Integrating practice in daily life
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
A common worry that arises in the beginning of practice is how to best integrate it within one's life and circumstances.
There are certain boundaries that proper practice requires. The discourses are absolutely crystal clear on the fact that without a good moral conduct, there is no practice. This usually takes the form of following the five training precepts (non-killing, non-stealing, no sexual abuse, non lying, and avoid intoxicants). From time to time, the eight precepts (AN 8.41) might be a good challenge to work with.
Take a moment to appreciate how counterintuitive this might be for someone who expects meditation practice to be all about 'consciousness' and 'mind' and 'inner world' etc. No, it doesn't start there, it starts from you moving around in the world, interacting with others, and hence realizing the need of becoming aware of the intentions behind your actions, so to ensure to remain as harmless as possible towards all other beings, and create some safe space for those around you.
But assuming that one takes up this moral training, precepts are mainly negative or proscriptive, they draw attention to what one should abandon, leaving freedom to experiment with the rest. And the rest is huge. Here is where the problem of integrating practice in daily life becomes more apparent.
On a superficial level, it might be just a matter of finding the suitable daily routine or schedule, in order to ensure that there is enough time in one's day for formal practice, but also for not having to engage with activities and situations that will most likely lead to lose track of practice or break the precepts.
But at a deeper level, this is still not enough. One does not begin from a certain neutral state, with equal opportunities for moving towards greater or lesser freedom. From the point of view of the discourses, the ordinary (yet) untrained person begins from a relative lack of freedom and trains for becoming freer. This means that one begins practice full of attachments and clinging and cravings. The Buddha is skillful in advising that letting go should work in steps, as if one was climbing a ladder: 'by relying on this, abandon that' (cf. MN 137).
Integrating practice in daily life requires reflecting on what are the most relevant forces in one's life, the most important activities or goals that one is currently pursuing. Then, one needs to rank them depending on how consistent they are (or might become) with the goals of practice itself (in order to make this assessment, the Buddha provided a useful checklist, cf. AN 8.53). The most inconsistent, those that clash most directly with practice, needs to be abandoned first. But the least inconsistent, the most supportive of practice, can become a resource. By letting these activities or goals merge with practice, find support in it, and create a synergy with it, practice itself will gain strength and will be consolidated, until the difference between what is practice and what is non-practice will vanish, and everything will merge in just the same endeavor.
But what happens then of what were our life-long passions, our most important goals and aspiration? They will be purified. The core essence in virtue of which they were cherished and recognized to be so important will be retained, but their grosser and more circumstantial aspects will be dropped. Like a scent extracted from a flower, which can be preserved independently from the flower and its inevitable decay.