The Edge of Transformation: Wrestling with the Transition from Knowing to Doing

Theory to practice in Buddhism

“Just jump in! The water feels exhilarating”, my best friends shouted up at me as I eyed the chilly surface of the water. I finally jumped in, and my friends were right. Looking out from the 50-degree water the world appeared a little different. Not just because I had done something that my body protested against, but also because we were all now experiencing something together. Our relationships changed ever so slightly because we now had this shared experience of jumping in cold water. That’s the difference between theory and doing!

I was chatting with a fellow meditator after our Saturday morning meditation, and he said he was trying to re-engage his daily meditation practice – aren’t we all! We talked about how “easy” the intellectual part of Buddhism is for us to get into and how the experience part of Buddhism is a bit more challenging.

Even though both of us have had glimpses of emptiness or liberation during meditation it’s still difficult to sit on the mat every day.

We agreed that studying the theory of Buddhism was a much more linear path and it was simpler to ruminate on the ideas of Buddhism than to attempt to experience them for yourself. We also agreed that it’s the experiences that lead to long lasting changes, but experience is a fuzzier path of progress. It’s like the difference between my friends jumping in the water and then telling me about it versus me jumping in for myself.

The Struggle of Practice: From Theory to Reality

I have struggled/wondered why it can be so hard to do what I know is correct and good for me, my family, and the world. Let’s take what to eat for example. I know what I should be eating, but it’s extremely difficult to adhere to that day in and day out. Even though I know and can see the consequences of not taking care of my diet, I still more often than not choose to eat in a way that is not ideal.

I feel like this is similar to the teachings of Buddha. On an intellectual level I know that the teachings of Buddhism are good and true, but I struggle to act like it.

It’s like the teachings of Buddha lead you to the edge of the water, but getting in is scary. I think it’s scary because I cling onto my current way of life (I want to keep eating the Oreos!) and I’m fearful of what may happen if I actually start behaving like we believe what Buddha teaches. Will I give everything up and retreat to the woods?

Many societies “tell” us to pursue wealth and fame and to “make something of our lives”, yet when people who have attained those goals are asked about the money and the fame, they routinely state that money and fame do not bring happiness. So why do I/we still raise money and fame up on a pedestal as worthy goals to spend so much time trying to achieve those things?

On the other hand, serious followers of Buddha routinely tell us that indeed they are happier. Full enlightenment or not, practitioners are on the path to eliminating suffering.

We should listen to those who have a lifestyle of wealth and leisure and their warning that those things do not bring happiness – we should take that seriously.

It should be a relatively simple question to answer, do you follow the path of pursuing wealth and fame where even when attained you are almost guaranteed to still have suffering? Or the path of the Way set out by Buddha that removes suffering?

Facing Fear: The Edge of Transformation

It’s ironic that I fear what would happen if I leapt into the water because Buddha and millions of others swimming around saying, “Come on in! The water is exhilarating!” I stubbornly stand at the edge of the water looking and thinking and ultimately decide not to jump.

It’s amazing how strongly I cling to “dry” life out of the water because usually that is the experience I’m trying to become liberated from! Our own worst enemy I suppose.

So, if I’m not ready to jump in, how do I begin to dip my toe in the water? I believe the path laid out is meditation. Meditation is a way to explore the teachings and confirm their veracity. With meditation I’m exposed to feelings and experiences that are longer lasting and stronger than simply reading and nodding in agreement. Perhaps the experiences and insights I gain during meditation will inch me closer to taking the plunge.

For me, the biggest obstacle is giving myself time to sit and meditate. It’s easy to come up with all the excuses, so what are some ways to cultivate this practice?

So far in my experience, having others around me that are also interested in meditation helps a lot. We can support each other’s practice and lean on one another when we slip. I think that’s one of the reasons Buddha placed the concept of community as one of the three pillars of Buddhism (the sangha). An accountability buddy is really what I’m talking about.

Another useful tool to be able to explore Buddha’s teaching is to remember that anything you are doing is an opportunity to be mindful and practice meditation. I find myself able to tap into this more and more. The beauty of this technique is that it removes the excuse of “I don’t have the time” because anything you are doing can be the focus of meditation. This doesn’t mean you’re giving your child a bath with your eyes closed, rather it means you are mindfully bathing your child. In particular I find anger to be a great teacher. When I feel anger or annoyance arise because it is so strong it is easier to observe and all the more gratifying to watch it dissipate!

What does it even mean to behave as if you take the teachings of Buddha seriously?

Practicing meditation and Buddhism in the mountains

In short, I see this as embodying the core ideas of impermanence, emptiness (the absence of independent selves, co-dependent arising), and liberation (from suffering) embedded in everything I do. If you truly approach the world with these core ideas, you would dramatically your experience. For example, seeing the world through the eyes of “emptiness” would result in extreme compassion and concern for everything because everything is a part of the whole. You are not a discrete entity but an edgeless part of the whole. Hurting someone would only hurt yourself. Similarly, eating animals creates fear and suffering in the whole and we should strive to eliminate those actions.

Ultimately, living according to these core ideas as experienced truth leads to a state free from suffering and promotes the well-being of all things, which is essentially the essence of Buddhism. This doesn’t mean that suffering stops. Events that cause suffering will still occur, but an enlightened person will not perceive or experience suffering the way a non-enlightened person would. Suffering will be recontextualized in light of impermanence, emptiness, and liberation and will no longer hold a “suffering” quality.

The most painful of losses, the loss of a child or loved one, will be rounded out and no longer bring such suffering because the one who died has simply continued on in the connected co-dependence of the everything. Their death is part of the arising of the next moment and part of the flowing change of the whole. Accepting this doesn’t mean one didn’t care about the child, of course we care for each other, but it changes the way we see death. Instead of an end we can see death is a continuation of the flow that contributes to the next moment.

The Benefits of Practice

Often, I liken some of Buddha’s teachings to superpower. For example, the ability to observe your mind and realize that thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, are all impermanent allows me to let negative thoughts pass by without reacting. I’m not able to do this 100% of the time, but I’m getting better and can easily see the benefit of going through life with this insight.

Considering all the amazing benefits of diving in, why is it so difficult to take the plunge? Why do I cling to the same experience of the world I’m trying to liberate myself from?

I don’t have a great answer at this point other than fear of what life is like if I get in the water. At this stage in my journey, I’ll trust the process outlined by Buddha and work on becoming more consistent in my meditation practice and keep wiggling my toes closer to the edge of the water.