Choosing One Path

February 1, 2012   |   25 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

The other day, I received an email from a member of the OHP who was wondering about continuing to do shamatha meditation (the practice we do together) while also participating in a local Zen center’s introductory course. The Zen center had requested of its students to forego other practices during this training. But this student enjoys both practices. She loves getting the OHP newsletters and practicing with my instruction. But she also felt drawn to Zazen and was appreciative of finding any place in her small town that would offer personal instruction. What to do? Should she abandon one practice for the other? Which one should she choose? Could she study at the Zen center but secretly continue to practice shamatha? Choose those elements from each tradition that felt most potent and combine them into her own personal meditation style?

This is such an awesome topic. I have two different answers: one for those who like to take it one step at a time and another one for those who want to fast track it. Both approaches have merit. I know which one is for me. How about you?

Answer #1 is to check out all sorts of meditation practices. Experiment. Dabble. See if you like the practice you are being taught and, as important, the culture that surrounds it. For example, in most Zen centers, the practice is very, very precise (as it ought to be) and the atmosphere tends to be austere, bare bones, stripped down. Simplicity is the order of the day. Gorgeous stillness. When in doubt, remove an accessory. Profound minimalism that is also very, very earthy and real. The community may hold as its highest values sharpness of mind and heart, brevity, incisive teachings, and good humor. What’s not to love? If you are already drawn to such an aesthetic, you would immediately feel at home and know: this is the place for me. Similarly, if you are frightened of such an aesthetic because you tend to be all over the place and have little idea how to apply clean, crisp edges to your outer and inner environments, you may look around and go: This is so not me. This is exactly what I need.

On the other end of the spectrum stylistically would be someplace like the Shambhala Buddhist community I practice in, which is a Tibetan tradition. (Most Zen centers in the West tend to be associated with Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese orders.) Our practice absolutely focuses on precision, just as Zazen does, but there is also emphasis right from the start on spaciousness. The community may hold as its highest values sharpness of mind and heart, bravery, curiosity, and good humor.Perhaps because of this, our meditation instruction is not as strict as it is in Zazen—which simply means that if your foot falls asleep during Zazen, tough noogies. Sit with it. Hang in. Not aggressively, but with a continuous sense of softening and accepting. If your foot falls asleep in a Shambhala center, wiggle your toes for a moment until it goes away. It is perfectly acceptable. Just do it mindfully. That said, the two practices are way more similar than they are dissimilar. The environments, however, are quite different. In Zen centers, most often the décor is black, white, and gray. In Tibetan centers, there is a lot more plumage, a lot more display. You will see gold and orange and red and purple and blue. There will be dramatic iconography on the walls, depicting deities who sway, gesticulate, or growl. There will be beings with two faces and many arms who may ride on tigers or bare their genitals. The emphasis is not so much on stripping away everything non-essential in order to find stillness, but is more on relaxing (without preference) within the extraordinary and vast display of the phenomenal world—and thus finding stillness. If you enjoy a rich and varied environment, you may feel right at home here. But if, like me, you are the kind of person who is already wrapped a bit too tight, you may look around and go: This is so not me. This is exactly what I need.

So answer #1 is all about checking things out, seeing how you feel, and trying to figure out if the point of a particular tradition is what appeals to you, or the counterpoint. Take your time. Give all (reputable) traditions a shot—until you know.

A few very important caveats to go along with answer #1:

Only go to meditation centers that are based in lineages that are older than, oh, TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS. Seriously. No made-up practices. Yeah that’s right, I’m calling you out, new age bullshit.

Pay close attention to your heart (or gut) reaction to a particular place. Do you feel happy there? Do you feel a sense of “these are my people?” Do the dharma talks make you go, “I have so wanted to know that, only I didn’t know it until right this second?” Do you look at the senior teachers and think, yes, I would really like to have what they’re having? The way you feel about (or in) a particular environment is at least as important as what you think, know, or read about it.

Don’t make shit up. This is a very important one and I’m sorry to have to rely to cussing to make my point. If you go to a Zen center and they say, “please only do our practice while studying with us,” then do so. If you go to a Vipassana center and they say, “we practice with our eyes closed,” close your eyes. If you go to a Shambhala Center and they say, “we practice with eyes opened,” open your eyes. Don’t embellish or diminish in any way the technique. As best you can, follow it to the letter. Don’t mix ‘n match.

OK, now for answer #2. I will confess, this is the answer I chose but in no way am I saying it’s for everyone.

Answer #2 is to find yourself exposed to a tradition that you know is the wisest, most brilliant, tender-hearted, and utterly challenging path you have ever heard of (and beyond) and commit to it wholeheartedly on the spot even though everyone thinks you may be crazy. That’s what I did in 1995 and I can honestly say I have not had a moment of doubt or regret since that time. Good karma. I have no idea why. Just lucky, I guess.

If you choose the fast track, everything in your life will, well, speed up. There will be less of a sense of 2 steps forward, 9 steps back and so on. I’m not saying it will speed up in a good or bad way, just that your particular karma will ripen as if the great eastern sun suddenly rose up in the sky, stopped right out side your bedroom window and hung there, bigger and brighter than a thousand suns.

There is only one caveat for answer #2: It has to be the right path. For you.

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  • Posted by:  Collin

    Great question, awesome answer and the best part is the explanation! Wonderfully put to allow space for the options. I’ll stick with #1 until one practice becomes #2.


    • Posted by:  Susan

      Cheers, Collin!!

  • Posted by:  Eddie

    I see no reason to muddy the water by checking out something else and wouldn’t know how to evaluate another method anyway.
    For me it’s the KISS principle.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Sounds good to me.

  • Posted by:  Sue Lesser

    Hi Susan,
    I am so glad someone asked this question. It has kind of paralyzed me, in that I have been reading books and meditating the way you suggest, and I really like the books that follow the Shambhala tradition, but I have not gone to the center here in Seattle because I am reluctant to find out that it may not feel quite right. I think what you said, about going forward, and just trying an approach with an open heart is just what I needed to hear. It will be ok and I will learn something from the experience and by moving out of my comfort zone it will push me into something wonderful.
    I really appreciate the work that you do, your honesty and openness to all of us out here that you don’t know, and yet care about. Thank you!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Sue, yes, just give it a try. You have nothing to lose!

      BTW, I recently spent a week at the Seattle center (in a teacher training program) and the community seemed just lovely.

      xo S

  • Posted by:  Chime Nangchen

    Tashi Delek Susan,
    I look forwards to your teachings and find myself playing the audio version over and over and it gives me a sense of peace and stillness. In 1995 I went to India to live in a Buddhist monastery. To make a long story short…while living with a Rinpoche in Nepal ( all the monks go to Nepal over the summer as it is so hot and miserable in India) I met and married my husband who was a Tibetan monk in our lineage (Drikung Kagyu). I hesitated to come back to the states as I knew the collage of dharma centers that faced us. For that reason we stay pretty much to ourselves, living near our Rinpoche who came to the states just after we did. I am so glad to hear you talk about the new-age ” every body is a lama” , reiki, American Indian, magic, you name it conglomeration of Western Dharma centers. I see it ruin and disappoint so many beginning Buddhists and it makes me sad knowing that it doesn’t have to be that way. Thank you again for your style, your centered-ness, and your willing-ness to put your experience to work for anyone who is willing to give it a try. From Chimey Nangchen

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Chimey Nangchen, hello. How fortunate you are to live near your Rinpoche. And yes, there is bound to be a crazy collision as the ancient wisdom of Tibet seeks to plant itself in our soil. Still, it is so worthwhile, even with all the nutty new age stuff about how to speed up enlightenment and so forth.

      It is all still so new for us! Those of us fortunate enough to have found our teacher are in a position to be very helpful, I think.

      Thank you so much for your kind words about The Open Heart Project. It has brought me so much joy. Warmly, Susan

  • Posted by:  Michelle

    Thank you Susan. I have received instruction in all of the above and I love you all! I appreciate this thoughtful commentary on the subject.

    • Posted by:  Susan


  • Posted by:  Karen Talavera

    When it comes to spiritual practice, yes I think a single path or method is important for consistency. A “cafeteria plan” approach doesn’t lend itself to regular practice or can result in a start-stop pattern to the point the acceleration and ripening you so aptly describe never gets underway. No consistency = no traction = no growth/deepening.

    When it comes to beliefs and knowledge, well, that’s a lifelong classroom ultimately taught by direct experience. Since becoming spiritually aware and engaging in regular practice, while I’ve seen my own beliefs evolve, I can’t say they’ve really changed direction. No about-faces or anything. I say pick a philosophy and learn enough about it to see if it rings true for you, then live it long enough to be sure.

    Although I first came to spirituality and meditation through self-inquiry (Ramana Maharshi tradition), I ultimately believe the journey is personal and don’t “follow” a specific lineage, religion, sect, etc. (Frankly I think they all have more in common than they do differences and even focusing on differences is missing the whole point of non-dualism). I do what works for me and will until it doesn’t anymore. In my experience, the truest, most beneficial things are always the simplest. If I stick to that guiding rule I’m never steered wrong.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Wise word. Thanks, Karen.

  • Posted by:  Karen Wan

    Dear Susan,
    I can see from your presence in the videos and your writing that following a particular lineage has been very wise and beneficial for you. In my view, you are a spiritual innovator with these videos, which made me pause at some of your remarks today.
    For me, the idea of choosing one path is something that I have struggled to understand all of my life from my own tradition (Christianity) to many others. It’s just recently that I’ve given myself permission to honor my own pathless path and my sometimes made up spiritual practices.
    Some of these practices most likely would place me into the New Age camp. Yet, I suspect that some of my practices are older than any spiritual lineage, because they are based on connecting with the natural world, which we see in the seemingly shamanic images in cave paintings and petroglyphs of our ancient ancestors. Somewhere along the line, someone made up spiritual practices, and I agree with you that the refinement of those practices has strengthened meditation and yoga practices particularly. I just have a problem believing that only old and refined (often patriarchal) spiritual practices are ones that should be practiced and honored. I’d like to believe we are still evolving as human beings and finding new ways of becoming wise, peaceful and compassionate. Yet, the fruit of a spiritual practice is what matters most, and clearly your meditation practice serves you well.
    While I personally can’t embrace the idea of following one lineage to practice meditation, I do appreciate that doing so is helpful for many people. So, thank you for sharing your lineage and allowing some of us to tag along on a journey of increased understanding, and giving us the opportunity to share our feedback.

    • Posted by:  Jeremy

      Just popping in to let you know that your words resonate strongly with me. I too have struggled with my tradition (Judaism in my case) and have, as you say, only recently given myself permission to “honor my own pathless path.” If I am somehow sacrificing some higher level of enlightenment this way, so be it. Being present with my Self and others, aiming for deep authenticity, with the intention of being as giving and compassionate a human being as I can be– that’s my path at this point. I have struggled too long with prescriptive religious practices (do it this way and please not that way) to believe that a commitment to one particular path is my destiny in this lifetime, however obviously well this may serve others. And yes, many times over: I too believe we are still evolving and still “finding new ways of becoming wise, peaceful, and compassionate.” Thank you very much for articulating what you did here.

      • Posted by:  Susan

        Karen and Jeremy, I respect the way you each approach the idea of path. You are both doing what I believe we all should–figuring it out for yourselves.

        Yes, as you say Karen, somewhere along the line someone made up spiritual practices. I’m not saying that just because something is old, it is necessarily good. I’m saying that there is tremendous wisdom in our midst that we can learn from. The quest that we are on has been undertaken by countless individuals. We can learn from them. There are methods and paths that have been taken over and over and over–and people have left behind a record of what works and what doesn’t. We don’t have to “agree” with it, but we can at least contemplate it.

        My observation is that when we find new ways of becoming wise, peaceful, and compassionate, they are innovations on existing technologies. It’s all there already.

        We don’t discover the highest wisdom through reading, though–we discover it through experience, through having a practice that is ever-deepening and, as important, a view that is constantly being refined.

        These two–practice and view–are what help us along the path. Practice without view (meaning meditating without thinking or studying or contemplating our own minds) is a false refuge. View without practice (meaning reading and taking workshops and thinking about stuff–but never doing any meditation) is a conceptual endeavor.

        As far as I can tell (and this is from experience, not doctrine), having a single practice (that is honorable and good) is what enables us to comprehend the view beyond concept. Then a synergy arises between practice and view and our path develops its own momentum. But without a foundation in repetitive practice (whichever one you choose), we end up moving sideways.

        These are merely my thoughts. I would be so interested to hear yours! It is quite possible that I am full of s*&t, so please don’t take anything I’m saying too seriously.

        With love, S

  • Posted by:  Jen Erickson

    I was baptized and raised Episcopalian. The language of the Church didn’t make sense to me. I took a psychological approach to “why does life suck so much” in my 20s and became a counselor in my 30s. Psychology and Buddhism are so friendly, and the latter invites me beyond what I think I know about the former.

    Reading anything Buddhist felt eerily familiar from the beginning. I kept all the magic a secret for a few years because, maybe like the Seattle woman, I was afraid I’d find out the community was a bunch of wackos. Finally, thank you Susan, I gave Shambhala Training a try, and BAM, I found home. I do want what the senior teachers have, and I LOVE what an nerd-among-nerds I feel like when I know exactly what they’re saying (ooh ooh ooh pick me!!) and I say the exact opposite of it when I open my mouth 🙂

    Point is, it can be paradoxical (scary funny or funny scary) to follow one path because – perhaps unlike New Age or purely motivational approaches – as I delve, I find ever more subtle yuck as well as yum. Shambhala is ok with my confusion (and courage) through it all. There is no point at which this lineage bottoms out or quits me. In the teachings and community, I find endless wisdom, delight, and confidence. I have not experienced that anywhere else.

    For those who try different views on for size, I say, like Hancock, “Good Job.” When the heart races or cracks in response to some view, it’s a clue – for some to run and preserve themselves, and others to stay and soften. I’m staying.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Me too, Jen! Your sister in yuck and yum, S

      PS What fun to read your writing.

  • Posted by:  Kerry

    Wow! This has been really “food for thought” for me, and honestly, I don’t know which path I would take. My belief that either path is a struggle, but rather than trying to find a path without a struggle, I try to be content in struggle. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but somehow when I get there it makes sense to me.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Kerry, I think your approach is spot on. “Content in struggle” is so great!!

  • Posted by:  Clara

    When I started reading/learning about Buddhism, I remember being regularly exhilarated because so much of what I was reading made such good sense to me and resonated so deeply. Now, nearly two years later, I continue to study, practice meditation (on my own and with my sangha) and I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been.

    I was brought up a Roman Catholic, and though I haven’t been a ‘practicing’ Catholic for years, it’s a deeply ingrained tradition and I never hesitated to respond “Catholic” when someone asked me my religion.

    I don’t feel conflicted on those days when I meditate before the Buddha on my altar in the morning, then find myself praying to or thanking God in the afternoon. Buddha was/is not a god so there’s no need to feel as if I’m dividing my loyalties.

    I’m still learning about Buddhism and suspect that I will want to commit formally at some point. Whether or not that happens, I want to be as informed as possible. (What’s ironic about this is that right now I probably know more about Buddhism than I ever knew about Roman Catholicism 😉 ). If and when I make a formal commitment, I likely won’t refer to myself as a Catholic anymore, but I can’t imagine that this will affect my belief in or my views about God. What I realized early in my exploration is that my dissatisfaction was never with God per se but with how some forms of organized religion had represented God.

    Thanks for engaging us in this dialogue, Susan.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Ciara, how lovely to learn a little more about your path. It sounds like you are in a great spot. I admire your openness and courage! xo S

  • Posted by:  Jeremy

    I highly doubt you are full of s*&t! 🙂 And I completely agree with you on the need for what you are here calling “practice and view.” I don’t think that lacking the rigor of one particular path, however, means that one can’t, still, have both practice and view. I understand what you’re saying about synergy but I think a lot of that comes down to discipline and fortitude. I can see why some people– maybe most people?– seem to require an established external authority to assure that the discipline and fortitude persist but I truly don’t think the single-path way is the only to live and practice and contemplate with discipline and fortitude.

    Some of us, in any case, are so wounded by our over-active super-egos that the only way we are going to break through to any sense of inner Peace is going to be down the path of our own authority. Our own authority informed, of course, by the experience and words and practices of many other people. I sort of agree when you say it’s “all there already.” But for some of us, it’s the taking of an ‘existing technology’ and finding the unique way it sings and resonates with and through our own unique body/mind that gives it its weight, power, and efficacy. That is what I mean by “our own authority.”

    I think what’s worth remembering about the fact that any given spiritual practice was at some point “made up” by someone is the concurrent fact that typically therefore the practice was initially born as one individual’s way of seeking/accessing Spirit. I have to believe that the initial inspiration wasn’t “I must teach this to one and all!” but, simply, “This is how I get there.” At the time of their invention, such spiritual practices were created by individuals “merely” following their own authority.

    Another thing to remember is that the Western world has brought an emphasis on the Individual to an ancient world that was more focused, culturally, on the collective, particularly in the East. Personally, I believe the Individual and the Collective energies are worth integrating, in a yin-yang kind of way. But we are still relatively in the early stages of this, historically speaking. It’s only in the last 100 years or so that individuals, in any significant number, have been empowered and advancing beyond mere survival mode to begin to investigate what the power-of-the-individual might yet bring to religion tradition and practices that were founded largely in a culture entirely focused on the collective.

    And yikes, sorry to go on and on. I tried to edit this a bit but this was the best I could do!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      No need to edit! None!

      You are so right when you say “some of us are so wounded by our over-active super-egos that the only way we are going to break through to any sense of inner Peace is going to be down the path of our own authority.”

      Yes. And although it is purely academic to say so, my guess would be: up to a point. Because at some point, we are each going to come up against things within ourselves that we cannot get beyond. I say this because my experience is that my ego-identity is so large and preposterous that I cannot see around it. I cannot see through myself. I cannot relinquish my illusory views.

      Mirrors are required. The path itself is a mirror, perhaps above all else. And when you discover you’ve hit a wall on your path, it is hard to then turn to a teacher and teachings and say, OK, now I need you. It helps if you have tread the path together for some time already–not from the very, very beginning when we each need to establish our independence of thought, but later when, independently, we reach the conclusion that our own wisdom is not enough. And at the same time, it is the only thing we can rely on.

      I’m just saying that it becomes confusing and, especially for those of us who are not going to walk away from our lives to dwell in caves and spend 24 hours a day in practice, some support is good. Very good. Crucial, in fact. And why not turn to the deepest wisdom you can?

      I imagine that this–the inability (at some point) to see beyond your own neurosis–applies to people of all cultures, in all times. East, West, ancient, modern, we’re all wrapped quite tightly in our own ego-goo. If we’re lucky enough to find a path that speaks loud and clear and, beyond that, a teacher we trust, it is then possible to take a leap into what lies beyond our knowing.

      I went on and on! And I could go on and on more. So much of this topic borders on WEIRD, but there is just no way around it.

      Enjoying the dialog–S

  • Posted by:  Jeremy

    Lord knows I understand about “things within ourselves that we cannot get beyond.” And it’s interesting. You talk of this in the context of an “ego-identity…so large and preposterous” that you “cannot see around it.” I on the other hand came of age and into adulthood with an ego-identity so small and hidden it did not want to take up any space at all. Doubtless somewhere deep inside was a regular ego, in psychological terms. But whereas you say you cannot see around yourself or through yourself, I have had the issue of not being able to see myself at all. What I couldn’t seem to get beyond was not my self but my apparent lack of self.

    I grew up Jewish, as previously noted. I went through a typical rejection of faith-of-origin as a teenager and young adult. Right on target, at the outset of my midlife ‘transition,’ I found myself intrigued and moving back towards Judaism, thanks to a very engaging spiritual leader at my synagogue. I got back into practices and prayers and found a community of people who were interested in the same thing. I remained pretty involved for the better part of five years. And what ultimately pushed me away was the unavoidably prescriptive nature of the practice and the prayer. There was a way to do it, and, quite literally stated, a way not to do it. I stayed long enough to focus me on what felt True; and then, with that awareness, I felt less and less at home there.

    I came to realize during this time that the moments when I felt closest to Spirit, closest to the Greater Self that always seeks to be awakening within, never happened in association with any of the practice or prayer I was “supposed” to be doing. It happened ‘on my own time,’ as it were. It could well be my time there helped me get to this awareness but it is also very true that since leaving, I feel wholer and more authentic and more compassionate and more peaceful and more open to Life than I did when struggling to fit in.

    And absolutely agreed, support is crucial. I just don’t feel it from the one-path mode. I surely have it in a variety of ways, however. As previously noted, I understand that in so declaring, I may be cutting myself off from the deepest available spiritual experience known to humankind. But I feel not only fully satisfied but more entirely Alive in the process of finding my own path. Call me a neo-Transcendentalist, or some such thing. Ever, in my own fashion, seeking to take that leap into what lies beyond our knowing. And I completely endorse and applaud your commitment. We are surely similarly motivated.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Jeremy, sorry it took me a while to respond. Have been away teaching in snowy Colorado. It is clear that you are firmly on your one path, the path that can only work for you. I completely endorse and applaud your commitment. Indeed, we are similarly motivated.

      I have really enjoyed this conversation. Please keep me posted.

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