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Progression on the Spiritual Path

Chairs Homily – February 2024

One of my Sangha friends recently asked me how could they move faster on their progression on the spiritual path? They asked because they felt stuck and lately they were making no progress. When they first started coming along to the Buddhist Centre things had changed quite rapidly. They had begun meditating and putting things they had learned into practice, and their old behaviours had changed and they were now in a better state than when they first came. But things seemed to have slowed down; they had been coming along regularly to classes, attending a study group, and even going on the occasional retreat but still it appeared to them there was no progression, and the goal of Enlightenment seemed even further away.

So what is going on for this person? They are doing quite a lot, considering they have a job and other family responsibilities, but the results have stopped appearing! Like many of us, they lead quite a busy life so any recommendations I gave would need to be simple and practical. I could recommend they have a year’s break, a sabbatical perhaps go on a three month retreat, which may set the conditions for progress. But even these sort of apparently ideal conditions cannot help us if we are unable to put the effort in. And a sabbatical, for most of us and them would be impractical at this time.

So what else? I recommended two complimentary ways of working. Both methods can work together to strengthen awareness and discipline thus leading to positive states of mind. Enlightenment can be seen as the most positive state of mind you can imagine, so the longer we can maintain positive emotion the closer we get.

The two methods are Meditation and the Four Right Efforts. I will start with looking at the meditation aspect as the Four Right Efforts might be less familiar and need a bit more explanation.

As I mentioned, my friend does meditate and has gained much already from their practice. But their practice is no longer sufficient to match where they are on their spiritual journey and where they want to be. Simply put, they need to put more effort in. Effort in terms of discipline and in terms of time. As we probably know meditation is cumulative, and the effects lessen and dissipate in between meditation sessions. So if we meditate irregularly, so missing some days, or not managing every day then this will have a big effect. Our level of calm, mindfulness and awareness will fluctuate significantly across the week. This means that our moods, tempers and clarity of thinking will also fluctuate. So the first thing to do is to be disciplined in our regular practice. Occasionally we cannot do our daily meditation, but that should be the exception. Once a disciplined meditation is in place, then there is the question of time. How much time are we giving to our practice? When we started meditating, we maybe sat for 20 minutes. Now if we wish to progress we need to give over more time to our Buddhist practice if we wish to see further progress. We need to generate more Virya, spiritual effort that can be used to enable our progress towards Enlightenment.

If you have been on retreat you may have felt you made progress, you dwelt in more positive states of mind, felt more integrated, and more in contact with the world around you. You are unlikely to be able to recreate this at home with all the conditions that you had whilst away, but there is one aspect that you can bring back with you and that is a longer sit. Usually whilst on retreat the meditations will be in this format 50 minutes then a short leg-stretch then another 30 minute sit. This sitting, practising meditation for 90 minutes has a big positive effect on your day.

On our Wednesday Mitra Evening at the Centre we meditate for 50 minutes. This may be the longest time those attending meditate in their week, but it gives us a chance to experience a more retreat like, deeper state. You may have read about one of Sangharakshita’s teachers, Dardo Rinpoche’s morning practice in the Puja Readings book. He practised, meditation and puja, each morning for six hours before starting work. We may not have that amount of time, but we do need to give some time to our practice and if we wish to progress then we need to give sufficient time. It takes time to overcome our hindrances within meditation. It takes time to achieve a good level of mindfulness, and it takes time to achieve a deep awareness of our bodies and our mental processes. So if you can, increase the amount of time you spend in meditation each day. Don’t try to do it all at once, only a few minutes each day, just like building up your muscles in the gym or running a marathon, start slowly. Notice what are the resistances to spending more time in meditation? Write them down and compare with the next and subsequent days. 

For my friend, a good length of time for meditation to aim for is 50 minutes, which gives a little retreat space within the busy working day. For you this may be too much, just try adding an extra five minutes to your current time spent in meditation. Now we have started work on our meditation we are moving into a state of mental preparedness to work on our deeper conditioned negative habits. 

The initial progress we made as a beginner, may now seem relatively easy. As we worked on the obvious difficulties in our life and the behaviours that we had that we were already not comfortable with. But now that we have worked on and corrected those ‘low hanging fruit’ to use a management term, we need to increase our effort to be able to reach those more difficult and engrained traits that we all possess, built up over a lifetime. 

These behaviours and conditions we have created for ourselves will need examining. We need to decide which we wish to keep and those that we must change or remove. This is where the Four Right Efforts come in. The Pali term is sammappadhāna. 

The Four Right Efforts are:

1. Prevent the arising of negative states of mind.

2. Abandon negative states that already exist in your mind.

3. Encourage positive states of mind.

4. Maintain positive states that already exist in your mind.

As you can see they are all to do with the state of our mind or consciousness. However, to achieve these positive states of mind you may have to change the conditions in which you live. Let us look at them briefly one at a time.

1. An everyday example is if your job is too stressful and causes you to be overworked and anxious. Then you could consider changing to a different job. This is a simple sentence to write but of course, in practical terms it is difficult. We often invest so much into the type of work we do, training and time, but also a sense of self-worth. We often find that our ego is a big part of the equation, we like to present to the world as a person who does this type of worthwhile and important work. But what could be more worthwhile than achieving Enlightenment, especially when it is for the sake of all beings? There are also many practical considerations, such as money and the current job market to be considered before taking such a step. But it is worth re-evaluating your relationship with  your work.

We can also look at when we notice greed arising in our mind, maybe in-relation to food, drink or even material possessions.  The most obvious and all pervading negative mental state is anger or hatred. This can quickly takeover our whole mind and we are consumed with anger, an anger that nonetheless is a conditioned phenomena. It arises because we have set up previous conditions to allow anger to develop. But the difficulty is that these ancient trackways are set up so early in our lives that it is difficult to address them and get to the start of the conditional chain. Often the start of this particular negative state requires us to be very self-aware, to have the patience and drive to go deep into our own history. To find the triggers that always seem to set us off, that create a storm within our minds. This is where disciplined meditation is the key to unlocking the secrets of our mental states. Sometimes this negative state, this anger, is not recognised, it is so intrinsic to who we are, so much part of our character that changing it would require us to re-establish, to re-create our sense of self. This is the stage in the Dharma Life that we in Triratna call ‘Spiritual Death’. 

2. When a great about-turn in who we are happens, then we are able to not only stop the arising of those negative states but rid ourselves permanently of them. This is the second of the Right Efforts, where we have removed the conditions within our lives that leads to the creation of negative or unwholesome mental states. Quite simply they are no-longer an issue and we can just let go of them.

3. The third Right Effort is the Spiritual Rebirth stage. Here we are replacing our negative states with positive states. Our mind is becoming lighter, even happier and we begin to experience a different way of being, a new you is emerging. We start to see how we can setup the good conditions that positive mental states thrive in. Although the start and energy for this journey into the Four Right Efforts is meditation, we gain with the increase in wholesome mental states, which results in a removal or lessening of the power of the hindrances to disturb our meditation. We also have more positive emotion to deal with the hindrances effectively. So freeing us to go deeper, moving effortlessly into ‘access concentration’, dwelling in upacāra-samādhi. Then moving further still and entering the higher mental states, the Dhyanas.

4. We cannot stand still. The negative mental states are just a thought away, so we need to be vigilant. This is where the aspect of ‘mindfulness’ called Apramāda comes into play.  Apramāda is a complex term and has been translated as: Carefulness, Conscious Awareness, Conscientiousness, Concern, Heedfulness, and Vigilance. This was the carefully chosen word that the Buddha used in his last teaching to exhort his followers at his Parinirvana: appamādena sampādetha. We often see this teaching loosely translated as “with mindfulness(Apramāda) strive on”.

Just like the Buddha’s followers 2,500 years ago, we must be heedful and vigilant of our mental states and continue to work on them. If we are not the apparent complexities of modern life will begin to affect our mental states negatively and we take issue with the world, feeling it is against us. Instead of seeing the world as it really is, where all conditioned things are impermanent, and what it is teaching us and testing our Apramāda, to see if we are ready to move forward to the next part of our journey.

This month we celebrate our first Buddhist Festival of the year, Parinirvana Day.  This festival day on Sunday 25th February is our opportunity to mark the end of the Buddha’s earthly existence. It is also our chance to remember those that we have recently lost and celebrate their past life in our world. Please do come along to the Centre for this special occasion and all the other things that are happening at your Buddhist Centre this month.


PS: If you would like to learn more about Dardo Rimpoche then have a look at a biography: The Wheel and The Diamond by Dharmacari Suvajra

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