Three Difficult Practices

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The 1st Difficult Practice
The 2nd Difficult Practice
The 3rd Difficult Practice


“Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.”Lao Tzu

Recently I listened to a teaching session on video by the American Buddhist Pema Chödron on Udemy. In her introduction she talks about what she calls the three difficult practices of Buddhism.

The 1st difficult practice: Recognise what is happening.

The 2nd difficult practice: Do something different.

The 3rd difficult practice: Do it continuously.

Pema Chödron also mentions a man who was struggling with these three difficult practices. She tells the story of a fellow Buddhist practitioner who was ranting about an unpleasant letter he had received. He was clearly not recognising what was happening, and he was unable to react to the letter in a way that was different from his habitual reactive response.

The remarkable thing about the story is that the practitioner was not a novice. He had been working on these difficult practices for 40 years, and the event took place just after he’d completed a solitary retreat.


The 1st Difficult Practice

“Whenever I climb, I am followed by a dog called ‘Ego’.”Friedrich Nietzsche

Why is it so difficult to recognise what is happening?

The answer has something to do with that we identify with our experiences. The deeper we are involved in a situation, the more we feel emotionally attached to it, and the harder it is to recognise what is happening.

What we perceive as the event, is obviously only our personal current interpretation of it. There is some partial truth in our experience, but we can’t see the whole picture.

The whole picture includes not only the so-called objective facts of a situation but also our reaction to the event, the parts different people play in the act, how the scene unfolds, why it unfolds in that particular manner, why it is happening to us at that precise moment, and more besides.

Any situation in human life is a very complex web of information, and different people extract different threads from it. Each participant in the scene will have a completely different view from another, and even the most perceptive observer can only catch an impression from a particular angle.

The practice of recognition of what is happening requires us to be a player in the scene and an observer at the same time. We have to remove ourselves from the action while being fully involved in it. This is not easy.

If we succeed in taking this first difficult step, we can change the dynamics of the whole scene. We can change our subjective experience and ultimately the course of our life. That is worth practicing for — especially if you are not happy with the scene you happen to be in.


The 2nd Difficult Practice

“All change is not growth; as all movement is not forward.”Ellen Glasgow

Why is it so difficult to change our reaction to what is happening?

Our reactions to what is happening are spontaneous and natural responses to our impressions and interpretations of any event.

Our reactions depend on how deeply we are involved in the scene or how much we can detach from it. In other words, before you can change your reaction to what is happening you have to be able to do the 1st difficult practice.

All our habitual reactions to situations in life have something to do with the Ego. The Ego is the part of our Consciousness, which is responsible for how we see ourselves in relation to what’s happening in the world around us, and it directs our reactions to those events.

In Self-Knowledge Management (SKM) the Ego is defined as the Agent of ego-identification. It is the part of our Consciousness that enables us to identify with our experience. The job of the Ego is to help us develop the identity of our individuality.

In spiritual practices the Ego is something the practitioner hopes to overcome. It is considered the part of human Consciousness that keeps us attached to our concept of ourselves, to material reality, and to our suffering. I.e. If you want to reach enlightenment you have to get rid of the Ego.

The Ego appropriates specific experiences and interprets them in its own way. Because of the Ego we can for example feel threatened when there is no danger at all, or it can make us overly confident when we should be cautious. The Ego may form a strong attachment to the experience of enlightenment, and it supports the idea that we have to do difficult practices in order to achieve this.

The Ego is a strong force in our Consciousness. It keeps us attached to our habits, beliefs, and attitudes, even if they are destructive. And it makes us respond in a defensive way to situations that appear difficult. As long as we react to a difficult, or apparently difficult situation with a habitual defensiveness, we are controlled by the Ego rather than in control of it.

Human Consciousness has a natural urge to grow and to be in charge of its own environment. In principle the Ego supports this natural inner drive.

Growth means change, and all we need to change is a part of ourselves. Therefore doing something different, or changing our habitual reaction, should be the easiest part of our practice. Pema Chödron says it is the most difficult part.

Change is only difficult when the Ego is attached to a specific form or outcome, when it makes us identify with a certain role it wants us to play in life. This is because it has invested some meaning into being perceived in a certain way in relation to a desired result.

The Ego is not against change as such. It just wants us to do things in ways that it recognises as being ‘natural’ for us. When we introduce a new activity, the Ego often tends to resist it initially. It hasn’t had a chance to develop its identification yet.

If you practice a certain discipline regularly and long enough, then you form a new habit. The Ego gets used to it, and sooner or later it will attach itself to this new habit. Often the new action gets twisted and used by the Ego for its own purposes.

Now the new habit, that was supposed to instigate a major change, becomes an extension of the old behaviour. It is inevitable. The Ego is powerful and clever, and it has a strong sense of duty when it comes to playing its role.

For this reason we use many different practices in Self-Knowledge Management. We continuously play with new perspectives and angles, from which we look at ourselves and our world.

We set ourselves up for surprises, which catch the Ego out. And before it gets too comfortable with a practice, we move on to a new one. In this manner we turn the 2nd difficult practice into a game. The Ego loves playing games. In SKM we work with the Ego rather than against it.

As soon as you try to overcome the Ego, you set up a power struggle. Most of the time the Ego will win because it is active all the time. By contrast, for you, the minder of your Ego, it is impossible to be alert and on guard all the time. If you recognise the Ego and work with it, you’ll have a powerful ally and a friend for life.


The 3rd Difficult Practice

“How to get rid of ego as dictator and turn it into messenger and servant and scout, to be in your service, is the trick.”Joseph Campbell

Why is it so difficult to practice continuously?

The Ego can be used as a very reliable personal assistant. But you have to treat it well and honour it. As long as you harbour any thoughts of trying to get rid of it  — and it will find out sooner than you think — then it will feel betrayed and become reluctant to cooperate. So you’ve got to be honest.

Your Ego can give you important information about yourself on a daily basis. Do you want to know what you identify with? — Just watch your reactive behaviour.

Are you curious to know what kind of role, habits, or experiences you attach a particularly strong meaning to? — Your Ego will make sure to remind you. That’s its job.

Maybe your Ego is currently identifying with being a victim or a rescuer, a loser or a winner. Perhaps it identifies with not being clever enough or the smartest kid on the block, with never having enough or having more than enough, with being rejected because there is something wrong with you or with being the most perfect and adored person on the planet.

Whatever the Ego identifies with, that will shape your current reality.

Your Ego will always defend its patch. Therefore it often makes you react in a defensive manner. You can try to ignore your Ego. You can try to catch yourself before reacting in a spontaneous habitual way. But it’s hard work. It means you are defensive against the defensiveness of your Ego. And ultimately this means that your Ego is running your life anyway, in a sneaky kind of way.

Ego is often associated with suffering. However, your Ego is never the suffering itself. It is only your attachment to your suffering. While you are suffering you don’t know why it has made this attachment. You can’t understand what it is supposed to be good for.

From Pema Chödron’s story you can guess that trying to get rid of the attachment isn’t easy. Even longterm Buddhist practitioners are having a hard time with it. Therefore you might as well embrace it. Meeting your Ego and its attachments with compassion allows it to unfold and reveal its hidden knowledge.

The difficulty with the 2nd difficult practice is that, as soon as we recognise what’s happening, we immediately jump to conclusions about which alternative actions to take. This is very strange. The fact that our Ego has made us take a ‘wrong action’ many times, doesn’t automatically qualify us for taking the ‘right action’.

What makes us believe that we know the right way, if our experience to date has only taught us ways that didn’t work out? Even if you keep going in opposite directions you’ll still end up at the same level.

Therefore in SKM we do something very different, and we do it consistently: Whenever we stumble into a situation that we don’t like and that pushes our reactive buttons, we stop and listen. Our emotional, habitual, Ego-driven reactions are both hard to miss and a brilliant opportunity to recognise what is happening.

We observe our reflexive urge to react in habitual ways, but then we look at it with compassion. We never reject or dismiss it. Why would we want to dismiss it?

Our spontaneous reaction in any difficult situation is the best our Ego can come up with in the moment, and the Ego is always trying hard to do its best.

The Ego is like a child that can only react spontaneously. If you treat it like you would treat your own child — i.e. with love, attention, understanding, patience, tolerance, generosity and a supportive attitude — then it will respond like any healthy child would. By meeting your Ego with kindness and compassion you give it a real opportunity to grow up.

As your Ego grows up in the nurturing environment of your loving care, it will naturally develop more mature habits. It will no longer feel so helpless and fearful. It will no longer act in such a reactive way. Its best will become better, and the real life situations, into which it gets you, will reflect that.

Our emotional reactions flag up that something important is happening and needs attention. Instead of immediately rejecting our habitual reactions, we can use them as valuable sources of information for self-knowledge.

On the path of Self-Knowledge Management we are presented with new and relevant information all the time. It comes to us via our subjective experience, spontaneously. The messages contained in the mundane events are always precise, personal, and tailor-made for the recipient. Why not use these opportunities to make the three difficult practices easier for ourselves?


This article is complemented by an e-letter published on the same date. Our epic letter contains a link to the audio version of this article, a practical exercise, some carefully selected illustrations, and more. This information is available only to the select tribe of our subscribers. If you don’t want to miss our inspiring and exclusive Friday Letters in the future, subscribe now.


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