A monk and several bhikkhunis (fully-ordained nuns) from Santi Forest Monastery, visiting the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, October 2014
Last month, I wrote about the quality of viriya, sometimes translated as “heroic energy,” and how at times, just signing up for a retreat can seem to kick-start an inner process where qualities such as determination, dedication, commitment, effort, and trust begin to deepen – even before we actually arrive at the retreat itself.
Also last month, I started offering an on-line course aimed at supporting people to establish or maintain a daily meditation practice. In our two-weekly meetings with the course participants, I can already see and feel the transformations that are happening, as a result of making just a little more commitment, and putting in just a little more effort to meditate regularly.
So this month, I want to share some further reflections on this quality of effort. Everything we do in life takes some kind of effort, and yet because it is so foundational, we often don’t pay any attention to it. Recognising how we relate to this effort is a very important part of the practice though, because sooner or later, meditating regularly will start to reveal some of our common patterns of response, or our “conditioning,” to use the terminology of Buddhist psychology.
I’ve seen in my own practice, and in many students too, the tendency to start out with a very binary approach: all or nothing, which usually leads to intense striving, followed by exhausted apathy, a period of recovery, and then the whole cycle starts over again. Striving … apathy … striving … apathy … I call this the “Superhero to Slug” syndrome. Often, it’s driven by fear: the fear that unless I make 110% effort, I’m going to stall completely, which ironically, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This pattern of oscillating between too much and too little effort seems to have been common in the Buddha’s time too, because in the path of practice that he laid out, he emphasised over and over again the need to find the Middle Way. The middle way is the balance-point between extremes of any kind, and in the Noble Eightfold Path which lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, this balanced approach is known as “Right Effort,” sometimes also translated as Wise Effort or Appropriate Effort. But for many of us, finding this middle way in relation to effort is challenging, because we can be unconsciously addicted to the highs and lows in our lives. The middle way is something we don’t notice – or that we even have aversion towards – because it’s too ordinary, boring, not special enough.
So learning to find this balance is a key skill that we need to develop – and then to keep refining, because it’s constantly changing. Right Effort will look different for each one of us depending on our life circumstances, and it will be different for each of us in every meditation session, changing moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.
As we pay attention to the quality of effort, we might start to notice some recurring mental reactions that come up in response to the effort it takes to meditate regularly: perhaps boredom, or pride, or self-judgement, or irritation, or disappointment, or avoidance, or guilt, or blame, or denial, or [insert your own favourite] … the list can get quite long! The problem is that if these reactions aren’t seen with mindfulness, as just temporary mental phenomena, we tend to identify with them, to create a story, a sense of self around them. For example: “That was such a bad meditation. I’m such a bad meditator. In fact, I’m such a bad person. I should have known it wouldn’t work for me. I might as well give up now …”
The (relative) good news is that not only is this normal, it’s actually part of the point of insight meditation practice. The freedom from suffering that the Buddha talked about is not some big-bang event to be experienced far off in the distant future. It’s available in any moment that we’re able to bring mindfulness to what’s happening in the body and mind, regardless of whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is because when we can see an experience clearly, we have the freedom to respond differently, instead of acting out of our habitual auto-pilot responses.
So a large part of what we’re doing in our meditation practice is learning to become more and more mindful of our experiences, both on the micro and the macro level, in the body and in the heart-mind. As a way of establishing the habit of mindfulness in these different arenas, it can be helpful during any meditation period to silently ask yourself three questions:
What’s happening in the body right now?
What’s happening in the heart-mind right now?
How am I relating to that experience?
Those three questions are ones that you can incorporate at the beginning, middle and end of each meditation period, as a way of refining mindfulness throughout the session. They’re also very helpful questions to ask – as often as you remember – throughout the day, as a way of bringing mindfulness into daily life.
The first two questions are just about observing what is, but the third offers an invitation to notice the attitude to your experience, and to develop an approach of kind curiosity towards it. This brings in the compassion aspect of the Buddha’s teachings, which are sometimes described in terms of “the two wings of awakening,” wisdom and compassion. Insight meditation is part of the wisdom wing, and the brahma vihara practices of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity all come under the compassion wing.
Once again, there is the importance of balance: we need both wings to be equally well developed, if this bird is going to fly. So even if you’re not doing formal brahma vihara practice as part of your daily meditation, it can be very helpful to begin and end each meditation period with a few minutes of metta/kindness practice. You could start by taking a moment to acknowledge your own good qualities and to wish yourself well; then finish by bringing to mind one or two people that you feel close to, and offering them this same energy of kindness and care. Taking the time to do this at the beginning and end of each session can help to soften any tendency towards over-efforting, and hopefully, also bring a sense of ease and enjoyment to the practice.
Wishing you all more ease and more enjoyment, as you explore the middle way …