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Function over form

Lately I've been running into a dilemma that is familiar to many modern meditators: should I do exactly as the teacher tells me? What if I think I know better? Can I vary the practice according to my own experience and intuition, or is that the kind of spiritual hubris that will land me in a Buddhist hell realm for my next seven lifetimes? And should I really be debating this right now, when I'm sat on my cushion, supposedly meditating?


This problem has surely always been there - the Buddha himself went through a couple of teachers before finding his own path in meditation, which took him to full Awakening. But it must have intensified recently, with modern travel and communications. Once upon a time, the only access to spiritual knowledge was from the nearest teacher, and the traditions of other regions and countries were unknown. The average 12th century Tibetan Buddhist might not even have known that Chinese Cha'an Buddhism existed. Whereas now, all the teachings of the wisdom traditions are available on demand, with a few taps on a touchscreen. Which is glorious but also bewildering: we hop from tradition to tradition, teacher to teacher, sampling what they have to offer, looking for just the right fit, but often ending up confused.


And amidst the profusion of practices and advice, there is of course varying advice on how to handle the profusion of practices and advice. Some teachers say you must do it this way, because it is the only way that works. Others say that many ways work, that you must find the one that works for you, but that once you find the one for you, you should stick to it faithfully. Still others give you carte blanche to do whatever you want - only you can know what works for you, they say, and you need to be continually applying your intelligence and discernment to that question, rather than surrendering it to the teacher.


So what, amidst all this confusion, is the serious but unenlightened meditator to do?


The answer, I have been persuaded, is that it depends upon your level of experience, but that if you have a decent amount of experience in these matters, you need to take charge of your own practice, moment by moment, whatever the teacher may say.


There is a key idea here which should inform every aspect of your spiritual practice, and in fact also your life. And it is this: Function Over Form. It is the idea that what matters is not exactly what you are doing, but why you are doing it. Because there are usually multiple ways to achieve a desired outcome, and different ones will be optimal for different people at different times. What is suboptimal is to get hung up on one particular way of doing things because this is how we do it or this is what some great enlightened being said, and so on and so forth.


In a way, this is an obvious and commonsensical principle, but it's amazing how often we lose track of it, in spiritual practice and in life. Take psychotherapy, for instance, which is where it first came to my attention. There are many debates, at the micro- and the macro-level, that are beautifully resolved by its application.


Should you explore the client's past or stay in the present? Should you teach them to challenge their thoughts or observe them mindfully? Is it good or bad if they're engaging in this or that particular behaviour? And the answer, of course, is: it depends. It depends on why you or they are doing this or that particular thing, and on what the effect is. So, if your client is dwelling on the past in order to avoid facing the present, and you are going along with it because you are too conflict-averse to challenge them on it, then that's not helpful. If, on the other hand, they want to stay in the present because they don't want to face the past, and you are going along with it because you also don't like facing your past and so have developed a view that talking about the past is a waste of time, then that's not helpful. The question should always be: what is the function of this behaviour? Is it taking us where we want to go?


This might sound familiar to those of you who are fans of ACT and its undergirding philosophy: functional contextualism. And that is indeed where I got it. But I suspect it's not a coincidence that this kind of pragmatism is also a deep Buddhist principle, because ACT is profoundly influenced by the non-dual spiritual traditions, Buddhism among them. Within Buddhist texts, you'll find injunctions not to get hung up on particular methods, or on rights and rituals. You'll find the doctrine of uppaya, or skillful means - the idea that many methods may be employed, if they get the job done. And, perhaps most fundamentally, you'll find the notion that the karmic significance of any action is decided by the intention with which it is done, not by the character of the action itself. So, again: Function Over Form.


In day-to-day spiritual practice, this means that your job is to be clear about what you are trying to achieve, and then to think seriously about how best to achieve it. So, don't hop about randomly from technique to technique with no particular reason for doing so, other than that your mind is agitated and you get bored quickly. But equally, don't do things just because the teacher said so. Because everyone is different, and the teacher's advice, inevitably, is based partly on their own experience, which will not generalise perfectly to you, partly on some average of what they see in their students, which, again, will not fit perfectly for you, and perhaps also partly on dogma, which should not be sniffed at entirely (more on that in a future post) but should not be the final word. As the Buddha himself famously said in his Discourse to the Kalamas (presumably a tribe, rather than Mr and Mrs Kalama): "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and you own common sense."


So far, so good. But, again, this applies only if you have enough experience to understand what you're trying to do and assess the available methods for achieving it. If you are a relative newcomer to any field, you would do best to follow faithfully the map you have been given, or to listen to your guide. If you don't yet fully understand why you have been asked to focus on your breath, then think twice before deciding that this morning you fancy doing an advanced visualisation practice that you found on YouTube. In time, your understanding will develop, you'll understand why the teacher suggested focussing on the breath, and you might be able to make an informed decision that there's another method that is going to work better for you to achieve the same end.


And, again, there's an analogy with therapy. When you start out, you will probably want detailed guidance from your supervisor. And, depending on what kind of therapy you are doing, you might want a manual that lays out exactly what to do, session-by-session and almost minute-by-minute. But as you get more familiar with the territory covered by these maps, you'll be more able to deviate from the path laid out for you - you'll understand how the different pieces of the therapy fit together and you'll be able to use them in a more flexible way, in response to the demands of the moment. As you become a better skier, you'll be better able to go off-piste.


But there is, of course, a caveat to all this, because it can be hard to tell where you are on this trajectory from inexperience to expertise - to decide when you are ready to start ignoring your teacher. I might think I know what I'm doing, but I don't know what I don't know. My teacher might look at what I'm doing and, from his lofty vantage point, see clearly that I'm hopelessly deluded and lost. I might sound like my 4-year-old does when he insists he knows better than me. So, the doubts must remain, and there's no way to ever be sure that you're doing the right thing. But for now, I'm happy to prostrate myself before the ancient and profound principle of: Function Over Form.

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