Eightfold Path: Spacious Effort

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Imagine a bird soaring in the sky, held aloft by the air currents. Spacious effort is like that. Out of a sense of connection with all that is, we are held aloft, so that we are not alone and solely responsible to carry the weight of the world upon our shoulders or push a boulder uphill over and over like Sisyphus. We can instead be like sailors who know the tides and the ways of the winds, and with a slight shift of the rudder and choice of sails, align with the already existing energy of the universe to do whatever needs to be done.

How does this play out on dry land? Through the Spacious Intention to be present, to sense in to the energy of the universe as it courses through our own bodies, we can come into Spacious View, seeing the interconnection, feeling the support of that vibrant web of life.

Although this would not be the traditional way of explaining right or wise effort*, and actually seems more akin to the Taoist term Wu Wei**, it still feels accurate to me to describe Spacious Effort as aligning with and feeling supported by the infinite energy of which we are made and that breathes through us. From this sense of connection and support, our effort will be fruitful, sincere and well-received.

But how often does that happen? For most of us accessing and riding the infinite energy of the universe seems like a fantasy. The world we live in is full of challenges, difficulties and obstacles to be overcome, and it certainly seems that none of it will happen without serious effort on our part. Even as I say this I can feel the locking down of my muscles, the clamping of my jaw, the clenching of my heart and the overloading of my brain. It’s true, I cry, it’s true. Life is hard and I sometimes have a hard time coping.

Life is a challenge! Any given life at any given time has a set of responsibilities that can be daunting to contemplate. Perhaps we really do feel as if we are carrying the world on our shoulders up a steep incline with no summit in sight. Or maybe we feel like a waiter with too many plates to carry and too many hungry diners making excessive demands. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to have a sailboat to ‘align with the universe! Wouldn’t that be just dandy! But that’s not how life is. Give me a break.”

Okay, okay. Reality check! But here’s the reality: Most of what we are dealing with on a daily basis is not reality, but perception.

Whatever seems true in our lives right now is a mirage, as much a lie as what we see when we look in the mirror. Think about it: What we see in the mirror is flipped horizontally, only the front of our body, probably cropped, fixed in an unusual stationary moment, and distorted by our filters of selective perception. That false mirror distortion of our body actually mirrors how it is in our lives as well.

Think about your own to-do list. Think about the people who depend on you. Think about your fears of what will happen if you don’t fulfill your obligations. Bring everything to mind, everything you can think of.

Now sense in to your body. Notice any tension that may have escalated just that quickly. Feel the clamping down. This is the adrenaline of fear coursing through us. Most of us live in this constant bath of adrenaline, putting strain on our bodies and minds.

Now focus on your breath. Breathe in the generous infinite air that surrounds us. Allow the breath to ease the tightness of muscles, soften the heart and open the mind. Allow yourself to be held in this spacious presence of sensing in.

Sensing in, we relax. Sensing in, we become aware of what is true in this present moment. Sensing in we find reality, beyond the mirage of our perceptions.

When we access the moment, we bring ourselves into alignment with the ever present infinite energy that is a simple factual scientific truth, not something requiring belief. There is nothing woo-woo about it, as we discussed when studying Spacious View.

(I admit I am finding that this word ‘spacious’ does seem to have some quasi-magical incantation quality. I find saying to myself ‘spacious mind, spacious heart, spacious life’ gives me access to a calm centered place where I can remember that I am just one of six billion people on the planet and it’s not all up to me. I have had feedback from some of you that the word spacious has the same effect on you!)

Whatever challenge we are facing, being grounded in spacious awareness allows us to meet the challenge. There is a quality of release and letting go in spaciousness. For those of us who find we are tense and determined to accomplish goals, to get something right, to become the best we can be, we can begin to question the value of our exertions. ‘What is it I hope to accomplish? Are my efforts effective? If I feel tense, is my tension serving me or sabotaging me? When have I exerted effort and felt joy in the exertion?’

Let’s play a little with this last question. Perhaps you remember a physical activity like swimming where the pure pleasure of the strokes and the sensation of the water against your skin brought you more fully into the moment, and you felt alive, awake and joyful. This was an experience of Spacious Effort. Sensing in, you felt the joy of using your muscles, and hopefully, sensing in you knew when your body was ready to stop, and you did, rather than forcing some over-efforting thought control onto what was a joyous and healthy experience. Studies now show that forcing ourselves to do exercise that we don’t enjoy actually adds so much stress that it negates any health benefit.

Connecting to the isness of being is plugging into creative energy as well. I remember when I used to write advertising copy, whenever a co-worker and I brainstormed together and laughed until our jaws ached in the creative process, the resulting ads were the best work either of us every did. Quality results arise from joy and a unitive state of ease! A worker in a factory who stays fully present in the moment and honors the work being done as almost a ritual and a gift offered in joy will also produce a finer product than a worker who is tensed, afraid of making a mistake, or sluggish, grumpy or daydreaming, potentially causing harm to the product, themselves and others. We’ll discuss that more when we get to Spacious Livelihood, but you can see the nature of Spacious Effort in these two work examples.

Unskillful effort comes from not being fully here and in this moment. With over-efforting, mostly likely we have a goal, an expectation or a desire that keeps us feeling locked out of the moment, stuck in some future moment of triumph, accomplishment or relief. How often do we keep ourselves slogging away with mental visions of a hot shower, a cool drink or a cozy bed? We are avoiding being present because of discomfort, when it would be more skillful to honor the moment, pay attention to our bodies’ cues, take a break from the activity, have a sip of water, a change of pace, and sense in to the sensations of the moment before proceeding. Slogging away is a sure way to end up falling down on a hike or making errors in our work. Spacious Effort honors the body’s cues and responds with compassion.

With under-efforting, we have some inner conversation that is making such a convincing argument that we can’t seem to get off the couch to do what needs to be done. Spacious Effort brings us into the moment, into noticing the inner conversation and compassionately working with the inner messages we hear.

Before we start really listening we might think of our thoughts as a monolog, as ‘our’ thoughts, an expression of our true selves. But when we begin to listen more closely with spaciousness and compassion, we begin to see that it’s not a monolog but a dialog. There’s the voice that says ‘I want….” and another voice that questions the veracity of that statement. The more we pay attention, the more voices we begin to notice, until we see that our thoughts are more of a symphony of various component parts. Now this is not a case of split personality. It’s just the nature of thought. Thoughts are drawn from all over the place throughout the course of our lives. When we meditate and give ourselves space to explore, we can begin to see the source of some of our thoughts. Maybe we believe something about ourselves because someone in high school said something hurtful. We incorporated it into our thinking and haven’t bothered to question it since. Giving our minds space, and noticing, we can see the associative images and memories that fuel these thoughts. Once we see them, sometimes they simply vanish because the source revealed is so obviously unreliable we can no longer believe it. But most often this noticing is just the beginning of a very sweet process of inner exploration.

An effective way of working with all these messages is to begin to notice their variations of voice and tone, and begin to assign them pet names that have something of the nature of their general message, so that we recognize them more easily when the message arises in our minds. In this way we can say, ‘Ah, yes, I know you,’ just as the Buddha recognized Mara in all its guises as he sat under the Bodhi tree.

Here’s an example: Many years ago when I had a problem getting myself to exert some effort to exercise, I noticed the inner aspect of myself that hated exercise and loved bed and, once identified, I gave it the pet name ‘Slug’ to help me notice when those kinds of thoughts arose, and to give me a way to address this aspect in an inner dialog.

Slug told me that he loved bed because it was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was in the early 1990’s. My mother had died in 1989 and I had not taken sufficient time to honor her passing and to honor my grief.

Being compassionate toward an inner aspect, it is possible to negotiate a way to meet its needs without sabotaging my own. Because Slug missed his mommy, I decided it might work to attend the yoga class of a friend who was the same age as my mother and who at the end of class when we would lie on the floor in shavasana (corpse) pose, would come around with blankets and lovingly tuck each of us in. Well, needless to say Slug was in heaven with this motherly treatment, and I could begin to rediscover the joy of stretching and moving my body. Eventually I was able to add other forms of exercise without Slug complaining.

You can see how the Spacious Intention that we discussed last week is so important here. The intention to be present allows us to be aware of thoughts that push too hard or sabotage our efforts. Our intention to be compassionate enables us to explore in a loving way the roots of our over or under efforting.

We can notice if we are tense, frantic, frenzied, or sluggish, lethargic, exhausted. Spacious Effort will feel calm, balanced, infused with an enthusiasm that is whole- hearted and centered. We will feel both at ease and alert.

We can notice what is sabotaging our ability to exert Spacious Effort. Noticing the quality of our effort gives us valuable information as to how we feel about the project at hand and how we feel about ourselves. If we are trying too hard, who are we trying to please? What goal are we trying to reach? Why is it so important to us? If we are feeling sluggish and resistant, what is it that we are resisting? What aspect of self is telling a story here? And what is the story being told? There are many questions that can lead to rich exploration. But we can only begin the journey if we first notice what’s happening.

Over-efforting often has to do with people pleasing which has to do with seeing ourselves as the objects of others’ views rather than the subject of our own lives. I talk about this a lot in my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within.’ It is not something that I have ever heard addressed in my years as a student of Buddhism. I think it might be more of (though not exclusively) a ‘girl thing.’ The Buddha probably didn’t have this issue so didn’t think to address it. But it is epidemic among girls and women in our culture. Think about how we are objectified, how important our packaging is and how effectively advertisers work our fear of not being the most desirable object. We get stuck trying to be what we imagine others want us to be, whether it’s pretty, smart, funny, efficient, capable, etc. We imagine that if we are not all these things we will not be lovable and we will be alone.

Our fear of separation drives us out of balance. We have no center. And when we have no center we can’t connect with others because we’re not where they expect us to be. They try to get to know us, but we are too busy trying to figure out what would make them like us to let them in! We are imagining how they see us and making constant adjustments.

I certainly had this object-orientation for the first forty or so years of my life. It wasn’t until I was flat on my back with a nine-month illness that I was able to quiet down enough to see what was happening. I spent that nine months meditating and taking notes on the insights that arose. The subject versus object issue was high on the list of topics of concern. And over that time I began to get to know myself, my own preferences, my own opinions, my own feelings. It was fascinating to discover them, to discover myself without the until-then all-important feedback of others.

The over-efforting that was a part of my having seen myself as object rather than subject of my own life led to my illness. It is very stressful to always be trying to figure out what others want from you and how to please them! So part of my healing was coming back to center, coming back to acknowledging that the only person I can be is me, even if everyone dumps me. But what happened was quite the opposite. When I was well enough to socialize, my simply being myself instead of the person I thought people wanted me to be actually improved all my relationships. I was who I was and they could find me where they expected to find me and understand me in a way that they couldn’t before, back when I was a shape-shifting blob of desire to please them.

So over-efforting and under-efforting are clearly unskillful, landing us in states that are even more unpleasant than the one we are trying to escape through under-efforting or over-efforting!

What do you notice for yourself about effort? What stories drive you or keep you from bothering? Take on this valuable exploration, a gift of the Eightfold Path. In the coming weeks notice where you over-effort and where you under-effort. Notice it in the areas of work, relationships, food and exercise, or any place else. Begin to notice the thoughts that are the source of what drives you or undermines you. This is the beginning of coming into clarity, balance and Spacious Effort.

To read more about this subject, check out the post on Right Effort from our first go round exploring the Eightfold Path in 2009.


* ‘avoiding unhealthy mind states, abandoning unhealthy mind states once they have arisen, moving the mind to healthy mind states, and maintaining the mind on healthy mind states that have already arisen.’

Now I imagine that the majority of the Buddha’s students were younger men, and I understand that getting a guy to stop thinking about sex would be a huge challenge. Also with all that testosterone, perhaps the challenge is also to stop fantasizing about acting out anger through violence. But my students are mostly mature women. For most of us this is not our challenge. We have other challenges, which I address in a way that feels more useful to me. If of course, any of you do have runaway thoughts of sex and violence, then that is what you will be noticing and questioning.

The Buddha always encouraged questioning the veracity of any statement. I don’t question that inclining the mind toward healthy states is useful, but I believe most of my students have been attempting to focus on healthy mind states most of their lives and don’t need my reminder to do so. The duality of healthy vs. unhealthy thoughts seems more likely to keep us in the ongoing inner battle rather than shifting our focus to the spacious interconnection that has room for it all, even the errant negative thoughts that are clues that are more useful being respectfully questioned rather than suppressed.

** Wu wei is the ‘action of non-action,’ when our actions are in alignment with the ebb and flow of the cycles of the natural world.

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