Why The Heart of Practice?
Why is the heart of practice important? Well it all depends on what you want. If you simply want knowledge of the works of the greats like Spinoza and Schopenhauer, then practice is irrelevant. However, if you have a quest for inner freedom then practice is everything. And don’t underestimate the term “inner freedom” because with it comes love and joy. Only a free person can love consciously.
In the Heart of Practice, understanding and practice are intimately linked. We only learn, really learn, by doing things, and understanding grows through practice. The other side of the coin is that practice is meaningless without understanding. Only through understanding can we acquire the persistence to carry on with practice when we would rather not.
In the words of Gurdjieff, a person can know a great deal but be incapable of doing anything, and on the other hand it is possible for a person to be able to do things but not know what is useful.
So, the heart of practice consists of understanding and the ability to do. As such there is a three-step process that is a highly condensed version of methods taken from various traditions, including zen, Gurdjieff and Spinoza.
Heart of Practice - Sense The Body
Oddly enough it is very common for people to have very little sense of their body, and for some people none at all. Since our attention is naturally drawn to external events and things, the act of moving the attention to our body requires effort and is against nature. All nature requires is that our attention serves the continued existence of the body and procreation – work, shelter, food, a mate, family, acquiring stuff, displays of power, and so on. We need to sense the body because this is where our emotions are held. If we are insensitive to our body, we will be unaware of our emotional state.
Extreme emotions make themselves known, but the subtle everyday emotional states and moods slide under the radar unless we become sensitive to bodily states. There is a well-known morning exercise that
goes back to Bodhidharma in the fifth century, and probably even before then.
Gurdjieff popularized it in the last century, but it is not new. At first this practice may seem difficult, but with persistence we become more able to sense the various parts of the body. This is a prerequisite for self-observation. We can only observe if there is something to observe. Without a good sense of the
body it is just too easy to fall into imagination.
Why Does Observation matter?
Self-observation is primarily an act of placing the attention on the body and assessing how it feels. We can also choose to observe thoughts, but this is less effective, and not least because we lie to ourselves. It is just too easy to pretend that we are all sweetness and light, when in reality we are a boiling pot of resentment. To get to know our real state we need to focus on the body. This will tell us what is real instead of what is imagined.
So having established the ability to sense the body we need to start taking snapshots of what is happening on a regular basis – several times a day if possible. So the act of observation goes like this. We sense the body and feel the tensions within it. Emotions are always held as tensions. Right now as I type this I can sense tension around my solar plexus. This is impatience, and the desire to produce this document as quickly as possible.
Observation as a tool
In Spinoza’s terminology it would be called ambition. In any case it needs to be stressed that recognition of an emotional state does not mean we should try and change it – that comes later. We need to acquire the skill of non-judgmental observation – simply sensing and acknowledging what is going on without any desire to change it. This is much more difficult than it sounds because we have decades of conditioning. Having been told that anger is a bad thing for example, we might be heavily programmed not to see it in the first place, and when seen to try and pretend we are not angry.
To observe without intervention is a priceless skill. It allows us to see the truth, and to achieve it we have to gradually drop a great deal of conditioning. Non-judgement or attempts at non-judgement
will bring our judgemental inner nature to the surface.
Most of us cannot do this kind of thing without outside help. We lie to ourselves and our inner censor means we often cannot see what is actually going on. Various
traditions might help here. A quality Gurdjieff group might help, although most Gurdjieff groups have no real knowledge. Western therapeutic methods might also
help, and particularly Gestalt.
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. – Proverbs, The Bible
The Heart of Practice is Understanding
Understanding is power. At the mundane level, understanding that thunder is not the anger of the Gods diminishes fear and dread. Understanding is the third part of the quest for greater inner freedom. We cannot observe if there is no sense of the body, and we cannot understand unless we have observational data to work with.
Simply reading books and listening to commentators might create knowledge, but it does not produce understanding.
We need to study how we work and see those dynamics in action if we are to gain understanding. This is where, in my opinion, Spinoza gives most clarity, although various other philosophers and sages have communicated insights too (Buddha, Schopenhauer). If you want to know what you are you need look no further than these great thinkers. We are desire.
Desire is everything you know
Spinoza states quite explicitly that “the essence of man is desire”, and the root of all desire is the desire to persist in our existence. There is a well-known quote that comes from Zen Buddhism that all our suffering comes from our desire to exist. It is saying the same thing. All your emotions derive from a single root – the desire to continue existing. If anything threatens your existence you will feel diminished in some way resulting in any number of “negative” emotions – fear, anxiety, hatred, envy, derision, despair and so on.
Similarly if things are going well you will experience “positive“emotions – joy, excitement, love, hope and so on. In reality all of these emotions are passive – they just happen – you are just a hostage to fortune, hoping for the positive and dreading the negative. What if we could create our own inner source of pleasure and joy – the inner freedom and strength to ride through the storms and the good times with equanimity?
This is what we can achieve through understanding. But a word of warning. The only road to heaven passes straight through Hell.