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What Are Your Personal Practices?
[A very sincere young man recently asked me what practices I cultivate. I had written it several months ago, and since he found my response helpful, I'm sharing it below as well.]
At this point in my balding life, :) most of my actions probably fall in a certain form of practice. It becomes a mindset. Without it, I think I would be totally lost. If I had to share some, let's see ...
--Many practices are part of my routine, like the infamous example of me making tea for Guri at 5:30AM (just now!) -- although she tells me, with the recent travel gap, I've lost my touch with the ginger-mint combo. :) Or that whenever I leave my home for a meeting, I'll try to take something I like from the house to give away.
--Some practices are more contextual, like saying yes to anything that someone asks me at an Awakin Circle (this has led to many funny anecdotes, but sometimes it leads to great emergence, too -- like when a woman asked me to be a back-up speaker and that ended up being a popular TedX talk). In the epic Mahabharata, Karna goes on a morning walk everyday and gives anything that someone asks for. Mine is a rookie version of that. :)
--Some practices are earmarked with a timeline, like spending 30 days every year in silent retreat (mostly Vipassana). I've done this for most of the last decade and it has been an unparalleled anchor for me.
--Some practices are conflicting -- like gatherings where people use my participation for fundraising, or gatherings that encourage use of intoxicants. I don't have an easy answer for this, but I enjoy the struggle. :)
--Various practices I fail in, like doing 2 hours of meditation every day. Some practices (even failures!) build over time. For instance, last year, while spending time with Brother David (a Benedictine monk), I felt a strong intuition to shift from 30 days/year to 90 days/year of silence, and I'm hopeful it'll build over time. :)
--Some are simple practices -- like feeling a sense of 'metta' before responding to emails, even if it's the hundredth time I'm saying the same thing. Or the practice of adding links to emails, to seed a ripple effect, even when I know that the chance of a reader clicking on it is quite low.
--Some practices are short-termed. On Ishwar-Kaka's first death anniversary, I gave up sweets for the next year. One day walking down the streets, I felt very stingy not giving to a homeless man; so I decided to give something every time I saw a homeless person (and there's a lot of them in Berkeley) for a while.
--Some practices have no term, ie. "no exit strategy". Like cooking for the monastery every week, which we've serendipitously been doing since the first week of our marriage, 13 years ago. Or taking Wednesdays off for the simple service of cooking with my parents for our local Awakin Circle (that they've hosted every week for the last 19 years). When we went on a pilgrimage, we intentionally booked a 1-way ticket with no return plan. It lasted for 1000 kilometers, but it was a very different experience when we couldn't just look forward to the destination. You then really learn to lean into your pain or pleasure, and find a different kind of light at the end of that tunnel.
--Some practices are subtle. Like talking about death in 99% of the conversations I have with my parents. Or not putting a price tag on my labor (for me, this emerged organically -- but then I met the likes of Nirmala Didi and many other Gandhians, like Arun Dada and Meera Ba, who have done this for their whole life.)
--Another practice is to go to the edge of my circle. So many times I want to retreat to my comfort zone; two years ago, during my India trip, I was exposed to something that my body was allergic to, and I had intense rashes all over my body. I was burning up, constantly. Great Vipassana practice. :) Subsequently, I couldn't generate as much love as I typically could -- but I bowed down and humbly worked at the pace of my conditions. That capacity to be fluid means that you can engage in many diverse spaces with many diverse mindsets -- which ultimately leads to growth in skillfulness.
--One very fundamental practice is to build an untiring mind. I used to be quite lazy, but at some point (during my tennis days, I think), I learned to snap out of it. Then, I used to work hard to achieve things -- and fortunately, I snapped out of that. At one point, in high school, I got into the stock market and really started making a lot of money; it was a bit addictive, but by some grace, I left that. Same pattern showed up in relationships, in my second year of college, although for a very short period of time. Finally, I landed in the field of service, and learned that hard work leads to untiring mind only when we cultivate detachment to outcomes. So that's a constant practice -- even in this moment. :)
--Lot of practices are centered around patience. A zen teacher beautifully said that when his monastery burned down, he noticed that some seeds sprout only under the extreme heat. Similarly, many of our latent capacities are unleashed only when we can "sit like a mountain and let the river flow through" (like Hanuman, who didn't know his capacities until he really needed to). Practically speaking, Guri tells me that I never give up on people -- which just means that I am surrounded by people whose lives are often messy. That offers me a great field to practice equanimity and detachment, while cultivating relationships of deep care.
--Another fundamental practice is to lead with noble friendship. Guri and I started coming to India, solely to support our noble friend, Jayesh-bhai. So much, including Moved by Love, emerged from that. Who knows, maybe a whole lot more will come out it before we're done. But when we started, it made no sense to the casual eye why I would do so much when I had so many more opportunities to have much more impact elsewhere. My practice was to support noble friendship. I would say that 99% of the major decisions in life are led by this practice, even when it goes against the grain of all logic. :)
--At some deep level, another practice I'm trying to build is to not wish for anything. If you had the Midas touch, would you care for gold? Since my childhood, I've noticed some wishes unexpectedly manifest; even though they were for others, I don't know if I had the wisdom to know if those are actually helpful interventions. Many years ago, for instance, I went to help a friend move -- and he was sharing how his racist neighbors have been troubling his parents for decades and if we could pray together (for the neighbors!). We did. Next week, the neighbors decided to sell their house. Just like that! Few years even before that, a friend was going through a terrible personal crisis and I prayed that he finds a significant other -- soon after, at the only Awakin Circle he ever attended, he met someone who had the same birth date and year as me and they're now very happily married with two kids. Those sound like good things, but it can be scary as well. Over time, I have learned that I don't want to wish for anything -- instead of twisting life to bend to my will, I want to dissolve my will to surrender to life's flow. Of course, I'm not perfect in that practice, but it's a strong practice. For instance, last year, when my brother was close to death, I didn't pray that he gets better. Initially, it was tough, but then I grew subtler wings by knowing that equanimity is so much stronger than the Midas touch. :)
I can go on -- but all that may not be particularly helpful for your life context. :) If you're thinking of what you may be able to do in your life, for me, it all falls into two broad categories of service and stillness:
Give what you want for yourself -- if you want money, give money; if you want happiness, make others happy; if you want to be connected, learn how to be invisible (ie. give away your connections).
Deepen awareness -- meditate, quiet the mind, find an intelligence beyond the mind. Deeper our awareness, greater our freedom to choose.
Practices in both of those spheres create the foundation for cultivating noble friendship, which affords us the resilience to either wake up entirely -- or fulfill great vows of compassion we might've undertaken. Of course, it does take time to "change entirely" as Rev. Heng Sure's song reminds us. After almost 3 years of bowing on the streets of California, he told his teacher that he still doesn't know how to bow. He asked if he could practice for another 3 years!
Fortunately, there is no rush, so slow stories are just as good as any other story.