Brad Parks was one of the co-editors of the newsletter Creative Dharma. Brad gave this dharma prompt to the U.S. West Coast Piti Sangha online community in April 2022. The Piti Sangha is a collaboration of two reflective meditation communities, Sati Sangha and Pine Street Sangha.
Maybe you’ve noticed, as I occasionally do, that one of the meditation teachers or one of the members of our online sangha may mention something called ‘our approach’. This short phrase points toward what we’re doing together, each in our own way – i.e., something that has some commonality, some mutual resonance. It’s a bit mysterious.
What does it mean to have an ‘approach’, to be ‘approaching’ something in a particular way? What are the basic elements of that process?
The way we practice meditation during our time together is one ‘approach’ to meditation, even if each of us interprets and acts on that in an individual fashion. The individuality of our approach is one of its defining characteristics. We each orient ourselves in a particular way toward the half hour or so that we sit silently, together, our Zoom cameras and microphones turned off. In some fashion, we go inside. We make choices as we navigate that inner world.
We are explicitly encouraged to practice in the way that seems most appropriate at that point in time, to be receptive to what arises in experience and to approach the process in a way that is gentle and kind toward ourselves, that offers us permission to find our own way. We approach practice with a down-to-earth, pragmatic spirit. And we recognise that our life will enter our meditation and that our meditation will, at least sometimes, enter our lives.
Our approach values the process of listening. It’s almost as if we draw near to someone who is telling a particularly interesting story in a low whisper. We want to know how the story goes, so we sit quietly and listen. What we hear may evoke a range of feelings and thoughts and we allow a space for those to develop. We draw near with a certain amount of interest, some courage and even a bit of caution if necessary.
This sense that I am ‘drawing near’ to my interior world implies, oddly enough, that even my own thoughts and feelings can appear as something ‘over there’, as something not entirely my own, as something I can see or hear or touch. Sitting in meditation often involves a series of encounters in which I find myself approaching – or being approached by – my memories, my preoccupations, my fantasies, my plans. In other words, I discover that I am in relationship to the contents and the processes of my personal experience. I realize I am in the mix, that I am almost constantly responding to what arises in my awareness. Approaching my inner world, I orient myself. Questions often arise in this process, such as:
- What is the best approach to take?
- Should I focus on something in particular?
- Should I redirect my attention to another part of my experience?
Whatever has captured my attention – and it could be anything, either in my interior world or in the world around me, or both – often carries with it some uncertainty or some unknown dimensions. Do we really know anyone or anything fully and completely? Each approach holds the possibility of surprise.
In ‘our approach’, in this daily online meditation group, what are we approaching?
Most obviously, perhaps, we want to encounter the dharma – which also offers itself as something open and dynamic. In order to do that, we sit quietly, we allow as much space as possible for our experience to develop in its own way, we reflect after the mediation period on what has just happened and we share with others, through our own report or through listening to what others say in language we choose for ourselves. The dharma finds a natural home in this way. The dharma takes shape and form in reflection and as we listen to others.
In this context, in a very intimate way, what we are approaching is our own personal experience. In an almost paradoxical way, we are entering into our experience almost as a guest or a stranger who – although we are deeply acquainted with ourselves – can discover something new in old, familiar territory. We are drawing near to what is already nearer to us than anything else: our own experience. We approach ourselves.
An approach is not a fixed thing, something static. As we encounter someone or something more closely, our perceptions of them change and our responses shift in the process. These changes can be subtle or obvious, sudden or gradual. We are changed by what we approach and we can sometimes notice how each side of the equation conditions the other.
So, what is our point of departure? When I approach something, I always start somewhere. You might say, ‘Where is square one?’ Here, with ‘our approach’ to meditation practice, I look at what I bring to the task. For example:
- What are my expectations?
- Are hopes and fears present?
- What do I want to keep and what do I want to avoid?
- What role do my past experiences play?
- Is there something I want to accomplish?
None of these things are necessarily obstacles on the path. Much of our everyday experience embodies these very human impulses and currents. Sitting in meditation we encounter a range of challenging feelings and thoughts – we may, for example, need to avoid painful and unpleasant memories, we try to control the rushing flow of our associations and emotions, we direct harsh criticisms at our own views or actions, and we react defensively to the comments and observations of others. Often these feelings and thoughts approach us, unbidden, and we have no time to prepare to meet them.
But nothing is lost by learning to recognize and acknowledge our limitations, our confusions, our desires and frustrations, as well as our personal gifts and perspectives. When we are able to approach these aspects of ourselves with gentleness, kindness and even curiosity, we can ‘draw near’ and simply ‘be with’ what appears. At other times, when that is too much to ask, we can do whatever is necessary to create a sense of safety and balance. We learn, with practice, to trust ourselves. What may appear to us as hindrances or obstacles from one perspective can become resources for a deeper understanding.
One of the paradoxes of meditation practice is that we start where we are and that’s also where we arrive. That is, at least in part, ‘our approach’.