April monastery discussion: tips for keeping practice fresh

Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery, my home base, has been hosting a monthly sangha discussion via Zoom during the covid pandemic. The theme for March was “Refreshing Our Practice,” and by enthusiastic request we are continuing that general theme for a couple more months.

In March, we covered a variety of topics, beginning with the importance of consistent daily practice on the cushion or chair, within a time frame we can realistically maintain — 15 minutes a day was recommended as a good place to start. It can be challenging at the beginning to sit down every day to practice, and to stay sitting; but with repetition it gradually becomes a habit, like any other routine we wish to establish in our lives. And we may find that not only does our resistance diminish over time — we may even begin to look forward to this daily opportunity to deepen our understanding of our own mind.

In April, we zeroed in on how to work with our practice when it begins to lose vitality and become rote.

Lama Jamdron began by sharing one way she refreshes her practice when this happens: by going back to the basics, remembering the meaning of the four thoughts and the refuge and bodhisattva vows in a heartfelt way, then continuing to touch in frequently with the meaning of the practice rather than absently holding a posture or reciting words. Here are some other tips shared by participants, in no particular order:

General advice for all practice:

  • Activate bodhicitta. Remember why you are practicing.
  • Don’t judge your practice. Bring awareness to dullness or agitation; be with how it is.
  • “Be a cheerleader, not a drill sergeant.”
  • Alternate different practices.
  • Minimize distractions (put your phone in another room).
  • Practice sometimes with a group, if possible.
  • Ask a teacher for advice, if possible.
  • Bring your teacher or a past lineage master to mind. Let their example inspire you.
  • Bring your practice into the realm of feeling, not just mental exercise.
  • Bring awareness to your body. Make sure you are fully present.
  • Feel the refuge sources as truly present and empowering your practice.
  • See your practice as a rest break from daily cares and chores.
  • Balance practice, study, and contemplation.
  • If practice is challenging, remember impermanence, that it will change.
  • Appreciate how your practice and understanding carry over into your daily life.
  • Remember that our progress in practice is completely up to us; no one can do it for us.
  • Reflect on your practice at bedtime: how did it help you during the day?
  • Set a positive intention for practice when you wake up. Anticipate its benefits.

For sadhana practice:

  • Slow it down, keep it vivid, and worry less about number of mantra repetitions.
  • Change up the version of the practice you are doing, e.g., Tibetan versus English.
  • Review the instructions or visualization to pick up details you might have forgotten.
  • Alternate between the big picture, the details, and resting in awareness.
  • Pause between sections to make transitions mindful.

For silent meditation practice:

  • Try guided meditation using a recording or an app.
  • Sit outside where you can see the sky or just have a sense of connection with nature.
  • Alternate sitting meditation with walking meditation.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this list of tips. Our next discussion is Sunday, May 23 from 2:00-3:00pm. All are welcome. We’ll continue sharing what has worked for us in keeping our practice fresh, this time with a focus on how the covid pandemic has affected our practice. Has it made it easier to find time? More challenging? Has your practice helped you maintain equanimity? Or has it been harder to sit? I’ve been able to do some short retreats, and to benefit from the many teachings available online. We look forward to hearing about your experience.