Dharma practice is about how we live. For it to be relevant, it needs to show up in how we move through the world—in our relationships, in the choices we make, and in how we respond to the times we live in. If we only practice the Eightfold Path on our cushion or at the meditation center, it may remain an interesting and uplifting exercise but fall short of its true potential—the profound healing and transformation so sorely needed in our world today.
So how do we do this? How do we really make our life our practice?
Formal Dharma practice provides an exceptional foundation for investigating our hearts and minds just as they are in the real, messy experiences of our lives. Cultivating inner freedom is about being willing to turn towards these experiences, bring all of our wisdom and compassion to bear in how we meet them, and uncover something new.
To do this, we need to be completely honest with ourselves.
As a lay Buddhist, I find myself continually faced with powerful questions: What does it mean to have bonds of affection in a world characterized by change and loss? How do I live ethically in a global economy? What is a wise response when national leaders are unable to collaborate across the political divide for much-needed social, economic, and environmental changes?
To meet questions like this and take full responsibility for our lives—our actions and reactions, our emotions, views and suffering—we need to be able to do more than just observe mindfully. We need to understand, to engage with wisdom, and see what’s driving our experience. At the root, what is being touched in us that gives rise to this feeling or that reaction? For each experience, there is a point of contact in the heart where feelings and meanings meet and where reactivity coalesces when we do not see clearly.
To free the heart, we have to enter that space of reactivity and know it directly. We suffer because of our relationship with experience and with the things we value. When we bring an intimate attention to what matters most to us in any given situation and hold that place with tenderness, patience, and awareness, something shifts. A profound truth can be known.
For at the heart of Dharma practice lies our relationship with our own humanity—what it means to live in this sensitive body, ever vulnerable to an uncertain world, yet intricately bound to it for our most basic needs. The crux of the Buddha’s path rests upon our willingness to look deeply at the nature of our relationship with all experience—to investigate with ruthless honesty the range of joy and pain that arises at this point of contact where our heart meets the world.
This is where we wake up—where the world touches us. (“The world” includes our thoughts, feelings and perceptions.) The places we suffer, wishing things were different, are the very places that release into great freedom and energy when met with steady, empathic awareness.
Buddhist teachings on impermanence, suffering, and nonattachment are often misinterpreted to mean cutting ourselves off—not caring fully about others, the world, or our own human needs.
Yet the wisdom that accompanies the heart’s release is something much richer than what is implied in a word like “letting go” or “acceptance.” It is a subtle understanding that has space for the full range of being human.