I recently sat down to list (ostensibly for the mindfulness group I’ve been developing on campus) what kind of obstacles we can experience in our practice. As I was putting these down it quickly became apparent that these are nothing but my own challenges to practice. All of them. Persistently. Hence, the list became an inventory of obstacles to my own practice, and a good way to look deeply at the same.
I thought they also made sense as obstacles to a progressive Buddhism, or as I prefer, to a “zen humanism.” I offer them here as an initial foray for us to contemplate and expand, and repost.
Basic Obstacles/Challenges to Practice
- Either/Or Thinking: This kind of polarization is particularly unhelpful as I often come across folks who repeat things like, “a good practice HAS to be like this,” or who make claims about “Buddhism” or what being “Buddhist” is or is not. In any case, a practice marked by either/or thinking would seem to be pretty limiting for exploring the self and for transforming suffering. A progressive engaged Buddhism might also conceive of this as a need to be explicitly self-conscious about its own assumptions.
- Fear of Truth: This refers to the fear of facing the insight that emerges from deep looking. Often this fear becomes so intense that the insight from practice is distorted in order to make it fit with one’s own cherished assumptions. Discomfort with what we face about ourselves is unavoidable. A progressive Buddhism must welcome bracing insight about its own assumptions, beliefs, and claims.
- Seeing Only What We Expect or Have Learned to See: The tyranny of assumptions and expectations that are unacknowledged, or that we have been conditioned to expect, is enormous. A progressive Buddhism must look deeply to challenge attachments to “the old country,” or this or that master, or particular practice.
- Intolerance for Change, Not Knowing, and Uncertainty: Nothing kills a practice like holding on with a death grip to long-held assumptions, not being willing to say “I don’t know,” or needing to be certain about everything. A progressive Buddhism needs to exemplify skillful harmony between affirmation and epistemic agnosticism.
- Overclassification, Categorization: Attempting to fit everything into boxes and easy categorization systems as a way to make sense of them. This is the way human beings work, but we ought to consider that easy categorization does not wisdom render and immediately imposes a narrowing of circumference. When we engage in simple categorization we stand to engage in two fallacies: the fallacy of composition (taking the part for the whole), and the fallacy of division (taking the whole for the part).
- Seeking Control, Being Dominant: Some folks and groups need to be dominant, to control, and to assert themselves or their beliefs. Seen from another perspective this translates into inability to be receptive and non-controlling. A progressive Buddhism need not be “top dog” neither in cultural wars nor among other “Buddhist” groups, even as it shares its understanding and/or insight.
- Need to Conform: The counterpart of seeking control, the need to conform translates often into playing it safe, and not challenging ourselves or the information we encounter. A progressive Buddhism ought to blaze new paths and not be afraid to confront challenges.
- Over-Respect for Authority: For individuals this refers to being too much of a follower, and unwillingness to question “authority.” The balance that must be struck is between reification of the self on one hand, and being too compliant and submissive on the other. We must remain open to wisdom and insight from various sources, while seeking to ground wisdom in light of our own practice. A progressive Buddhism can find wisdom in venerated masters, but must also carefully look broadly at other sources of wisdom and challenge “authority.”
- Need to Challenge Authority: The counterpart to over-respect for authority, the need to confront and fight authority or the knowledge of others can be quite a detriment because it usually means a reduced circle of wisdom sources, and a “too healthy” belief in ourselves. A progressive Buddhism must challenge authority but not just for fighting authority’s sake.
- Eschewing Tradition: This refers to the easy dismissal of tradition and the seeking of thrills or the “new.” In short, we must be careful not to fall for the “latest and greatest” craze as it might signal fetishization and faddishness rather than open-ness to new ways of being. A progressive Buddhism needs a connection to tradition(s) as a way to form and solidify fellowship, while remaining unfettered by over-respect for the authority of the “traditional.”