Meditation: Preliminary Practice is Where the Action Is
It may not seem entirely true that all living beings wish to be enlightened, but few would deny that all living beings
want to be happy. In fact, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is written in our constitution. People may not
aspire for enlightenment, for that presupposes spirituality, which some may not be acquainted with, but regardless of
belief in God, Buddha, Christ, Allah, and other divine beings, everyone seeks to be happy. But, what is happiness?
As a young naïveté teen, I felt empty and unsure of myself, as I suppose many teens do, and I surmised that more
than likely my discontent would depart with my virginity. The problem was that my insecurities were not so easily
dissolved, and when I finally lost my virginity, my insecurities remained alive and well. What I thought was “it” wasn’t it,
and I felt more frustrated than ever.
I was in a terrible space because I placed all my bets on sex, and lost. Now what? Well, like any gambler, I bet on the
same horse and lost again and again. It took a while before I realized I wasn’t playing my hand very well, and that I
better place my bets elsewhere.
The problem with seeking happiness in things, people, and events, is that whatever happiness is found will be
dependent on those things, people, and events, and we will not stand on our own two feet. Moreover, and of vital
importance, the happiness we seek in dependent pursuits, are masked by those external realities. In other words, it
seems like the happiness that we are seeking will be bestowed upon us from an external source, but the truth of the
matter is that something deep within us is seeking affirmation, but we are misappropriating the calling from within to
an external source for completion.
If we take some time to put our happiness gauge on “successful” people it is likely we will notice that often
appearances don’t quite reveal, and often conceal, the happiness that might be deemed the rewards of success. In
fact, successful people are often miserable, because they are nagged by thoughts of dependency, just like a tripping
hippie might be nagged by the thought he had taken LSD or “shrooms” as he prances about all blissed out.
What we all want is happiness, alright, but non-dependency, as well. Deep down inside we all seek happiness that
overwhelms us from inside, a joy we can all sense, but can’t quite place our finger on.
It is no secret to those with an even rudimentary amount of scriptural study that happiness is found within. And, of
course, that is the last place mankind looks, and therefore we suffer so. We have perpetually lured away from every
attempt towards self-discovery by external attractions, that paradoxically grow stronger as we try to turn inward. The
Buddhists have a saying for this conundrum, “The Buddha grows a foot, and the demon is already ten feet tall.”
When I discovered sex wasn’t going to fill the hollow in my heart, and that more sex wouldn’t either, I decided to give
up on that and content myself with surfing, which indeed proved to be a temporary patch, but soon I found myself on
a Waikiki beach with a “for sale” sign on my board. I was done with the two Ss, and had to find a better way.
As the old saying goes, “When all else fails, follow instructions.” Most of us know all too well what the Buddha and our
great Hindu teachers taught, but we choose to do it “our” way. They say, “seek within,” and we do just the opposite.
But, a moment of recognition always comes, and it arrived there on my doorstep on Waikiki beach when I handed
over my surfboard and put a hundred bucks in my pocket. It was a hollow, lonely feeling. I felt as if I had stepped into
the void and slammed the door behind me.
It took some time for me to realize it, but my struggle to come to terms with the two Ss were really foundation work that
Buddhists call “Preliminary Practice.” Indeed, it may not unfold for everyone the same way, but the quest to remove
dependencies is common to all truth seekers. We are all torn by conflicting desires as we seek an entry point for our
spiritual quest. Even the Buddha had to decide to leave the wife and child he loved so much, and the comforts of his
palace, so that he could make an attempt to discover a path to enlightenment, and thankfully for us, he succeeded.
“Preliminary Practice” is generally defined in terms of prostrations, vows, reciting scripture and devotional hymns, and
adhering to a moral and ethical code of conduct and so forth. But, we are not all Buddhists or Hindu, and even those
of us who are may not necessarily follow the roadmap laid before us. But, we will all have to come to terms with our
outward seeking mind and rein it in if we wish to go beyond the obvious sources of happiness. It worked for the
Buddha and many others, and it can work for us. It is called renunciation, and there are many levels to explore, and
indeed, capacities of explorers.
There can be no conflict of interest, however, wishing to bathe in the fountain of ambrosia within, while drinking the
wine of intoxicating sensual pleasures and materialistic pursuits. A choice must be made and adhered to.
Christ said: “The Kingdom of God is within,” and the Buddha and many Hindu masters and others have said the same
thing. The problem is they can say it all they want, but we must find out for ourselves. And, we are not going to do it
by sitting in meditation without a foundation to sit on. Before meditation can be meaningful, we must prepare the
ground for meditation. For me, it was “so long women,” “goodbye surfboard,” and resisting replacing these outflows
with new ones as they lured me towards them.
There are many hooks dangling in the sea, cleverly disguised to fool even the smartest fish. But, fish get wise if they
are not caught first, and so do all of us swimming in samsara’s sea. We may flounder about getting baited here and
there, and may even have to escape a net or two, but sooner or later we are able to discern the real from the false.
Meditation may seem like a daily commitment for a half hour or so morning and evening, but the deeper we go into
that rabbit hole, the more likely we are to discover that the commitment meditation demands extends far beyond the
meditation cushion. The actual time of seated meditation may be brief, but if it is going to be effective, it will
undoubtedly look for support in every aspect of our lives.
Preliminary practice is primarily concerned with reducing our outflows. “Outflows” are different for each of us and that
is why there are “no fixed dharmas,” as the Buddhist saying goes. It is a very subjective assessment that each of us
must make because what is an outflow for me, may not be for someone else. Therefore, there cannot be a “don’t do
this” and “don’t do that.” Nothing is fixed. We must observe our own mind and discover where we have a leak, and
plug it up before it sinks our ship.
A yoga teacher in LA frequently reminded us in class, “where the eye goes, the mind flows,” to help us keep our
attention on our mat and subdue our mind distracted by all the beautiful people. In his own way he was talking about
“outflows,” a term coined by monastics and usually referring to any “outflows” of the mind through the five sense
doors --- eye, ear, feeling (touch) and so forth that lead us to be unnecessarily entangled in desires. “Outflows” have
many undesirable consequences, obesity, licentious behavior, general distraction, greed, in general, sense desire
run amok, a complete loss of control.
Renunciation is a scary word for it recalls images of deprivation, and so forth. But, renunciation is also closely
associated with preliminary practice, and it certainly doesn’t necessarily entail deprivation; maybe discipline, but not
deprivation. We can all explore renunciation without hardship. And, the same is true of preliminary practice. As
mentioned above, “wishing to bathe in the fountain of ambrosia within, while drinking the wine of intoxicating sensual
pleasures and materialistic pursuits,” demands that we make a choice, and the choice will be finding a “Middle Way.”
Practicing renunciation is closely associated with balancing our desires. If we push too hard, we will not be in the race
long, so our “outflows” should not be “blocked” but rather harnessed. We should control our desires rather than give
them up. If there are some desires that must be given up, controlling them gradually will lead us to that point.
Blocking them will not.
The entire path of Tantra, by the way, is founded on the principle of control, rather than blocking. All desire is
essentially energy and wherever energy is blocked it is of no use. But, when energy is controlled, it is harnessed, and
when it is harnessed, it can be transformed as we wish. This is the way renunciation is properly engaged in. Nothing
is gotten rid of, but only transformed.
Meditation is nourished by a lifestyle that supports it, and doing otherwise will only create stress and duality. Although
it may be called preliminary practice, it is really a lifelong journey and commitment to ourselves to fulfill our wish to
become truly happy.