The interplay of practice and daily life – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

I’ve found it quite difficult to think of a response to this question; how life and practice interplay isn’t something I spend time thinking about. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realised that I don’t see daily life and practice life as clearly defined. In previous years I would have had a clearer answer to this question. I think I would have known my answer.

When I first began practice, it felt like my life and practice interwove but in a one-way direction. In my work life there is no escaping sickness, old age and death and that provided plenty to sit with. At the same time my barriers to seeing and facing my own troubles started to crumble and as they did, the interactions I had with our helpline enquirers became reminders of things I needed to face in my own life. Whereas in the past other peoples’ troubles had felt like very sad situations that maybe I could, as an external party, help with, now they were a pointed reminder of my own unprocessed ‘stuff’. It felt like I had a lot to sit with. Making a lot of time for that in my life felt vital. My sitting and retreat addiction was born.

A couple of years later, it felt like the direction of influence had turned. I was reacting very differently to my everyday life. I was making different decisions, trying new things, overturning a lot of old assumptions of how my life should be. Practice it seemed was allowing me to experience my life in a different way. In my work role, I started saying yes to things that would have terrified me before – radio interviews and public speaking. I started to trust my instinct more. There were also major changes in my personal life. Newly single after a very long marriage, I found myself recreating my life with no clear idea of how it should look. Life felt a bit like an experiment. Perhaps it always is and I was just allowing myself to notice that for the first time.

Now I think both the above feel true – my life provides endless sources of things to sit with, and also practice allows me to experience my life differently. This was very evident last year with major health challenges and life changes. Those life challenges gave practice an extra edge and relevance – my greatest fear, being unable to take care of myself, had become my reality. I was dealing with a loss of my health, my ability to work, my treasured outdoor activities, my home life and social contacts without knowing if these losses were temporary or permanent. Symbiotically, practice helped me deal with those months of being largely bedbound and dependent, helping me find a way through what might have mentally drowned me, with an equanimity and trust that I would not have thought I was capable of. I could both hate the situation and also be surprisingly unrocked by it. That felt strange but very useful indeed.

These days the edges feel more blurred. It’s harder for me to make divisions now between my life and practice, they don’t feel separate. (Perhaps it might be better if they were – then I might not find myself doing zendo talks about subjects like online dating…). But I don’t seem to be very good at dividing my life up anymore into compartments. Of course there are times marked out specifically for formal practice, just as I set aside time for the other elements of my life like work. Time on the cushion and especially sitting alongside others is still vitally important and I need to give time to it (my retreat addiction hasn’t gone away). But alongside that formal practice are all the other elements of my life/practice. Work is practice. My health is practice. My time in nature is practice. My reaction and response to world events is practice. Relationships are certainly practice. All are interweaving elements in my life.

Of course there can be conflicts between the different elements of my life. The elements are in a changing state of balance or maybe imbalance. That can necessitate adjustments and sometimes I resent the need for these.  There are times when I need to adjust my work life to fit with my health (despite being largely recovered from long Covid, I can’t take my health for granted as I used to and naps have become a much more common part of my life than I would like). Likewise I need to find a balance between work and practice. I resent this one more. Nothing is more likely to make me grumpy than realising that I can’t get time off work for another retreat. But that’s something else for me to practise with.

I’m sure the interplay between my life and practice will keep shifting. I just don’t know in which ways. I’m sure I’ll keep finding out.