Balancing the Three Legs of Practice

Blue Heron

I often think of dharma practice like a tripod, with three legs that create balance. On one leg there’s meditation, including daily seated practice and retreats; on another is mindfulness in daily life; the third is sangha practice.

Let’s start with meditation. For many, establishing a consistent daily seated meditation practice is quite challenging. It requires making a commitment to carving out time to disengage from the ingrained distractions and patterns that inevitably arise in daily life. When people say they don’t have time to meditate, I find in most cases that they aren’t prioritizing the time, which may otherwise be used to watch television or engage in social media and other such activities. Consider that in 24 hours there are 1440 minutes. If we can’t find 10 – 30 minutes a day to meditate, which comprises about .07 to 2% percent of that time, its worth examining how we are using our time and what our true priorities are.

Meditation requires that we face ourselves, including all of our imperfections, leaving nothing out. Sometimes our sitting may be lovely and restful, even transcendent, at other times challenging and wobbly. But the key to a consistent practice is the willingness to receive all that arises in our awareness with an open and compassionate heart. This isn’t always easy, but its how the fruits of practice begin to ripen and transform our lives.

For the committed practitioner, meditation retreats are not a luxury but a vital part of deepening their practice. Concentrated time spent away from daily distractions allows access parts of our minds and hearts that are otherwise out of reach; retreats help us contact our deepest evaded realities. If your life situation prevents you from traveling afar or carving out chunks of time for retreats, take advantage of daylong retreats as often as you can and shorter residential retreats that only last a weekend. But do make them a priority.

Practicing mindfulness in daily life is also vital to waking up. As the popularity of mindfulness has grown, some people have mistakenly concluded that seated meditation and mindfulness in daily life are interchangeable practices. This is simply not the case. For a truly balanced practice, both are essential; we need to align what we learn in our seated practice with activities in our daily lives. One of the best ways to bring mindfulness into daily life is practicing mindfulness of the body. This is a deceptively simple yet deep practice: Buddha said that mindfulness of the body leads to enlightenment. We’re so often caught up in our busyness, our activities and thoughts that we lose our connection with this moment. Our bodies are always right here, ready and available to serve as an anchor for our present moment awareness. Bringing mindfulness to your body is an uncomplicated yet powerful practice you can do throughout the day to root your awareness in this moment and disengage from reactive patterns and habitual thoughts. You can still plan, think and carry out your activities, but you can do it all from a foundation more firmly grounded in presence and awareness.

Sangha comprises the third leg of the tripod. Sangha helps us create a stable support in our lives as we derive strength in our practice through sharing it with others. There is a notable, almost mysterious vibrancy that arises from meditating in a group setting. The collective energy of our concentration bolsters the individual and group simultaneously, allowing us to go deeper into our practice than if we only do it alone. Sangha practice also provides ample opportunities to practice generosity by contributing what we can to support the community of practitioners. We begin to break through the illusion of separation and realize that our practice isn’t only for ourselves, but for all beings. We also have an opportunity to view our habits, biases and aversions in the context of a group. The renowned Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn likened sangha practice to cooking a pot of potatoes. He said that you could wash potatoes one by one or you could put numerous potatoes in a pot and stir them all together: they all rub up against each other, each getting clean in the process and rounding out the rough spots.

When our dharma practice is balanced it includes all three legs of this tripod. If we only focus on only one or two, we expend energy trying to maintain balance without a stable foundation. With our tripod in balance, however, we create the conditions for our practice to fully ripen and transform our lives.