The Most Important Muscle
I work a lot. This semester I took four grad-level courses and finished up a fifth incomplete I had left over from last fall. I worked twenty hours a week and dedicated at least ten to a student government that always seemed to be tripping over one vital project after another. I moved house twice, bought a car, raised a kitten, and then adopted a puppy.
So it’s no surprise that after the graduation cap came off and all the grades were in that I “checked out” for a little bit. I binge-watched half a dozen television seasons I’d missed out on in the past months of meetings and homework. I slept in, took the dog for walks, and went out to eat with my partner. I ignored my blog and I didn’t meditate at all. Not a single minute. I went to work each day, did my job, and didn’t read a lonely snippet of Dharma. In other words, I pretended to be “normal” for half a minute.
And over the last couple of weeks of my “vacation,” I’ve noticed my mind slowly shifting. I feel more irritable, less patient. More materialistic, less content. I resented my partner more and I wasn’t as understanding with the puppy. And I really didn’t like what my practice-free life was doing to my brain.
Sometimes we think learning the Dharma is like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget. But it’s not; it’s like exercising a muscle. If you don’t keep exercising, you’ll lose everything you’ve gained under the corrosive power of popular culture, habitual patterns, and evolutionary biology.
I decided it was time to check back in. So I did some research on training methods for stubborn that are more gentle and less reliant on brute force. I made time in my schedule to attend weekly sangha meetings and I found a local temple that offers half-day retreats several times a month and sent them an email. I unearthed my copy of In the Buddha’s Words from where it had gotten buried under textbooks and loaded Ajahn Geoff’s Dharma talks back onto my cell phone. I started meditating again, as I always do, but usually forget in a few days before trying again. Just from the realization and renewed commitment, I feel better, but only time will tell if I can whip this muscle back into shape. After all, it’s the most important muscle we have – the heart – and I let it atrophy while I checked out.
While I was checked out, I realized it’s easy to check out and forget about all that stuff. At the same time it makes life horribly difficult because of the suffering and chaos and uneven mind creates. The Buddha advocated the Middle Path, between the “easy” life of apathy and the strenuous path of asceticism. We don’t all have to be body builders, but we shouldn’t be couch potatoes either. Time to wake up and start exercising again.