Most Buddhists throughout history weren’t regular meditators. Today, many consider meditation to be the main if not the only Buddhist practice with any point. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that meditation, bhavana, mental cultivation, is incredibly helpful. Meditation, however, is just preparation for the most important practice in Buddhism — the practice we do in our normal everyday lives.
Anicca, dukkha, anatta. Impermanence, dissatisfaction, and the lack of an essential nature in anything are the three marks of existence. Every thought and feeling in our minds, every event that happens to us, every situation we find ourselves in — all can be interpreted through these three characteristics. By relentlessly applying them, we slowly and gingerly pry ourselves loose from all phenomena. Not to reject them, but to untangle ourselves from them. We don’t deny anything, we don’t identify with anything, we accept everything as it is — not that everything is right or good, but that it is what is happening now. We work on removing our preconceptions, our hopes, our fears, and our expectations from our perception of things.
We guard our senses. We take care that the endless variety of sensations streaming into our awareness doesn’t overwhelm our mindfulness. We watch for our attention heedlessly reaching out and getting mixed up in the endless chaos of samsara. We renounce our lazy identification with and mindless reliance on the things of this world. These reflexive actions bind us tightly to the things that cause us stress.
We practice looking at our own situation as if it were happening to someone else, and looking at other’s situations as if they were happening to us. Every situation is temporary, but as Chogyam Trungpa says, every situation is workable, workable for the purposes of our practice.
There is nothing in this world that can provide us with permanent satisfaction or relief.
When we feel happiness or sadness, it’s exactly the same happiness and sadness that others feel. There isn’t my feeling that’s different from your feeling, there is just feeling.
Constantly applying the teachings to normal everyday life is how we really learn how they work. Eventually we realize that everything that happens to us is Dharma practice. Our lives are the practice. Meditation is still important of course. Meditation supports our life practice, and meditating during tough times can bring the strongest insights.
Reading about Buddhist principles isn’t enough. Here’s how Ajahn Chah puts it. This is from an interview in BuddhaNet Magazine (http://www.buddhanet.net/bodhiny2.htm):
Q: Is it advisable to read a lot or study the scriptures as a part of practice?
Answer (Ajahn Chah): The Dhamma of the Buddha is not found in books. If you want to really see for yourself what the Buddha was talking about, you don’t need to bother with books. Watch your own mind. Examine to see how feelings come and go, how thoughts come and go. don’t be attached to anything. Just be mindful of whatever there is to see. This is the way to the truths of the Buddha. Be natural. Everything you do in your life here is a chance to practise. It is all Dhamma. When you do your chores, try to be mindful. If you are emptying a spittoon or cleaning a toilet, don’t feel you are doing it as a favour for anyone else. There is Dhamma in emptying spittoons. Don’t feel you are practising only when sitting still, cross-legged. Some of you have complained that there is not enough time to meditate. Is there enough time to breathe? This is your meditation: mindfulness, naturalness in whatever you do.