Finding your way to simplicity


I’d heard there were trails in the woods next to the apartment I’d just moved into, but exactly where they were wasn’t at all obvious to me when I first took my dog for walks there. When I did find what looked to be pathways, they were in places very faint and it was easy to wander off them. And the more distinct trails had many branches, leading who knew where. Simple walks in the woods could become very complicated!

So as I explored the woods I went cautiously, not going too far. Sometimes, as I began to extend my walks, I lost my way, and wandered randomly until I found my way home again.

Three months later I know the trails pretty well. I always know where I am, and where all the various branches lead. I know how to get from point A to point B. What was once confusing and sometimes a bit scary is now familiar. I enjoy knowing my way around.

Lost in complexity

There’s something like that happens in our practice as well.

I’ve been studying Buddhism for over forty years now. I started exploring this tradition for the very simple reason that I wanted to suffer less, and I understood meditation in particular as being a way of bringing that about. And meditation, at least initially, seemed very simple: just keep returning your awareness to the breathing. And be kind.

Of course Buddhism turned out to be rather complex. Even just in the early teachings there is a plethora of lists: the three trainings, the four efforts, the five spiritual faculties, the six sense-bases, the seven factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the ten fetters, the 12 links of conditionality, and so on. If you want to make this even more complicated, you can learn the Pali and Sanskrit for all these terms.

It seems that you need to have an encyclopedic mind to keep all this straight in your mind. If you can do it, this can lead to a sense of unhelpful pride. You think that because you know lots of stuff, you understand the Dharma. And not being able to learn all of this stuff can leave people feeling inadequate. It’s easy to get lost in all the complexity.

See also:

Awakening to simplicity

When the process of Awakening begins (the technical term is “Entering the Stream”), you see three things:

  1. The kind of separate, static self you always thought you had is an illusion.
  2. There is no doubt that Awakening is real. It’s begun to unfold within you, and will keep on doing so until it’s complete.
  3. The evidence for all this has been in front of you the whole time. It’s just that you’ve been ignoring it.

It’s the third of those things I’d like to talk about. I certainly don’t want to talk — at least not now — about self and non-self. After all, I’m talking about simplicity, so I want to keep things simple.

So as we practice, we get to this point where we have an awareness of the radical simplicity of practice itself. We realize that until that point we’ve been over-complicating things and failing to see what’s right in front of us. We’ve even been using Dharma teachings as a way of avoiding really looking at our experience — approaching practice intellectually rather than looking directly at our experience and seeing what’s really there.

But now, it’s clearer what is and what isn’t the path.

It’s a bit like me walking into the woods three months ago, not sure what was a trail and what wasn’t, and walking there now, when the trails seem obvious.

But then you get to that point where you realize that all that knowledge was just a complication and a distraction. It was even a hindrance, since it led either to a sense of inadequacy if you didn’t know it, or a sense of superiority if you did. And in any event, it was largely a distraction.

Let peace happen

Practice is very simple: just let yourself be at peace. That’s the path. Whatever is going on within you that is inhibiting you from being at peace, let go of it. If anger makes you unhappy, drop it. If trying to be perfect makes you unhappy, drop it. Just keep letting go of whatever is holding you back from being at peace.

And whatever happens within you that brings you real peace and joy, appreciate it and let it flow. If observing the flow of the breathing brings calmness, let that happen. If kindness makes your life sweeter, let it happen. Notice it. Value it. Call it to mind.

It really doesn’t have to be any more complex than that. It’s back to what I originally thought practice to be: just keep returning your awareness to the breathing. And be kind.

7 Comments. Leave new

  • Shena MacDonald
    January 4, 2020 3:43 am

    Dear Bodhipaksa! I just can’t thank you enough for the glorious permission this article has given me that I’ve been struggling to give myself. For almost a year I have been in such a conflicted state about needing (and responding to) simplicity, yet being overwhelmed and alienated by experiencing intellectualising and “knowledge”. Your analogy with your woodland walks is on a par with Walden’s “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” from In The Woods. Those words struck a chord with me years ago and resonate still. However, this amazing article hits that spot again. We have no need (or right) to feel superior because we “know” everything, nor the need to feel inferior because we perceive we don’t. This being human (!) is a heart job, not a mind one. Oh boy, your words are pouring into me like liquid gold right now, Bodhipaksa. Affirming, liberating, real. Thank you, my friend. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome, Shena. I appreciate your comments because although I spent a lot of time on this article I didn’t feel very confident that I’d said anything meaningful. I’m glad it resonated with you, at least!

  • Thank you for this article. It’s just what I needed. I have been practicing for several years but the last year or so I felt very disconnected from it. I have long suspected this because I have overcomplicated my practice with too many strands and consequently too many expectations. At the start of the year I made a decision to step right back to the beginning and reconnect with the very basic practice of sitting and breathing that brought me to Buddhism in the first place and has always been there for me. This piece was quite timely. Much appreciated.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa, I love the punchline of this article: `Practice is very simple: just let yourself be at peace. That’s the path. Whatever is going on within you that is inhibiting you from being at peace, let go of it.’ I love it, because it’s simple and it’s something we all know, but need reminding of. I listen to the body which shows me clearly when I’m not at peace. Only this morning, in meditation, I was tuning in to the lower belly, and just had the intention to letting go, of dropping down. It can feel quite intense, like if I truly let go, `I’ would stop existing (ha ha!). So reading your article is like a blessing. Thank you

    • Thanks, Padmavajri. My perspectives on practice have changed since reading Fronsdal’s “Buddha Before Buddhism,” which is a translation of the Atthakavagga (part of the Sutta Nipata) which is probably the oldest part of the Pali Canon and possibly word-for-word what the Buddha actually taught. It gives a very stripped-down approach to the Dharma: no lists, not even any practice, but simply allowing yourself to be at peace through letting go. I wrote a bit about that here.

  • I too want to add my joy to these comments. Been there done that with the distress and the complacency, the anguish about “right” and the trying to avoid “wrong”.
    Right early on in my practice came the wondrous words – from meditation teacher Tejasvini at Cambridge Buddhist Centre – “now let go of the practice”. That has been a guide for me in developing a practice at all – developing it and being open to the letting it go, sometimes simultaneously.
    Sometimes that manifests as not “meditating” formally at all for a while, because that seems to me to buy in to a superstitious fear that “if I don’t meditate, Bad Things Will Happen”. Yet even/especially off the cushion I am becoming aware of “noticing, noticing” and that I am trying to do this more kindly.
    I just LOVE your word Kindfulness. And I love to notice (just occasionally) that I am getting closer to a sense of integrating stuff; completing my cycles; feeling a sense of freedom and joy and deep appreciation.
    Thank you Bodhipaksa for being my alongside teacher and cheerleader in this. {Electronic hug to you and yours }

  • wow this article resonates with my heart. Thank you


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