In the wise words of the Thai Forest meditation master Ajahn Chah:
“Practice when you want to. But more importantly, practice when you don’t want to.”
PRACTICE VERSUS PREFERENCE
As creatures of habit, and more specifically creatures of habitual preference, we are conditioned, like all living things, by a natural evolution that propels us towards that which the mind finds pleasant and repels us from that which the mind finds unpleasant. In other words, our conditioned minds like what they like and they dislike what they dislike. And although there is nothing inherently wrong with this conditioned approach to life, when we dive more deeply into the ancient wisdom traditions of Yoga and Buddhist meditation, and as a matter of due course begin to objectively observe the nature of the mind, we see clearly that it is in fact these conditioned preferences that are the source of the mind’s unsatisfactoriness and suffering (dukkha).
Our spiritual journey upon the yoga mat and meditation cushion is thus designed by these soteriological (liberation-seeking) traditions of ancient India to go against the stream of conditioned preferences for the purpose of finding freedom from conditions, gifting us our birthright to inhabit the mind’s innate refuge of unconditional inner peace. Nonetheless, and understandably at times, our yoga and meditation practice tends to create the opposite. Following the dictates of the mind’s conditioned desires we often make our way to the mat only when the mind feels like it, avoiding our practice when the mind doesn’t feel like it and as result increasing the mind’s attachment and bondage to its conditioned preferences.
When life is flowing smoothly, the body feels young and able and the mind is suffused with pleasant neurotransmitters, we practice. And so we should. Yet, when the inherent vicissitudes of conditioned existence begin to shift. When life becomes challenging and things aren’t going our way. And when the body and mind aren’t such a pleasant place in which to inhabit, the proposition of practice is foreseen by the conditioned mind as an unpleasant experience. The result is aversion towards our mat and cushion, creating gaps within the vital continuity of our practice necessary for results.
So, as practitioners of yoga and meditation if our “practice” tends to be congruent with the mind’s conditioned preferences, practicing more regularly when we feel good and then tapering off when life becomes challenging. As difficult as it can be, we must humbly acknowledge to ourselves that this in fact is not practice, this is preference. And although when gratified the stimulus of preference is experienced as pleasure, adhering to this conditioned and thus limiting approach to practice will forever prevent us from reaping the deepest and most transformative benefits yoga and meditation has to offer. As expounded by the ancient yogic scriptures the Sanskrit word ‘abhyāsa’, often translated as practice, literally means repetition. As such, practice is a repetitive act beyond the constraints of personal preference. It is the courageous act of returning to our mats and cushions regardless of external or internal circumstances, going against the stream of the conditioned mind and in turn moving beyond those self-limiting mind-states that are fuelled by the mind’s conditioned likes and dislikes.
THE FERTILE NEW REALITY
Needless to say at this time in our collective human history and the Covid-era defined by lockdowns, uncertainties, fears and doubts, we are facing the epitome of unpleasant conditions, both externally and as a result thereof perhaps internally within our own minds. And although it is understandable that the conditioned mind would prefer to crawl into bed and binge watch Netflix until this is all over, there has in fact never been a more important and potent time for us as practitioners to do the inner work.
Travelling and teaching throughout the world for over a decade it has become joyfully apparent to me that yoga and meditation is not just a trend. It is a global movement with the potential to create social change. But in order for that change to take place, both on an individual and societal level, we must take advantage of life’s inevitable challenges, using them as fuel to cultivate and continue the awakening of these human hearts. For it is in times of crisis and upheaval that we uncover our greatest inner strengths and thus potential for spontaneous evolution and personal growth. Right now, we each have a profound opportunity to move through and come out of this Covid experience with greater resolve, resiliency and inspired energy for the future. This is a fertile moment in time for a collective rebirth of humankind and the wisdom teachings of the ancient yogis have never been more relevant.
This is the time for all members of the global yoga community to do their individual work for the collective betterment of society. The time is now to return to the sacred practice spaces we’ve created in our living rooms, hallways and kitchens, cultivating the refuge of the heart so we may come out of this experience with greater courage and altruistic intentions, catalyzing the change we wish to see. Change that is initiated and built upon each and every time we bring ourselves back to our practice, especially when the mind doesn’t want to.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
If our practice has dropped off because of the perceived bleakness of the current situation, we are not alone. And it’s imperative that we meet ourselves, not with condemnation for falling victim to the mind’s conditioning, but with wise understanding and loving-kindness. Seeing it not as failure but instead as insight and fuel for awakening. Each time we courageously return to the mat and cushion we continue the heroic work of awakening and increasing the body’s vital energy, whilst cultivating the innate refuge of awareness that prepares and readies our hearts for the inevitable changes and challenges that lie ahead. And on those days the mind doesn’t want to practice, which will be many, with kindness we can remind the mind that we are not alone. That there are millions of other courageous practitioners out there doing the work to move beyond the limitations of these conditions.
May we together find the collective fortitude through the recognition that we are in this together and that we practice for each other. Although I return to my cushion and mat daily for my own benefit, we do not practice only for ourselves. Without you and your dedicated commitment to your practice, my efforts can only take me so far. Our individual embodied well-being is innately interconnected to each other’s well-being, and together, one mindful practice at a time we will individually and collectively come out of this experience for the better. Of that I have no doubts.
A humble bow to each and every one of you. And may you, your loved ones and your communities be safe, healthy and at ease.
Whit Hornsberger is a student and teacher of the wisdom traditions of Classical Yoga and Theravada Buddhism.
A former athlete, Whit found the path as a result of a career ending knee injury and the subsequent emotional and mental suffering inherent in losing one’s (supposed) self-identity and self-worth. Integrating knowledge from his degree in primatology with over 16 years of dedicated practice and 11 years of teaching, Whit has developed a unique, spiritually scientific approach to the understanding of the mind and body. His daily practice and teaching methods stem from the traditional practices of Vinyasa Krama (Krishnamacharya), yin yoga and Buddhist mindfulness meditation (Mahāsi Sayadaw), and he continues to pursue his insatiable passion for truth by way of annual solo meditation retreats amongst the courageous monastics in the Buddhist monasteries of Burma and Thailand.
A passionate advocate of traditional teachings, Whit expounds the ancient wisdom of these lineages in a relevant manner, making them readily accessible to students at every stage of the path. A lover of surf, travel and nature, Whit resides in Spain offerings international classes, workshops, yoga and vipassanā retreats, trainings, online classes and courses.
Online Meditation Course
Whit and his partner Laura have created an in-depth online Buddhist meditation offering entailing two six-month courses broken down into individually accessible two-month programs. The guided online courses, accessible for all levels, are based upon the revered Burmese lineage of vipassanā of Mahāsi Sayadaw and are available by way of the traditional Buddhist practice of dāna (donation).
For more information please visit: whithornsberger.com
Photo credits: Whit Hornsberger