Friday December 15, 2006


One way that I have been thinking about my meditation practice recently – and about life in general – has been in terms of reconciliation. In an earlier post on Russell Hoban, I wrote about making friends with your own head, and Christy left a comment which expanded this to the idea of making friends with life. What I like about these kinds of approaches to life and to practice is that they overcome the human tendency to imagine that behind the world there lies some big secret, and that our job is to somehow root out this secret.

I don’t think it is like this. I don’t think that practice is about understanding the world if this understanding means cracking the secret of existence. There is no reason to assume that there is a secret, nor to assume that we could have any access to it. If we turn to the early Buddhist texts at least, it seems that many of the central truths about which they speak – impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality, even emptiness – are in fact quite ordinary. They are not beyond our everyday experience. We experience them here and now. If these are not esoteric truths, nevertheless they are perhaps hard truths to become reconciled to. So hard, in fact, that we dream of things that are permanent, that are free of suffering, that are substantial, that have their own subsistent natures in our attempt to escape these simple, inescapable conditions of our existence.

Through the centuries, the Buddhist traditions themselves have become tangled in such dreams and fantasies; but I cannot help thinking that all such imaginings pull us away from the basic facts of our condition here in the world: as impermanent beings, liable to suffering, thoroughly conditioned by the world in which we live.

This is why I think the idea of reconciliation is so powerful. It is not a question of overcoming the fact of impermanence, or even of overcoming suffering and discontent. After all, if dharma practice is a means of overcoming discontent once and for all, it seems a pretty poor technology for dealing with that particular problem: I have known many practitioners through the years, and they seem a peculiarly discontented bunch. Nobody that I have met seems to have eradicated these things. Either they are doing it wrong (in which case it is such an impossibly virtuoso exercise, so difficult to do right, that I am no longer interested in it anyway), or this idea about overcoming discontent once and for all is itself a mistaken idea.

Reconciliation, however, is a different matter. If it is a question of reconciling ourselves to this fleeting existence, of reconciling ourselves to the fact of suffering, of reconciling ourselves with the world, then it is possible to see that, yes, practice does work. I can recognise in my own practice endless moments of reconciliation where I have come to see that yes, this is what is happening, that this is the world in which I live, that suffering is ineradicable.

Sitting in meditation, sitting with the fact of suffering that will not go away, giving up the hope of perfection or of ultimate understanding or of the attainment of some state beyond the world, reconciled and at home…

# · Jeff G

In the wake of a divorce and all the suffering that goes with it, I’ve spent the past year attempting to discern what my dharma practice means in this context. How does it apply?

What evolved from that line of questioning was pondering whether I was using my practice as a means of escape or for reconciliation. I wondered if I had misunderstood years of study and cushion time.

With exception of a few pagan friends, most religious practioners began to strike me as escape artists. Religion in general was beginning to look escapist. Theistic religions seemed to look toward a dramatic end time that would magically wipe away the totality of our discontent. Even the Buddha’s path, non-theistic, seemed a way to “jump ship.”

But then I think of the sweat lodges and Kiva ceremonies and the pagan circles which are all rites of reconciliation. They do not seek a way out but rather a way in. There is no escape from this present moment.

# · sheepdays

This is a great post—very comforting to accept that our practice can be good enough. I totally resonate with what you say about how if practice means being a virtuoso to get it right, then it’s not even worth getting into.

One thing: from my theistic perspective (boring old Presbyterian), there is no reason to reject what you call “the secret;” our practices need not busy themselves with cracking that secret, but that does not negate the existence of same.

# · Will

Thanks for the comments. I like the thought of religious practitioners as escape artists, and the idea of a way in rather than a way out.
As for the “secret”, sheepdays, you are right, of course: there may be a secret to life. But if our practices need not busy themselves with cracking it, then whether there is or isn’t can remain, as the Buddha might have said, one of those undetermined questions that we can safely pass over in silence.

All the best,


# · Dave H

This is an excellent post, Will. I note the 3rd definition for “reconciliation” in Merriam-Webster: to accept something unpleasant. As Jeff G mentions, it is all too easy to squirm out of an unpleasant reality into some sort of fantasy. And as any meditator knows well, we run counter-current to five million years of human conditioning when we attempt to face unpleasantness head on.

# · christy lee-engel

Dear Will,

Thank you for this thoughtful post. What a good word/concept reconciliation is — looking at a simple etymology source I see again that theme of “making friendly” in the root “conciliare” but especially like the “re-” part — that maybe it’s not after all a whole new thing to be “at home” with the way things are in all their poignant ephemerality, but it’s something we have been, and sometimes haven’t been, and then can be again.

I like the idea of “a way in” too — a friend of mine likes to say about the huge variety of contemplative practices: “dig anywhere deeply enough and it will take you home.”

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