Practice as a Conversation

As I sat quietly in my cabin on the hillside at Hui Ho’olana, looking out over the beautiful landscape, the vast sky, and seemingly endless expanse of ocean, I waited patiently for an idea to come. I was sitting with this question: “How can I weave various forms of meditation, embodied mindfulness practices, the challenges and gifts of living closely in community, and the study of the Buddhist precepts into a coherent and vibrant fabric?” I wanted each of these practice areas to come alive in relation to each other in our upcoming retreat. I wanted the retreat participants to engage each practice area fully and to do so in a way that would naturally reveal the relationship among all the practices. I wanted to invite a way to enter each practice as a conversation. Here is a brief overview of the essential conversations I encouraged.

Our first conversation is always with the body and breath. This reflects the first foundation of mindfulness taught by the Buddha and it is an essential part the ground of contemplative practice. Without a firm grounding in the body, the transformational potential of true practice cannot emerge.

The next conversation is with the heart and mind. These are classic areas of mindful study and meditation—thoughts and feelings. With some gentle relaxation and focus, we begin to cultivate a way to witness the endless progression of thoughts and feelings generated by our body/mind. Our hearts open and close like a flower following the sun of connection, subtly and continuously responding to the ever-changing landscape of relationships.

During the course of living and practicing together for a week we naturally engage in verbal conversations with each other—ordinary human conversations. However, when we bring mindful attention to these conversations, attending to our impact as well as our intentions, we learn more and more about ourselves and each other. It is here that we begin to “wake up to what we do,” the descriptive phrase that is the heart of Diane Rizzetto’s book on the precepts used in the retreat (Waking Up to What You Do).

If you have spent any time in Hawaii, you realize that what we commonly think of as the “inside and outside” are not completely separate. Living very simply and in constant contact with the elements demands an ongoing conversation with nature. Nature can’t be avoided at Hui Ho’olana and it encourages a beautiful conversation and a rhythm that is quite different from the ones we typically engage in city life.

Finally, or maybe most fully, there is the conversation with Mystery. On the island of Molokai this energy is called “Mother Molokai,” a powerful, feminine, embracing energy. But the True Mystery, by whatever name, is all around us all the time. We are never apart from the mystery though we may not notice it and we may not be intimate with it. Meditation, embodied practices, living close to nature and to each other, slowly begin to reveal the Mystery in all of its ordinary, everyday splendor.

We find powerful and perplexing conversations at the center of traditional Zen training. The old teaching stories (koans) of our ancestors are a peculiar form of conversation between students and teachers, between a sole practitioner and the natural world, or within the hearts and minds of dedicated practitioners struggling to come to terms with the “great matter of birth and death.” Peter Herschock calls these encounters “communicative crises” in which our conduct is challenged and shaped by the conversations in which we engage. This is a place where the precepts and meditation meet, in the conversation that illuminates our conduct—waking up to what we do. Herschock says that awakening can be seen as “a qualitatively unique way of conducting ourselves in the narrative space of interpersonality.” (Liberating Intimacy, p. 63) Suzuki Roshi said it this way: “Technically speaking there are no enlightened people; only enlightened activity.” How we act in the world is our most public conversation.

The wonderful poet David Whyte speaks of “courageous conversations.” He posits that our lives require such conversations and call them courageous because they are the conversations we don’t want to have. Spiritual practices invite and encourage courageous conversations with ourselves, with others, and with the Mystery. He says, “Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation.” (Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 6)

Of course, these ways we engage in Inquiry is clearly a form of courageous conversation. By coming together to relate to Truth we create a lively, generous, and nourishing communicative crises. These are the kinds of crises in which our habitual ways of being in the world are shaken loose so we have the potential to embody and express something more authentic and free.