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Pondering daily practice

A central theme in our approach to tantra is “awake-awareness”.
One way of explaining this concept is being awake to what’s going on around you in the present moment, rather than becoming caught up in future fantasies or mulling over past events. A lot of our general practices aim at extending our capacity to be “awake-aware” and so can be done anywhere, as we go through our busy daily lives – rather than distinct practices that we set aside time for. We don’t make the distinction that you’ll find in a lot of western magic between magical v. mundane, spirit v. matter, lower v. higher, etc – we don’t compartmentalise different aspects of life that way – and quite a few of our exercises can be done anywhere, any time you have an odd moment, rather than having to set a special time aside. Whilst we do encourage people to try out various types of daily practices, we’re also very aware that people who have busy lives can’t always do this. So Tantra is not so much about pursuing a distinct set of practices but living one’s life in a particular way.

The idea of Awake-Awareness is related to the practice locating yourself in the immediate present – of not being continually pulled this way and that by worries about the past, the present or anticipation about what the future may bring. Of course, this is very difficult, as we tend to find ourselves caught up in all kinds of mental turmoil. This is natural. I find that it’s important for me not to beat myself up when I catch myself doing this, but to try and relax and just be aware of what’s in my immediate environment. If all else fails, I try and focus in on how I feel in my body. How I am sitting, how I am breathing, how my clothes feel against my skin. Closing my eyes momentarily may help. Our bodies are the best teachers in this regard – so this kind of practice is sometimes referred to as paying attention to the wisdom of one’s body.

Another thing which is central for me is the idea that we come closest to our sense of the gods’ presence (to the divine) when we experience wonder, joy, surprise. Any activity which cultivates those emotions is to be cultivated, from the apparently simple to the profound. In one sense, tantra is a way of living that allows a person to make joy and wonder the ground-state of their being.

Joy can be very simple. I often find moments of joy just walking to work along the bank of the Thames. In the play of sunlight in a puddle of water, the smile of a passing stranger, just feeling the wind buffeting me. Looking at a chart I’ve just spent the last hour or so redrawing and finding a quiet satisfaction. I’d say for me, part of Awake-Awareness is about being open to joy, wonder, and surprise from any direction. Again, this takes time to cultivate.

Many years ago, I used to teach relaxation exercises in a hospital. One of the first shocks I had to come to terms with was that many people just did not know how to ‘relax’ – it was an effort for them – they had no experience of the body sensation of relaxation. In modern culture, relaxation has become a form of ‘work’. It’s very difficult to simply “do nothing” – even if your body is not occupied then the mind is whirling away. So learning how to do nothing can be an ‘exercise’ in itself. I’ve spent hours just sitting under a tree, thinking of not much. If you consider that we are perpetually bombarded with the urge to be busy and doing things and going places (either physically, mentally or developmentally) – not doing things can be a magical practice. Of course this can be read as a recipie for laziness – many books on magic will tell you that you have to cultivate self-discipline and willpower – but why? Everywhere I look on the web there are people bemoaning the fact that they aren’t doing as much “daily practice” as they feel they should be doing. This looks to me like “spiritual-development-as-work”. Why not take a playful approach? In the past, I’ve occasionally said to people that I’m not seriously practicing – I’m just “playing around” (Lila – “play” and Lalita “the playful one” are quite central in my approach to tantra).

Again, a component of Awake-Awareness for me is not forcing myself into an artificial regime. I get enough regimentation at work, and don’t see any particular benefit in replicating that regimentation elsewhere in my life.

It’s very easy to get into a cycle of thinking “I must do a daily practice” and then, once the initial enthusiasm wears off, of just stopping and then beating yourself up for not keeping it up. I know this very well from my own experience of setting myself impossible schedules and then failing at them.

So, Questions: “Why do you “have” to do a daily practice?” Is it necessary? What do you hope to achieve?

It may be that “daily practice” isn’t really what you need right now. Maybe you need to rethink what constitutes a “daily practice” for you. Whilst we do reccomend various daily practices – I also think it’s important for people to find their own “beginning” as it were. If, for example, you find it difficult to sit still for any length of time, then a practice that involves lots of sitting still is going to be difficult. Again, a lot of our practices are things you can do anywhere, rather than having to set out a seperate time and place for them. Practice can be about cultivating particular attitudes – such as open-ness to joy and wonder in the world. Doing rituals, repeating mantras, meditating etc., are just aids to this process. Of course it is good to do a daily practice in the sense of doing a special exercise – but I think one has to be “ready” for that – to look forwards to it, to let it shape your day.

For me, things I try and do every day are:
* relaxing into the immediate present when I find myself getting caught up in mental whirlings
* paying attention to my immediate environment
* noticing how I’m breathing
* being open to wonder & joy
* being aware of my body

These are more like habits of mind rather than “special exercises”.

One comment

  1. Joakim Waern
    Posted January 2nd 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil,

    I see you´ve been having this blog for a while but I just discovered it. Glad to have you back!

    As always, your perspective on tantra and esoterics in general is fresh and enlightening.

    This post is a good reminder in times like this when self-development is on top of everyones’ agenda.

    Sometimes I get so lost in the plethora of available paths and practices that I forget the fundamental (and most important!) things you write about: Sensations, breathing, senses, environment and joy. Sat-cit-ānanda!

    Hope this finds you well.