Practice like your hair is on fire!
A traditional aphorism, which probably goes back to Buddhism in India. Gelek Rinpoche makes it the theme of his recent article in Buddhadharma. And it shows up in the Zen tradition and elsewhere.
One meaning, obviously, is to make full use of this fleeting human experience to wake up. But there are two assumptions here: the experience of being human is but one of many and waking up is the highest purpose of life.
How do approach practice if you don't buy one or other of these assumptions?
Another interpretation is that this phrase expresses the kind of totally awake clarity that one is aiming for in practice. Again, there is an assumption, namely, that this level of attention is to be sustained for long periods, if not indefinitely.
What happens to a person who is not able to sustain such a level of attention but tries to do so anyway? Frequently, he or she tries harder and harder, growing tighter and tighter, moving further and further out of the balance and rest in which clarity and freedom arise. Eventually, he or she is forced to rest, and then something quite different happens. This recognition can, as it did for Buddha Shakyamuni, lead in a very different direction. Or, a student, broken in body and heart, can just give up, and lapse into a cynical view of spiritual practice.
In traditional settings, students, by and large, had access only to instruction appropriate to their level of ability and practice. Often, students had to be encouraged to practice what they were given.
In today's world, we have access to practice instructions at every level. This access creates a different kind of problem, how to know what practice is appropriate for one's level of understanding, ability, and interest. Anyone who has practiced for any length of time knows that what works at one phase of practice may be counterproductive at another.
The consequence is that, ultimately, we have to take responsibility in determining what to practice when and how to practice it.
So, I put the question very simply: is practicing like your hair is on fire a good way for you to practice?