There is a lesson to be learned here. When we are walking the path, we are healing ourselves from a lifetime of suffering caused by our learned experience. But because our ego-mind, the repository of our learned experience, remains a part of us regardless what stage of Buddhist practice we reach, the healing process never ends.
That is why even enlightened ones meditate for hours a day. One is never “home free.” One must always reconnect with our true Buddha nature, be present free of the intervention of thought, and be aware in order to remain free of the known, free of our samsara. It’s always back to basics.
But what about the healing process itself. Are any of us, except perhaps while on a retreat, so single-mindedly focused on our healing, on freeing ourselves from our suffering? The answer is without question, no. If one is living a secular life interacting in myriad ways with our surrounding culture, there is no way to have the kind of single-minded focus on healing ourselves that one can have when one is ill.
And therein lies at least a good part of the reason why we all find it so hard to be present and aware 24/7. And why we constantly need to be vigilant to keep our thinking mind from taking control of our actions and pulling us from the path.
Is there a way out of this quandry? Not really. The only thing one can do is be disciplined about one’s practice. One should, without question, set aside some time every day to sit and meditate. I have found that first thing in the morning before my day gets going works best for me because it works wherever I am (at home, in a hotel, staying with friends) and regardless what else is going on that day. In 18 years I have not missed a single day.
In addition to a daily meditation session, other options are regular spiritual reading, various exercises throughout the day to stop and be present free of the intervention of thought, more meditation sessions, living each day in conscious accord with the Five Precepts and the Six Paramitas, and of course going to temple and interacting with a sangha.
Many people also find silent retreats to be very helpful. Personally, I find that they are not that helpful because they are so removed from reality, meaning my day-to-day life. Much more beneficial I found was the four week at-home retreat that Tricycle magazine promoted one year and which I describe in, The Self in No Self: Buddhist Heresies and Other Lessons of a Buddhist Life.
The point is to be disciplined in one’s practice, to have compassion for oneself, and know that the path we are walking is a difficult one, full of challenges and obstacles posed by our environment and our ego-mind. And always to have faith in the teachings of the Buddha and know that if we live each moment well, that is, in accord with the Five Precepts, that the future will take care of itself, in the sense that all will be well, we will experience peace and happiness, regardless what happens because we will have the spiritual strength to see the joy in every moment.