As the title suggests, this essay is about moving our practice from the cushion to the sidewalk. It starts from a theoretical perspective, then visits an example from my own life. This essay is specifically directed toward ecstatic contemplatives or those who may be called to such a life. It’s not about fantastic claims or tooting one’s own horn. It is an effort to bring the Buddha’s actual meditation teachings out of the realm of speculation and into the realm of daily life, showing that it CAN happen right here, right now, even in this lightning-fast, hyper-modern world of ours.
Truth is, this blog exists to talk about these things.
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It’s one thing to maintain a rigorous and skillful meditation practice, around which the rest of our lives is arranged.
It is another thing to find oneself meditated, saturated and absorbed in-between formal meditation sessions.
What is this like?
A typical scenario finds the contemplative at a long meditation retreat, nine or ten days’ length. At about day four or five, the signs of absorption arise. These jhana nimittas may include “charismatic sound,” otherwise known as celestial singing or divine ringing. There may be pleasant sensations that register in different parts of the body, but which are not of the body — they arise independently of the body, even as the body is pleasantly influenced. There may be a halo around the head or heart. There may be strong energetic jolts at the base of the spine, or just a general sense of giddiness down there. There may, eventually, be total relaxation such that thoughts shut down and awareness is no longer localized in the contemplative’s body — it has merged with everything.
Then the contemplative goes home, back to her or his regular routine. Enthused, no doubt, she or he may commit to daily meditation. If this commitment involves rigorous and skillful practice, it will include an hour’s sit first thing in the morning (preferably before sunrise); another hour at midday (which may be “lying down” meditation, giving the body an opportunity to rest and the spine to auto-adjust); and a third, more open-ended session before bed. This third session is intended to carry through the entire night, given that our practice may eventually lead to lucidity in the dream realm, thus opening the night hours to deeper and deeper states of meditation.
When this rigorous and skillful practice is firmly established — and it may take months for it to fully “take” — the contemplative will notice that she or he is saturated in absorption throughout the day. The simple process of immersing in absorption on a regular basis brings changes to the contemplative’s presence in the world. The charismatic ringing continues and is always accessible. Euphoric bodily sensations never subside. Bliss in the third eye becomes permanent, changing vision in subtle ways.
As saturation settles in, the contemplative is positioned to take her or his practice to the streets. Whether walking, riding bike, riding bus or driving, the contemplative develops the habit of hitting the “off switch” and simultaneously focusing on the signs of absorption. At this point, absorption is carried away from the meditation cushion and into the world.
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Granted, life’s responsibilities sometimes overwhelm our ability to stay focused inwardly. Our jobs require a certain amount of external engagement, sometimes for hours at a time.
For me, however, the above-described unfoldment has produced a level a saturation that, even when I am required to concentrate on a project or person in the work environment, the euphoria is always present. No, I don’t bust into uncontrollable giggles, nor do I run laughing down the hallways. There is, however, a constant depth of being that comes from ever-present bliss, joy and ecstasy. Then, in moments of respite, I’m able to hit the “off switch” and fall into deeper states of absorption, so that practice continues throughout the day.
It is on the walk to and from work, however, that this practice is most pleasant. It is a half-hour stroll through a quiet residential neighborhood in south Boulder, which means that there are plenty of Tibetan prayer flags, colorful gardens, flower-covered wooden decks, mothers riding bikes with young children (everyone snuggly tucked into their helmets and shin guards), squirrels, birds, kitty cats… and the occasional elderly gentleman hobbling around the block with his knobby cane, raising a hand in greeting.
I will typically read a couple stanzas from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Dhammapada, then “look” into my mind, noticing how dark and empty it is (no laughing in the back row!!!!)… and then hit the “off switch,” which immediately brings forth a matrix of charismatic phenomena: divine sound, blissful sensations, warm glow around the third eye, euphoria up and down the spine, charismatic visual “enhancements” that bring clarity and depth to all the external influences around me. When a thought begins to bubble up, the nimittas crowd it out and jhana-infused silence floods back in.
After a block or two of this, everything becomes magnetic. People smile and wave. Passing drivers nod knowingly. Cats waddle across laws to be scratched under their chins. Or… nothing, just a sense of belonging, as though this moment is the one moment that always was and always will be. No improvement required, no goal to be reached, no skill be be developed, no world to be conquered. Just… perfect contenment.
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This is one small example of what it’s like after a few years of a lifetime commitment to rigorous and skillful meditation practice — practice that gives rise to bliss, joy and ecstasy. Such a lifetime commitment leads to saturation in meditative absorption, such that every moment of the contemplative’s life is filled with bliss, joy and ecstasy, which eradicates neuroses, leaving tranquility and equanimity in their wake. And… such a lifetime commitment to a rigorous and skillful meditation practice is never a chore, never something to dread or avoid… precisely because, by definition, a rigorous and skillful meditation practice gives rise to bliss, joy and ecstasy, such that the contemplative is always happy to return to the cushion… right up to the last moment of this earthly life.
I understand that it is normally considered unfashionable or even crass to speak of one’s practice experiences, especially when claims of attainment become a challenge or threat to spiritual authority. I receive well-meaning (and unsolicited) “counseling” from long-time spiritual travelers who, in friendly and gentle ways, strongly suggest that this sort of thing is not done — that we must submit to “masters” who will listen to us at the right time, under the right circumstances… or not, but such is the mystery of the teacher-student relationship… it’s for the best.
So be it.
While the gatekeepers are busy saying “Shush,” ecstatic contemplatives are dedicating their lives to a practice that brings divine energization to the spiritual path. While the religious nannies are screaming “Stop bringing schisms to the Sangha!,” ecstatic contemplatives are living the Dhamma originally described by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. In this sense, the Sangha died some 2,000 years ago… but the Dhamma is still here, alive as it ever was.
It is time to take it to the streets… and, in living every moment as homage to ecstatic contemplatives of the past, it is time to find ourselves in a true Sangha of ecstatic contemplatives who are free to follow the Buddhadhamma without interference from entrenched Authority.
May it be so!