What are Pocket Practices, and how can they help people find peace?
Pocket practices are concise, incisive versions of the Buddhist teachings known as the Parami (Pali) or Paramitas (Sanskrit) that can help us think, speak, and act wisely under pressure. They are compact but effective practices that we develop slowly so that we can call upon them quickly, instinctively.
Some pocket practices uplift the spirit, while others provide a method for dealing with disappointment, anger, insecurity, reactive patterns, and judgmental tendencies. Others simply bring us more in contact with the person we want to be––our kinder, more compassionate, more generous self––our true self. They don’t require a meditation cushion, sacred space, candles, incense, or a holy attitude—just a desire for a greater sense of inner peace and happiness.
What inspired you to build a book around the idea of Pocket Practices?
The idea developed from a spontaneous moment. I was teaching one morning at the Community Meditation Center in New York at a time when the global economic crisis was beginning to effect everyone in one way or another. I spoke about how important it was to be generous during these difficult financial times, not just for the sake of others but also for our own wellbeing. Then I just made up a practice for everyone to try. It was: For one week carry at least five one-dollar bills with you wherever you go and do not walk past anyone asking for help. Make eye contact with every homeless person, or those down on their luck, who reach out for your help. Engage in a short conversation, “How are you doing?” is a good starter. Give them a dollar and wish them well. The specific amount could vary in accordance with your resources, but not by judging the recipient’s worthiness. This exercise needed to be done in a completely non-judgmental way. Give for the sake of giving; be totally indiscriminate; get intoxicated with the joy of generosity.
The next week people came to me with stories of how the practice had affected their lives; some even used the word “transformative.” So I created another easy-to-learn practice, and when it received the same type of response, I knew I wanted to expand the concept of short, powerful spiritual practices, the kind one could easily pull from one’s pocket.
How did you come up with these practices?
Most of the practices evolved quite naturally out of the Parami. While this is not a Buddhist book per se, I did use the Paramis as a structure for the book. There are ten teachings in the paramis and there are ten corresponding chapters in the book.
The Buddha was pragmatic and wanted to help people alleviate suffering, so his teachings are relevant to the way we lead our lives. That was my intension throughout this book. There are many wonderful books about Buddhist philosophy. I wanted to write a book that offered effective tools for dealing with the realities of life––the joys and the sorrows.
Which Pocket Practices do you find yourself employing the most?
I’ve worked quite a bit with each of the practices and find that different ones become my favorites at different times. For instance, right now I particularly enjoy performing spontaneous acts of generosity. They surprise people and bring joy on many levels. “Consider whether you would rather be right or be happy” is another I am practicing right now. One that I practice at least twice a year for a week at a time is, “Do not speak about anyone who is not physically present.” It’s always a challenge but it is so worthwhile.
You had a long career in the performing arts before becoming an Interfaith minster and the guiding teacher for Manhattan’s Community Meditation center. What compelled you to pursue spiritual studies?
There is no simple answer to that question. I was happy with the earlier part of my life, but of course, one cannot sing beyond a certain age (unless one is Placido Domingo). Sometimes I think it was just a calling. In Buddhist terms, it was the coming together of various conditions and events. I met a few people who seemed to be at peace in a way I had never experienced. When I spoke with them they all referred to spiritual aspects of their lives. I became intrigued and began to attend retreats, read books, work with teachers, meditate––that was the biggest factor, meditation. It has been transformative. Now it is my great joy to share the teachings with others in both the spoken and written word.
If you could recommend just one Pocket Practice for every reader to try today, what would it be?
We are all subject to conditions and events outside of ourselves, and within, that can cause stress, anxiety, and turmoil. I would suggest that readers sit quietly for five minutes a day for a week and remind themselves that many things happen that are beyond our control. How we perceive these things, what our experience is of all events, is totally in our control. The specific pocket practice reads, Only I can destroy my peace and I choose not to do so. It is a good idea to do this practice every month or so until one truly owns it.