replied “give it about 10 years.”

Slow and steady wins the race, but the span of time that we are working across naturally makes it difficult to maintain consistency. For some this is where the appeal of living the monastic life comes from; everything about the monastic experience is designed to be as simple and samey as possible. The household life, as it often says in the suttas, is dry and dusty. As hard as we try to keep our minds and actions spotlessly polished, the ordinary requirements of worldly life keep coming along and sprinkling complication, temptation, and irritation over our gleaming intentions.

This is just how it is to live the world, it isn’t inherently better or worse than any other way to live. It provides a different set of challenges to practice with, and these challenges might actually suit some people more than the challenges of monastic life; horses for courses as they say.

To expect to not make mistakes is a mistake in itself; if we consider that we are working with long term habits then we might have a better appreciation of what it takes to change them.

Regardless of being a lay person or a monastic, long term practice does require a certain degree of resilience. The road is long, bumpy, and winding. Patient endurance is a quality that is often talked about and is held in incredibly high regard; unsurprisingly though most people have little zest to create the conditions for themselves to work on it deliberately.

But it is a quality that we do develop slowly over time even without specifically focusing on it: every time we meditate and bring our attention back to the breath after the mind has wandered is an exercise in patient endurance. We bring the mind back to the breath multiple times in every sit, without judgement; and we do the same thing every day. Little by little, that ability to endure increases.

But it can sometimes be hard to feel reassured that we are making incremental progress as the years pass, especially when we feel like we are falling into the same ruts over and over again; that can make us think we have learned nothing at all. We can easily find ourselves frustrated at why we keep making the same mistakes all the time, or why that clear insight that we had didn’t translate into a permanent change in our behaviour.

The teachings tell us that these moments of frustration have the potential to be useful for us though:

“One of the Buddha’s most beautiful teachings is that the experience of suffering can go in two directions. One, it can compound our misery and confusion. Two, it can ripen in search. When everything has gone wrong, we have a choice. Do we just wallow? Or do we say, “Why is it like this? What am I doing to make this a problem?” The search kicks in, to find where we are clinging and why we are looking for happiness where it cannot be found.”

p137-138 Small Boat Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu

“There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, ‘Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?’ I tell you, monks, that stress results either in bewilderment or in search.” AN6.63 trans Thanissaro Bhikkhu

That sense of frustration can be a force for good then; by creating discomfort it can push us to make efforts to investigate what the problem is and find a way out of our rut.

I found myself getting stuck in a bit of a rut recently. I noticed a pattern of having a few days where my mind is quite quiet, followed by a few days when I proliferate endlessly. I was getting frustrated because it felt like I wasn’t able to make my practice stick and I didn’t understand why, but it spurred me to dig deeper into the issue and to try to find ways to not beat myself up about getting it wrong.

Being non-judgemental of ourselves is an absolutely crucial element of practice, because being judgemental will feed our self-view, and create feelings of ill-will both towards ourselves and our situation. Being frustrated is about wanting things to be different from how they are, so we need to understand that feeling as being about the incorrect application of self.

But as the Buddha said, anything that causes us suffering can be a route to learning how to not suffer, and Ajahn Viradhammo suggests that even kicking ourselves when we get it wrong can eventually steer us in the right direction:

“…we need to be careful to not make a big fuss when we make a mistake. After getting upset with ourselves enough times, we come to realize that it’s more skillful to be self-forgiving rather than self-disparaging. After all, not filling the mind with self-recriminations is so much more peaceful than filling it with such difficult energy.”

p104 The Contemplatives Craft by Ajahn Viradhammo

When something feels like a personal failing on my part I can see that I am being harsh with myself, and having been like that with myself so many times before I know that it is neither skillful nor useful – it will not help me to find a solution.

I find it can be very useful to always look for ways to understand issues in terms of how they work as conditioned processes. The Buddhist world is a world of cause and effect, so everything that happens has a cause, you just need to find it.

Some scientific findings can be quite useful for this, especially ones that focus on how things work. The dhamma (with a small ‘d’) is the natural world and its functions. Scientific study creates ways of understanding how this natural world works that we can use to help us to analyse our own experiences.

The idea of neuroplasticity is a useful concept to apply to our understanding of how meditation and practice comes to have a transformative effect. Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to create new brain cells, and to form new connections between different parts of the brain.

What has this got to do with meditation you might wonder? Well potentially quite a lot. The way some scientists believe the brain works is that we have neutral networks made up of connections between brain cells that carry signals between the different parts of the brain, and the more we do a particular task the stronger these networks become by creating more connections.

I like to take this concept of networks and reimagine it as paths; the ones that get used the most are the widest and the ones that get used the least are narrow. If you don’t use a path for a while it becomes overgrown, and difficult to go down. If you stop using a path it disappears almost completely.

These ‘paths’ in our brains are just a way of thinking about why our habitual actions come so easily to us, and new actions are harder to bed in. The things we do the most often have the widest, best connected paths, and the things we do the least often have the narrowest, or overgrown, paths. To use a well worn phrase, when it comes to deciding how to doing something, we frequently take the path of least resistance, and in the case of the brain that would mean going down the widest pathway – i.e. doing the thing that we do the most often.

If, unfortunately for us, that path happens to be a bad habit, then we will keep doing it – not because we are feckless, but because the current set of conditions make that more likely. To use a different path – a narrow one, or perhaps one that isn’t even there – requires effort, and the diligent, repeated application of it, so it’s unsurprising that we don’t often choose to go that way unless we are determined to.

When you think about why it takes a long time to change a habit then consider that if you walked across a lawn once for a short cut, that one trip you made wouldn’t be enough to form a new path; you would need to keep going across it over and over and over again to wear a path into the grass. So you could imagine that the paths in our brains require the same going over and over to form and build neural connections.

Practice then would be about laying down new pathways, and letting old ones become overgrown and difficult to go down. If you have had the same habit for the last 20 years then clearly that is a well developed path. One day of insight isn’t going to be able to compete against a path that requires no resistance to use.

Neuroscience obviously didn’t exist in the Buddha’s time, but he was certainly prescient of what it would eventually uncover. He was well aware of the cumulative effect of habitual actions on the mind, for example he expressed many times that whatever we incline our mind to will become our habit. He was both warning against the dangers of not being mindful – by allowing the mind to dwell on unsuitable topics- and was also indicating to us that applying our mind to more skilful matters would in time allow us to change our habitual actions and responses.

To expect to not make mistakes is a mistake in itself; if we consider that we are working with long term habits then we might have a better appreciation of what it takes to change them.

So I decided to watch myself carefully to see when and where I was going off track in real time, then later reflect on what I had observed and try to understand what the causes for it could be. If you have ever applied this kind of deliberate mindfulness before you will know that it can also be fraught with frustrations too. We need to use a light hand with our watchfulness, because all too easily we can over apply effort and generate a lot of ego, which brings harshness with it.

When you are deliberately watching yourself it is inevitable that you will miss some of what you are supposed to be looking for, so again that attitude of moving away from being frustrated with yourself is all important.

“By just observing what leads to peace and what doesn’t, we experience a natural movement towards the letting go of suffering, towards compassion. When we practice in this way, our inner vigilance isn’t forced, nor is it harsh. It’s honest. It has integrity. We’re simply taking responsibility for what’s going on in our hearts and minds.”

p104 The Contemplatives Craft by Ajahn Viradhammo

Carefully and gently applied mindfulness can allow a great deal of detail to be come apparent to us that was previously hidden in the hustle and bustle of our busy mind. What I found in myself was that on some days I was applying concentration more carefully, reducing the amount of times the mind moved off from the subject it was on, and bringing the mind back to centre when it had gone off. On other days I wasn’t corralling the mind at all, it was allowed to move to whatever thought cropped up, and once it had it did not naturally come back to centre again.

The big issue ultimately was craving: the mind was moving because it believed that there could be some satisfaction to be gained from something other than where it was and what it was doing. But craving is the big problem for everyone, and there is no one simple fix for it; just long and diligent practice.

But the matter of the mind moving around from thing to thing does have some solutions that I could investigate further. On reflection I could see that one reason it moves because that is what it is used to doing. When I thought about how much work I have done on training the mind to not move, I realised I had done very little. Compared to the super-highway of the moving mind pathway, the pathway for the not moving mind was little more than a dirt track.

It’s little wonder then that my old habit was constantly winning out against my new one. But I was quite heartened by what I found too. Before I starting practice I had absolutely no inherent ability to keep my mind on one task, so the fact that I am now able to keep the mind under control for a few days at a time is progress.

I decided I would spend a bit more time working on my concentration, and paying a bit more attention to whether I was using it or not. With insight meditation being so much easier to get competence in for beginners concentration training can get pushed into the shadows a bit, but the Buddha always stated that it was a vital skill.

Concentration is among the last skills to develop in the gradual training approach that the Buddha suggested. I had always wondered why concentration was always last on the list but this started to made a bit more sense to me.

As someone with experience, when I turned my mind to developing my ability to concentrate I found that the experience I already had supported what I was developing. I automatically brought a sense of ‘just right-ness’ to what I was doing, I already knew what trying too hard and trying too little felt like. I knew where the mind should be focussed and where it shouldn’t. I knew how to watch where the mind was going. I knew how to bring the mind back to where it should be. I knew how to tolerate the impulses and urges to resist the training. I knew why I was doing it and what benefit it could have.

When I first started meditating I couldn’t do any of these things, and unsurprisingly all of my attempts at developing concentration failed pretty quickly. Even the most basic technique of counting up to ten and back would fail over and over again. Looking back on it, the issue for me was probably not being able to resist the impulses that moved my attention and put it somewhere else.

Learning how to allow impulses to arise, but not respond to them required a lot more than counting to ten and back for me. It took a lot of investigation into the nature of feeling, of the nature of impermanence, and the repeated application of a new way of dealing with impulses until it became more of a habit. So in my case perhaps the gradual path was the right way around after all; even though I might have wanted to improve my concentration in the beginning I actually needed to work on some other things first.

This is another way to consider any ruts we fall into along our long journey in the practice; perhaps now just isn’t the time to master that particular skill or teaching, perhaps we have something else to develop first. And perhaps that rut that we fall into gives us the determination to get to the bottom of it that will take us to those other things we need to work on.

Falling into a rut in your practice doesn’t have to be a bad thing then, if we bring our curiosity to it then we have the scope to allow it to transform itself into the means of our liberation. Knowing this builds our resilience, and the more times we follow the pathway of investigation, the more it will be come our habitual response.

Photo by Rainer Bleek on Unsplash

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