The Perfect Time
There’s no handbook for living the dhutanga lifestyle – there’s just a list of 13 ascetic practices and centuries of praise for those who undertake them. But that’s not to say there are no guiding principles to be found. They just must be discovered as you go. Nothing about the holy life makes sense from a warm, cozy, comfortable living room. But when you are living it, the maxims of practice, technique and lifestyle arise spontaneously.
One maxim of dhutanga life is also very useful for meditation practice in general. When one sets an intention to depart for wandering at a certain time, that is generally when they should leave. A storm might roll in, or news come in of a particularly good offering coming the next day; a recently washed robe might still be damp or one could have failed to get any sleep the night before. Nevertheless, they depart at the chosen time – sometimes into rain, sometimes with an empty belly, sometimes without useful supplies.
It’s not stubborness, nor is it blind faith, though it may seem so to the outside observer. It’s easier to understand in the context of meditation. We do everything we can to try to get the perfect environment to sit. We get enough sleep and try to eat healthy. We find a quiet space and a comfortable cushion. We silence our phone and clear our schedule. Finally, we sit. But as the bugs start to buzz, and cars rush by, and the hot sun emerges or a cold wind blows – at some point we have to let go. We will never get things perfect, and even if we did it won’t stay that way for long.
When we are planning for a project or the beginning of a journey, it’s very natural to want to get the conditions right. But if we focus too heavily on the physical conditions and the basic materials, we may overlook the spiritual conditions which are possibly more essential to our success. Our vision, our aspiration, and our willingness to work through challenges – this is what we should be safeguarding. Without this, even if everything else was perfect, we are likely to fail.
I can remember vividly half a dozen instances of ‘Going Forth’ when every sign was that I should stop and wait. I can recall the puzzled faces of other monastics as I stepped out into the rain to begin a journey at the appointed hour rather than wait. But I have seen time and again how the skies part not long after, and how I meet the right people on the road, and how everything works out. The perfect circumstances still arise — the difference is that I’ve gone out to meet them on the road.
All of this is to say, I’m looking forward to next month’s Anapanasati retreat – the first retreat I’ll be able to offer in Massachusetts since I first wandered here six years ago. There is no facility yet, or plan for meals, or participants or honestly any reason to think it should work out. Yet there is a date, and an idea, and an intention, and the willingness to find a way. It should be fun.