In general, the place of practice within our life goes through a progression:
- Before we encounter the Dharma, we simply have our life. It is full of problems and our aspirations are generally to accomplish the things of this life (wealth, a good reputation, pleasant experiences, high position, etc.). We pursue these things, but never really find any satisfaction or meaning.
- We then find the Dharma, and at first we organize our practice around our life. Our normal life is first and foremost, and when we have spare time or capacity, we then engage in our practice. But it feels like our practice and our life are two different things. We continue like this and we gain some experience of the Dharma, it starts to solve some of our problems, we start to change our outlook, and we start to make the connection between how much we practice and how happy we are.
- We then organize our life around our practice. We realize that our practice is the way to solve our problems and to be happy. Doing our practice is as essential to our day as taking a shower or eating. Just as we clean and nourish our body, so too we need to clean and nourish our mind with our practice. We realize that our practice is actually the most important thing we do in our day and in our life, and that through it we can manage the rest of our life. But there still feels like there is a gap between our life and our practice. We practice to be able to survive in our life.
- We then make our practice our life. Here we make the central focus of what we do in our life to be directly doing practice related things. We directly engage in Dharma activities as the main activity of our life. This can take the form of working for a center, being a Resident Teacher, or generally working to help spread the Dharma. We see no point in worldly life and we make Dharma activities our life. This stage is still characterized by some grasping at inherently worldly life and inherently spiritual life, and so we reject the former and do the latter. Sometimes this stage is also combined with some pride in the ‘spiritual life’ we have chosen and we look down on those who are still doing worldly life.
- We then make our life our practice. Here we realize that all situations are equally empty, therefore all situations provide an equal opportunity to practice Dharma. We abandon the grasping at the distinction between worldly activities and spiritual activities. If we have a mind of practice, then everything we do becomes our practice; if we have a worldly mind, then everything we do becomes worldly. This is equally true regardless of whether our life is occupied with Dharma activities or with conventionally worldly activities. We realize that in the previous stage we were a bit tending towards the extreme of spirituality and as such were not ‘normal’. But we also realize that it was OK to be like that. But at this stage, the duality between our life and our practice is essentially gone. Everything we do in our life is our practice and our practice is everything we do in our life. The essential meaning of Dharma practice is to train our mind, and our life simply provides us with the external context for doing so. We realize we can simultaneously live a completely normal life and a completely spiritual life and there is no contradiction whatsoever between the two. This does not mean we necessarily abandon making Dharma activities the central activities of our life. It is perfectly possible for somebody to continue to directly engage in Dharma activities of teaching, working for centers, etc., as the main activity of their life, but they do so with a different mind and point of view. But some others might experience a rebalancing of the activities of their life where they more resemble the norm of what people do in this world (work, family, etc.).
- We then make our life our retreat. Amongst the modes of engaging in Dharma practices, retreat is the highest form. When we are on retreat, we leave all worldly activities completely behind and allow ourselves to focus exclusively on our practice. We stive to have 100% of our bodily, verbal and mental energies single pointedly focused on training our mind in the Dharma. Just as before we overcame the perceived duality between our life and our practice, on this stage we overcome the perceived duality between our practice and our retreat. Once again, since all situations are equally empty, with a “mind of retreat” every moment can equally be our retreat. All duality between our life, our practice and our retreat are completely dissolved and we feel directly and simultaneously: (1) our life is our practice of retreat, (2) our practice is our life of retreat, (3) our practice is our retreat of life, and (4) our retreat is our practice of life. Each one of these four recognitions are experienced simultaneously as different aspects of the same mind. This does not mean there will not be times when we engage in traditional retreat, rather it means that when we do so it will just be a different phase or iteration of one uninterrupted continuum of our life as retreat.