A particular turning point in my own practice came through listening to a dharma talk by Rob Burbea. This talk was the inspiration for me to contact him. In time he became my teacher.
The talk was called “In Praise of Restlessness”. It’s part of a three talk series that I recommend frequently in most any course I teach. Within the three talks he explores the possibility of separating the “mythos” of a given path of practice from the practices themselves. So setting aside the images of what an advanced practitioner of a given path looks like for one thing. I loved Theravada inspired insight meditation practices, yet had a good deal of trouble envisioning myself as a placid renunciate type of person. He points to the fact that the four noble truths can be seen as a kind of skeleton, onto which a wide range of ideas, goals, and values can be hung. So these talks encouraged a broadening of how one might conceive of dharma practice, opening up the possibility to make space for a range of conceptions of the path (or more importantly one’s own conception of the path) to seep into one’s framing of what practice can be.
The key thought for me that came up in “In Praise of Restlessness” was the possibility of conceiving of the Dharma as art. Not the art of something. Just art. In the ways that art cannot be defined in a singular definition, so might one conceive of the Dharma. It can reveal a range of useful, beautiful, important things to us – but how it does so cannot be placed within a formula. It’s always larger than the sum of its parts somehow. Rob ends the talk by saying “…I think art will always be beyond whatever definitions human beings try to make of art. People say, “Art is about self-expression. It’s about expression of your feelings. It’s about creating something that’s pleasing to the eye or the ear. It’s about aesthetics. It’s about this or that.” It will always be bigger. There’s something about art that will always be bigger than the human being’s narrow definitions, or the human being’s proposed purposes. Always bigger than the proposed purposes. Dharma as art, always something bigger. What is the purpose? I cannot box it in.”
This idea allowed for a kind of fullness of commitment to my own meditative practice – something there in the expansiveness of view of how Dharma could be held resonated with the parts of me who for many years committed very fully to an artist’s path. I recognized a certain kind of truth for myself: this possibility to conceive of the path of practice as not other than art. The intentions for each fell into alignment – to open, to reveal, to sanctify. Both art and dharma explored without the need to eliminate the presence of the mysterious, the unknowable. Like art, it freed my Dharma practice of the demand to only fulfill goals that could be fully articulated.
There is a pattern I can see present retrospectively for myself within my years of Dharma practice, and I recognize it often in the words of others as they speak of their own practices. The habit of continually updating one’s understanding of what the Dharma is “really about”. To prefer a singular understanding, while discarding previous ones. “Now I get it – now I can understand what teacher X is describing, and can see that my previous study was only provisional”. The mind has a tendency to want to “get it right” once and for all, and this tendency results in a constant (often agitated) narrow re-visioning of what one is doing. It feels truer to me now, and certainly more easeful, to try to simply appreciate the different facets of what can open through practice.
So, I remain forever grateful for the many different ways the path of practice has benefitted me. Liberating wisdom that has reduced suffering. Healing that has come from seeing from a purely self-centered perspective. Transcendent perceptions that have freed me from the pursuit of the mirage of a singular, optimal way to hold this life. All of these things, and more, I heard described in presentations of the path – all valuable, all beautiful. But it was in appreciating that the Dharma itself might be seen as bigger, wider, more mysterious than given articulation of it that I became fully enthralled with it.
Beauty, mystery, meaningfulness – these things necessarily bleed beyond the borders of any given definition. Part of the beauty, for me, in exploring the intersection of art practice and meditative or dharma practice, has come from the dissolution of the boundary between the two. No longer feeling art is over here, spiritual practice is over there. When they can be held together, both are freed to deepen in radical ways.