Why We Practice

In my first years of meditation practice, I went to a Zen center where every so often someone would give a talk called Way Seeking Mind, telling how they came to practice.  Many Buddhists say simply, and accurately, that people begin meditating because they’re suffering, but it’s usually more complex than that.  Way Seeking Mind is often a story about the elements of people’s characters that pulled them, almost magnetically, to a life centered around meditation and Buddhist principles.  

Last Sunday I told my story at Alameda Sangha.  I called the dharma talk, “Why We Practice.”  The powerful parts of the talk happened before and after I gave it, appropriately.  The exercise of Way Seeking Mind is mostly about the speaker preparing for the talk, spending time with their own history and deepest values to find the magnets that pulled them to practice.

I had to start with my agnostic parents dropping us four kids off every week for several hours of Sunday school and church.  They were always in a better mood when they picked us back up.  I was the only child who absorbed any spirituality from this experience.  The devotional nature of Christianity gave me a break from wearying self-interest, and opened another dimension to life.

By my teens, I had a strong desire to help others, and took part in the Civil Rights Movement and resistance to the Vietnam War, while working on my city’s Safety Council and writing columns in the local paper.  My interest in religion had branched out to philosophy and Buddhism.  Although I was drawn to teaching about spirituality, at that time both Christianity and Buddhism discriminated against women and denied us any significant leadership roles.

Once I’d gone to law school, most of my activism was on the boards of non-profits working for women and the GLBTQ community.  If it weren’t that so much of my early social life was in lesbian bars, I may not have found my way to meditation, one of the steps to recovery.  It came at a point in my life full of crises, including the onset of a neuro disease that ended my law career.  Suddenly I had plenty of time to explore my inner life and discuss spiritual ideas with others – if I could find interested people.

At the Zen Hospice Project I found everyone wanted to talk about those ideas, and apply them to helping people in a very immediate way, by being fully present and kind with the suffering of others.  It was a breakthrough for me, and it led me to begin teaching meditation to people in recovery, incarcerated women, and now several sanghas open to everyone.  As a teacher, I have the privilege of helping people review their practice and use it to make their lives better.  The deepest values that pulled me to practice have all been integrated in the way I am able to live now.

After I thanked the sangha for hearing me teach, I invited them to break into groups of 3 or 4 and tell their own Way Seeking Mind stories.  Usually suggesting break-out groups evokes at least a few groans, but everyone sought out their groups and seemed to have a great time sharing their history and what in them led to practice.  When I rang the bell to end the exercise, the buzz died slowly and people went back to their seats smiling.

This is a good talk to prepare, even if you don’t know who will listen.  In the process of preparing it, you’ll discover the significance and connections between elements of your nature that you may not have fully understood before.  And when you have a dharma buddy, this conversation will help develop your ability to support each other’s practice.  If you’re a meditator, then you have a way-seeking mind, and I wish you well in getting to know it better.

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