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The First Step of Buddhist Practice

Why does spiritual practice fail to change our lives consistently? Why do those means and methods that have successfully transformed many people’s destinies and enabled them to attain freedom and enlightenment never take effect on us? The answer probably lies in our excessive clinging to life. Consciously or subconsciously, every aspect of life—career, family, money, fame, and relationships—is of great significance to us. To make us feel secure, we want to keep all of them under control. Not only do we spend our time and energy on achieving this goal, but we also hope to boost our reassurance with spiritual practice. Regardless, life is like sand in our hands—the tighter we hold it, the quicker we lose it.

Spiritual practice loses its true purpose if it is only intended to fortify our egos and to give us extra assurance. The practice will become incoherent and distorted, unlikely to be rewarding in a life that is by nature impermanent. However, if we can loosen our clinging, take what comes to us more lightheartedly, and focus on practice itself, our lives will become better. True change will start to manifest itself, and we will get a first taste of freedom arising from detachment.

To learn to take it easy is therefore the first step of Buddhist practice. As we get used to tension and confrontation, we are always uptight about ourselves, others, and our environment. We do not like to live a life outside of our control, and the slightest sign of uncertainty is enough to make us restless. We keep ourselves busy and act like lifeguards, being in a state of constant vigilance and always anticipating disaster. Even if we take a physical rest, our mind remains unsettled between hope and fear. Many people even calculate to the point of being paranoid. When things go smoothly, we hope that the prospects remain rosy but we fear they will not. When things go wrong, we fear that they may get worse but we hope not. We cling to everything in life and intend to safeguard what we have. If under usual circumstances we are already neurotic, imagine how panicked we might be when encountering real misfortunes.

We live as if carrying a heavy stone on our head—whose weight can almost crush us—and the world dwindles to only problems. When we experience difficulties, we will perceive ourselves all the more as the world’s most unlucky and wretched person. This mental state of self-pity amplifies our sense of justification to blame, to criticize, and to take revenge. As we do so, we forget life in itself is changeable and somewhat chaotic, filled with joy and sorrow. To make it more orderly or predictable is simply a vain attempt even if we dedicate our entire life to it. Therefore, Buddhist practice is meant to help us learn loosening-up, drop confrontation, accept uncertainty, and live with complete openness. Some call this mental state “the great ease of the mind.”