Friday, July 2, 2010


My wife asked me an interesting question the other day - "How does your Zen practice affect your real life?"

Putting aside any Zennish navel-gazing about the meaning of "real" - I think we all know what she meant by the word - it is a fundamental question. No point doing it unless it has some positive affect.

To be honest, she asked because my job has been difficult for a while and so I've very much not been floating around smiling serenely like the Dalai Lama. Thus the only honest answer I could give was, "It makes me less of an arse than I would be without it."

What about you? How does your Zen practice affect your real life?


  1. Hi Michael,


    Back to the cushion with you... she asked you HOW it makes you less of an arse.



  2. Hi Michael

    In four years of practice, I've become calmer, more patient, more easy-going and my peception of the world and life itself has changed completely.

    For me the question is "how does my practice NOT affect my life?"

  3. Hi Pablo,

    Nice answer. My answer (when not going through white water at work) is very similar.

    Next question. (This is me just repeating my wife again!) How much of that would have just happened anyway as part of growing up?

  4. How should I know? I've just lived this life, and in this life, I've practiced Buddhism. Where's the point in wondering "what if...?"?

    But, if your/my wife became insistent, you could just show her photographs of renowned Buddhists to exemplify your case :D

  5. I feel that practice helped me to develop a more "down to earth" aproach to life and a calm attitude to many troubles.

    About Michael last question, I think that it's possible to see it as part of growing up. But I'm sure that practice is a growing acelerator.

  6. Yes, Hernan, that's the answer I gave too -"practice is a growing accelerator" - although you've perhaps put it more clearly than me.

    You know, when I'd posted this particular blog, part of the interest for me lay in comparing the replies to it with the replies to earlier blogs.

    Only two people have shown interest in discussing this issue about the fruits of practice, whereas posting on some high-powered philosophical question can induce a snowstorm of correspondence. Interesting.

  7. Pablo, you asked what's the point of trying to work out the extent to which practice is or is not responsible for progress.

    I'd like to suggest that this question is central to Buddhist practice. Buddha said somewhere (sorry - I did study this once but my memory's awful!) that we shouldn't trust his teachings, but should look at his suggestions, have a go at them, and then only continue practising those elements which we found beneficial.

    He was a scientist. He didn't just discuss asceticism - he tried it and then talked about it. He didn't just discuss meditation - he tried it and then talked about it. His laboritory was his own body/mind and my understanding is that he wanted us to treat ourselves the same way.

    Thus the way to honour the Buddha is to question the Buddha, to treat his advice like scientific theories we should test, not like religious truths we should unquestioningly accept.

    The way to question the Buddha is to experiment with his teachings, on ourselves - and to do that well, we need clean data.

    A few years back, Ronald Reagan won re-election using the slogan, "Are you better of now than you were four years ago?" Of course people were - we tend to earn more as we get older! But people thanked his policies and voted for him!

    It would be unscientific - and thus disresepctful to the Buddha - for Buddhists to apply the same lack of thinking when assessing their practice.

  8. Hi Michael,

    The most obvious effect (to me) of zazen is that I continue to do zazen every day, and I continue to stick at it with no clear or strong conviction other than it feels right. Theories about it and ideas about results come and go, and results themselves come and go. So I'm not sure we get the clear, simple, tidy 'answer' that maybe we expect to get... I think this is a well acknowledged aspect of Buddhist practice that may present a barrier to people.

    Other people have said that I have changed over the last several years, but I haven't particularly noticed it. At times I notice how I might react to situations differently, but it's not 'WHAM! I'm cured!' and so I don't really feel like claiming it as some sort of attainment or other... actually I can see how that sort of thinking brings its own problems, because effects really don't happen on my own quantifiable terms and to say that they do or have does not seem right.

    If Buddha really expects me to form some course, scientific, 'contain all' theory to explain what is always much more broad, fine and subtle than my own ideas then maybe he's not such a reasonable or realistic teacher after all!

    Of course, Buddha was not a scientist (I think that is an instance of revisionism and latter day rationalisation), although maybe it could be said that he was a sort of realistic reformer. I doubt scientists today would consider the Buddha's worldview very scientific (e.g. hell worlds, ghosts, heavens, gods, primitive cosmology etc etc etc).



  9. Hi Michael,
    I agree with your observation about the interest in discussing philosophical issues (or the lack of interest in practical questions).

    I was wondering the same some weeks ago and it seems to me a constant for many westerners interested in "eastern" ways.

    I guess that there is also some kind of pressure or political correction about that. In some buddhist forums if you talk about fruits you may be treated as having an ego-trip or like a loonie.

    Hi Harry,
    my own practice results also come and go. There are many situations where all this fruits are clearly gone to hell: Financial frustrations, separation, and many more. But anyway I feel that I have a bedrock that I have not before.

  10. For me, that was the burning question - is this practice going to help me in real life? I had tried several paths and they were not working out for me. With Zen, I started getting answers that made sense, I became less critical of people and a little bit more comfortable with uncertainty. I could start seeing the workings of mind. For me the restlessness and fear are the two biggest obstacles to living a happy life and Zen has helped in both those areas.

  11. I have always been very pragmatic about my Zen practice. If my practice did not affect my real life, I just wouldn’t do it. Say anything you want about Buddhism or Zen being a spiritual practice, to me it has always been about Real Life management. Every aspect of my life has been positively affected or influenced as direct results of my practice.

    As Michael pointed out, the Buddha was a scientist (sorry Harry) because he used the scientific method to reach and to teach what he learned from his own life experience. As a scientist myself, I am very careful about what I accept as true. I put everything to “the test” and if I find it doesn’t fit, or have a practical application or helps me to understand things more clearly, I toss it! Everything from pain management to interacting with strangers on the streets has been tried and tested by Miles Laboratories before being accepted and incorporated into my life.

    Because of this, there is no conflict between my practical life and my metaphysical worldview. Although I might find philosophical readings and discussions entertaining, they are purely mind candy and I recognize the difference between what is fun to talk about and what works in the world.

    As Harry stated “Theories about it and ideas about results come and go, and results themselves come and go.” This is because if we try to find a direct one-to-one correlation we are fooled by our own narrow interpretation of “results” but if we simply stick to our practice and apply the principles, we will find over time, that our practice affects everything in our lives. Other people notice this before we do because they are not looking for direct results, they are just observing and/or experiencing our behavior and notice it changing over time.

  12. Michael, I agree with you: we have to test Buddhism. For me, Buddhism has been great, and has changed my life for better. But if anyone asked me "Would you be less happy hadn't you started practising Buddhism?" I wouldn't know what to answer. Maybe yes, maybe no. What I know is that here, in this life, I've practised Buddhism, and that has helped me be happier than I was before.

    Harry, as for the "gradual change" that everyone else but us perceive, I like to think of it as a curve: if you were able to see each point of the curve, you wouldn't see any curvature between them (you could even think you are in a straight line!). It's only when you look at the whole that you realise there's a curve in there. We live between points, we don't see the curve, but there IS a curve. Other people know better because they look from the outside. It's like growing up: I've never noticed getting big, but the fact is that I'm way taller now than when I was five.

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  14. Would you stop your practice because it "doesn't work"? When does one know that practice is not working, knowing this is a life-long practice? And, what is the difference between "zen-practice" and "real life"? If we go around believing that "zen practice" is sitting cross-legged, or wearing black robes, or playing ninja, or writing haiku, or filling our mouths with bodhisattvas, Dogens, loving-kindness and koans and that "real life" is arguing with our wifes/husbands, getting up one more morning to go to that horrible job, being jealous, feeling loneliness... then we our practice is not real and our life is not zen; or life is not being practiced and zen is not real.

    Sometimes we sit and silence appears, we are carried away by something we cannot describe, dissappear in a flowing we don't know where it starts and where it ends. We sit and then get up with the knowledge and the certainty of the fruits of our practice. Then, next day we get up with a cancer, or our boss is still an asshole or we end up with our best friend's wife.

    Is it there where we stop practicing?

    Or we sit unable to follow the breath, our mind like butterflies flying from flower to flower, our energy low and diluted like wine mixed with water. Whether we are beginners, or experienced meditators, we feel like we are a complete waste and that even breathing is meaningless, that we will never reach any insight.

    Is it there we stop?

    There are for me two main activities in walking this path: falling and getting up. A real practice in this zen life makes both possible and realizable.

  15. David asks, when does one know that practice is not "working"?

    I'm a teacher. Yesterday my school term ended. In the past when term ended I used to take a week to crawl out of the pit, 10 days to become human.

    However, since Christmas 2008 I've ended each term by the very next day hosting a short shesshin. The result? I'm now out of the pit by the end of sesshin, human by the morning after.

    So how do I know that practice is "working"? I find it easy to be generous-hearted 36 hours after the end of term, rather than 240 hours after.

    Theology rarely offers such clear data - if any data at all!