One month a year members of the Zen Center San Diego and Santa Rosa Zen Group participate in Practice Period. This is a period of practice intensification using techniques designed to engender a more awakened life.
At any point in our practice, we may find we've lost track of the broad view of the function of practice. Whether we’re in the rather blind honeymoon phase, or in a dry spot where our interest in waking up seems to have gone dormant, we always need to raise the questions, “What’s the point of practice? Is practice clear? Do I assume I know what practice is, when perhaps a deeper look might be in order?”
Practice Period provides an opportunity to take a look at our current view of practice, and to renew our aspiration. It is a time devoted to re-prioritizing our commitment to practice – a commitment which is made more real by intensifying our practice in specific ways, both on and off the cushion.
As we observe ourselves over and over, it becomes painfully apparent how little time we are actually awake. We come to realize how much of the time we’re lost in whatever we’re doing, or totally believing our thoughts as truth, or mechanically acting out of our conditioning, which includes all of our emotional reactivity.
We also come to realize that we can’t stop doing these things simply because we want to. It takes a certain kind of effort, plus an almost dogged perseverance, to gradually counteract the seemingly relentless force of our habitual patterns and mechanicalness. A Practice Period is a means of setting up special conditions within which the kind of effort needed can be specifically cultivated.
One way to cultivate this kind of effort is to deepen your commitment to practicing by intensifying the amount of time you prioritize for formal practice. As a minimum, participants are asked to sit each and every day for the entire month, for at least 30 minutes. If you already sit daily, you can consider sitting twice daily.
Another way to intensify and clarify your practice is to look at where there is a gap in your current understanding, for example, what dubious ideals you add to practice, or what you have declared is off-limits in practice, such as thought labeling, particular situations, etc. Writing down where you see a gap in your practice, and how specifically to address it, will help you to clarify what you’re doing.
You can also intensify Practice Period by setting up a practice menu, where each day you choose a different specific practice to focus on. For example, on a specific day, you might choose the practice of saying “yes” to fear – which means to remember to invite fear in, to reside in it physically, instead of our normal response of trying to push it away or avoid it. Other guidelines for intensifying practice are listed on the Practice Period Guidelines. But you need not limit yourself to these suggestions; the point is to find specific ways to help make practice a more central orientation in your life. Consult with a teacher if you have questions about how to work with menus.
Whatever particular practices we choose from, they are all meant to do one thing: to make being awake the central theme of our day, in very specific ways. We can also include some pattern interrupts, such as refraining from sweets, TV, coffee – whatever attachments are strong – as reminders to return to awareness of the present moment. As all of this is added to the intensified and more committed sitting schedule of Practice Period, we can find a renewed enthusiasm for practice.
All of this can be seen as an experiment – an experiment in ways to create interruptions to our self-centered dream, an experiment in prioritizing the practice of awareness as the central orientation of our daily lives, an experiment in ways to intensify our commitment to waking up -–waking up to the reality that all of us seek.