Making a strong intention to practice means there is a greater chance that we will remember to do so when we really need to.
There is a world of a difference between reading a description of something, or hearing someone talk about it, and actually experiencing it for oneself. This qualitative difference between kinds of “knowing” is usually illustrated with the simplest example possible, that of taste. One might read all the books in the world that describe the taste of honey, for instance, but just by placing one drop of it in the mouth, there occurs an immediate and intimate knowledge of what it tastes like. This knowing is precisely what separates an actual experience of truth from its descriptions. On the spiritual path, it is a distinction one would do well to keep in mind. For, anybody can listen to or read words of wisdom and feel accomplished because they have understood what those words mean. But this understanding will remain superficial until it is re-forged and tested in the laboratory of life.
A popular teacher of Buddhism once spoke about the ease with which one is able to generate feelings of loving-kindness and compassion in solitary retreat, when there is no one around. “Alone, it is very easy to imagine the whole world in your embrace,” she emphasised, “but the minute there is one other person in the room, you will know where you truly stand.”
It is because until then, we have only heard what the honey of compassion would taste like — from texts and teachers, and other seekers — and have based our practice on this conception. We do not really know what it is because we have not had an opportunity to experience it in action, in our beings. “Another person in the room” is a metaphor for an opportunity to put into practice and make real what has been until then conceptual knowledge.
This realness of knowing is what makes some spiritual teachers so compelling, because we know they are speaking from experience rather than parroting scriptures. An example that readily comes to mind is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The reason why so many people around the world respond to his message of compassion is because he has, quite simply, practised what he preaches. In his advocacy of non-violent resistance in Tibet, and his refusal to hate or condemn the Chinese to whom he has lost his homeland, he has made real the Buddha’s teaching of compassion. So, when he talks of a compassionate response to the gravest provocation, we listen.
Relentless practice is indispensable to the task of experiencing any spiritual truth. A way to reorient oneself to this is to reflect for a few minutes every morning, before one becomes too busy, on how one might practice mindfulness and compassion through the challenges that the day will bring. Making a strong intention to practice means there is a greater chance that we will remember to do so when we really need to.