When you boil it right down, Dharma practice is basically about cultivating the same thoughts again and again until they become a habit. Simple, really. ‘Boring, really,’ might be your first thought – but if you find those thoughts inspiring (see the previous post for how to cultivate this) then it’s not boring at all. I think that phrase, ‘familiarity breeds contempt,’ comes from not realizing the value in what we have (or from focusing on things that are not really valuable). If you truly love something, it never becomes boring.
And it’s easy to fall in love with virtuous states of mind, because they make us feel so good! Then we want to re-visit them again and again… at first that takes a lot of work, like we have to hike up a mountain every time we want to reach a mind like compassion; but gradually, our fitness improves, and the trek becomes less arduous, until we can jog up that mountain without breaking a sweat. Eventually, we stay on the peak all the time, gazing out over the world with eyes of unfailing compassion. That’s what a realization is: simply a mind that has become so familiar with its object that it is never separate from it.
Authentic realisations are big achievements, but we build up to them gradually.
In the Lamrim teachings there is a story of an old woman whose cow died giving birth to a calf. Every morning the woman would carry the calf out into the garden for some grass and sunshine, and every evening she would carry it back indoors. She continued doing this for so long, and became so familiar with it, that even when the calf had become a fully grown cow she was still able to carry it in and out of the house. With familiarity anything is possible!
~ Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully
That is one of my favourite stories. We can carry a lot, without it feeling like a burden.
Familiarity is the main body of Dharma practice; the other forces are the limbs that support that body. The force of white seed is gathering the necessary conditions for the seeds of virtue to grow in our mind by accumulating merit; the force of destruction is overcoming obstacles, principally by purifying negative karma; and the force of aspirational prayer means requesting blessings and making dedications for the realisations we wish for. If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that all three of these are included in the preparatory prayers that we use to prepare for meditation. Newsflash: that is the point of all that singing! If we make the effort to prepare well by accumulating merit, purifying negativity and receiving blessings then the force of familiarity will develop smoothly, and soon we’ll be carrying a cow.
More on developing familiarity: Mindfulness half-day course