Monthly Archives: March 2013

Spring Cleaning

The Buddha is quoted in the Pali Canon as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored. So it’s useful to notice where we get caught up in believing we are this material form, the feelings/moods/preferences we experience, or any other of the Aggregates we will be investigating. As we practice in this way, we eventually become aware that not only will we not find ourselves in them, but that finding ourselves is not the goal. Learning how to relate to any experience with awareness and compassion so that we do not cause suffering to ourselves or others is the only purpose of any Buddhist practice, and this one is no different. So while it may seem we are on a journey, and we will most likely make discoveries, this process is more like spring cleaning than a quest.

When we do spring cleaning, we are not searching for something within our home. When we investigate these aggregates, we are not searching for that true thing that is ‘I’. In both cases, we are looking with fresh eyes and seeing what is in the way. This fresh view is very much about questioning what is cluttering up the space. What can be let go?

In the home it might be piles of old magazines and newspapers that we never read, but every time our eye rests on them we get distracted from simple presence.

We might see that a poorly-placed piece of furniture always bruises our thigh, and for some reason we have been living with it that way, but now we see that if we move it four inches, that would make all the difference in creating a sense of spaciousness and non-harming.

When looking at the aggregates, we can see how clinging to this or that idea of self causes a different kind of bruising and limits our motion in a different kind of way. When we recognize this, we are ready to let go of these habituated ideas we held about who we are. The letting go is not painful but liberating. We haven’t lost anything of value, only things that were causing suffering and confusion.

Once we recognize it as clutter, it’s much easier to let it go. If it is not easy, then we are caught up in another struggle. This means we are not bringing awareness and compassion to the process. Instead we might be striving to prove something to ourselves or to others. There is nothing to prove. This is a timeless process and we each find our own pace. This is not about ripping the rug out from under ourselves. But we might take up the rug and flap it a bit to let the dust go rather than sweep the dust under the carpet!

We also don’t need to rush out and replace what we have released with other people’s clutter or other people’s beliefs. We are just in a more spacious easeful home, a more spacious easeful mind, appreciative of the fresh, clean airy feeling and the simple joy of being.


A friend of mine happened to mention this poem and I felt it was a must-share while we are exploring the Buddha’s Five Aggregates.

Since my house burned down,

I now own a better view

of the rising moon.


— Basho


What does this Haiku mean?
Well, Matsuo Basho’s house actually did burn down, so it could be taken as just looking on the bright side of a bad situation. But as with all good poems, we can see at least one other level. In dream analysis ‘house’ often means the ‘self’, so quite simply this poem would then mean ‘since my sense of a solid separate self ‘burned down’ — perhaps through the process we are going through now where we are shedding the strong light of awareness on those things we have long held to be who we are — I now am able to see more clearly. That sense of separate self was blocking the view. Read the poem again and see if that feels true for you.


To make sure we all have time to process these valuable teachings of the Buddha, in class we paused in our investigation of the Five Aggregates and practiced walking meditation out in the garden, which is bursting with the delights of spring. I highly recommend walking in nature as an important part of any exploration of the dharma.

‘Am I defined by my preferences?’

Last week we began an exploration of the Buddha’s Five Aggregates. We explored the First Aggregate, material form. We considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is my body. We observed how the body by nature is impermanent. It grows, it ages, it dies, and it is subject to illness and injury. We observed that the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world on a cellular level. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways: These are the qualities that tell us the body doesn’t define us. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these qualities to the four other aggregates.

This is an experiential exercise, as are all of the Buddhist teachings. The teacher offers a little guiding light in a certain direction, but it is up to each of us to explore whether it is true. We ask questions of everything that arises — questions about the teachings and questions about the assumptions we find we have been making. We come to the truth in our own time and in our own way. So simply be present and compassionate with yourself as you do this investigation.


I imagine that few of us who would take a meditation class or follow a meditation blog would ever believe the answer to “Who am I’ is as simple as ‘I am my body.’ We may have believed it to be a part of who we are, but certainly not all of it. So maybe letting go of the idea that the body is who we are is quite natural, even a relief.


We might say, ‘I am more than my body. I am also a person with certain preferences and ways of being in the world. Even if I forgot my name, even if there was no one around to identify me, I would still be here, still be me, still enjoy chocolate, still find high temperatures unpleasant, etc.’ You might pause now to jot down some of your likes and dislikes. You might magine you are writing a personals ad and these are the things any interested party should know about you. Once they’ve seen your photo of your material form, the next thing they need to know to answer the question of who you are is your preferences, right?


Thus we come to the second of the aggregates. The belief that we are the feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We all have preferences, but when we begin to think that they describe us, we run into trouble. We might say, ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ rather than ‘This tastes good.’ You can see the difference between these two statements. ‘This tastes good’ is very much in the present moment. ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ sets us up to mindlessly eat chocolate at every opportunity. We may be so of the belief that chocolate is an indicator of who we are as a person that we can skip the noticing, the simple experience of discovering, as if with new taste buds, what this experience is in this moment.


As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not in and of themselves always as satisfying as I believe them to be.


This is not to take the fun out of a simple pleasure. In fact, by being in the moment and not caught up in attachment, the pleasure can be exquisite. If we let it be momentary, acknowledge its fleeting nature, enjoy it while it lasts, let it go with ease as the next moment brings another experience, then we are not suffering.


We do suffer when we believe ourselves to be our preferences.

As we found in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, those simple feeling tone ‘seeds’ of pleasant or unpleasant can grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions, with vines that strap us up and even strangle us. Now we look at how many of those thoughts and emotions are caught up in identity-building. In the process of believing “I am the type of person who likes this, who doesn’t like that and couldn’t care less about that other thing,’ we build an impressive historical reference library of these preferences. We expect those who know us to have studied that library. We even give tests!


Think about how we feel when someone gives us a present that really shows us they know our preferences. Then think how we feel when the reverse is true, when we are given something that we would never choose for ourselves in a million years. In the first case, we feel known and loved. That person really gets us! In the second case, if it’s a person we thought knew us, we may suddenly feel a little bereft, in doubt of their feelings for us. That person we thought knew us apparently has no clue who we are.


As we did with exploring whether the body is who we are, we can look to see whether these feeling tones are impermanent, insubstantial and ungovernable.


Impermanent? Absolutely. Our preferences change throughout our lives, dependent on so many variables — what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. A year ago my granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change.


Talking about impermanent preferences, just think about style! Look at some pictures of you at various phases of your life. Would you wear that outfit or that hairstyle again? Not in a million years, you might say. But at the time we all believed that look to be quite the thing.


I will never forget the day in the mid 1970’s when I was walking down Fourth Street in San Rafael wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!


For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.

How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years ago. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been, of course. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.


Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive a Prius. Enough said! Because I drive a Prius, I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity.

Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.


When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might struggle with the discomfort of being seen in something that so ill suits us. If we believe our preferences to be who we are, we will suffer. If we allow ourselves to notice the discomfort and question it, that rental car might actually be a source of liberation. It doesn’t mean we go home and buy one like it. It just means we recognize that we are not our car, our house, our clothes, etc. We are not defined by the things we like and the things we don’t.


So these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle. But are they ungovernable, out of our control?


Yes! Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is

not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?


We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is feeling tone, this liking and not liking, the ‘I’ we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — so probably not.

There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post is the Five Aggregates we believe ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.


Notice for yourself over the coming weeks the degree to which you take your preferences to define you. Then come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness you might find a freedom from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. See how that feels.


In this process, remember that we are not trying to wipe out anything. We are not trying to erase preferences, become clean slates, devoid of all likes and dislikes. Striving for that would be just another preference. We do have to wear something, eat something and live somewhere. But we might find we are much happier if we vest less in our preferences and simply be in the moment, wherever we are.


At each stage of looking at these aggregates, these states of experience that we believe ourselves to be, we not only look more clearly, with more spaciousness, but also with great compassion. We are holding the child of our nature in a loving embrace. We are saying maybe you are not this and you are not that, but there’s nothing to fear. You are here. And it’s okay.

‘Who Am I?’

(The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a certain order for a reason. If you are reading this without having followed along previous posts in this section, please begin at the beginning with Introduction to Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

We have come to a place in the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that has been there all along, deeply embedded in everything we have looked at so far. And yet it can still come upon us as a surprise.

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that we call ‘I’ and ‘me?’

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer me when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

This is an experiential exercise for each of us to investigate for ourselves. The Buddha wasn’t interested in philosophical discussions about it, only that each of us has the opportunity to explore it and make our own discoveries.

This exploration of ‘body as self’ is the first of five ‘aggregates’ that the Buddha asks us to experience in our own way and own time. We will explore the other four in subsequent weeks. But for now let’s look more closely as this sense of self as being the body.

The body is impermanent. We know this, having lived with this body this long, having seen it grow, having seen it ill, having seen it recover, having seen it scar, and having seen it age. We know this because other bodies we have loved have also changed, and some of them have disappeared. This impermanence we know so well tells the lie of the body being a solid substantial self. 

The other aspect that tells the lie is the fact that we have so little control over any of this. Yes, we can gain or lose weight, we can dye our hair, have plastic surgery, we can do things to sustain our body or abuse it, but for the most part, for the most identifiable part, we have no control. Tall, short, square, round, dark, light — most characteristics of the body are simply as they are. If we accept our lack of control over them, we are less likely to suffer. Suffer? Yes, we suffer when we compare this body with others. We suffer when we get caught up in stories about who is to blame for things that are beyond our control. This is dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence that is caused, in part, by the believe that this body is who we are. If we can let go of the mistaken belief, then we are simply grateful for this vessel of experience, however it is shaped, colored or outfitted. It is not who we are, but it is a means to experience this fleeting gift of life.

So this body is not the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ As we explore the other four aggregates of feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness, we will have the opportunity to test whether any of these are who we are.

With dedicated meditation practice, we gain the naturally-arising insights that are called the three marks or characteristics. They are: annica (impermanence), dukkha (self-manufactured suffering) and anatta (no permanent separate self.) 


No one else can tell us ‘this is so.’ We have to discover it for ourselves at our own pace, in our own way. A teacher can spark a line of inquiry that leads to an insight, but the insight can’t be taught. It has to be experienced. (The Zen koan practice exists for this very reason. We don’t have koans in our tradition (Theravada, Vipassana or insight meditation,) but a teacher can seed a question that leads to a rich inner exploration.)

Anatta, no-self, may sound scary, but saying there is no self does not make us disappear. It is not a magic trick. It is a way to stop grabbing at straws of who we believe ourselves to be and clinging for dear life in the hopes that that straw belief will sustain us. It won’t. It is unreliable.

The need to name and claim a separate permanent identity just cuts us off from our deep sense of being connected with all that is, whether we choose scientific terms or see it as being an expression of the infinite that is God. In this state of deep understanding we can recognize that we have no identity we need to shore up. 

Thus liberated, we can recognize that we have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to fear. We can operate from pure joy, and offer up whatever we have to give with open generosity.

The Hindrances make us go deaf and blind

The Five Hindrances* cause a kind of blindness and deafness. How can that be? You can probably provide your own example. If there is some issue that sets you off when a topic comes up on the news, that’s a perfect time to notice how every time it comes up, there is that same circular pattern of anger, the same volatility of emotion, and a repetition of thoughts on the matter that blot out all else in that moment. Can you even hear the news or have you gone off into your own inner rant? In that moment, if someone were offering some brilliant solution to the very problem that upsets you, you would not hear it because the volume of your angry rant is ramped up so high. If anger is not something you experience often, you might notice it in someone else. (If you do, it is skillful just to notice, not to offer unasked-for instruction on the Hindrances!)

Greed too has a blinding/deafening quality. When desire or craving arises, we may have a difficult time tempering it. Only justifications to fulfill the craving are admitted into our thinking. Yes, another hindrance might chime — self-judgment, shame or despair, perhaps — but we are blind or deaf to the calm loving voice of compassionate reason.

I remember one time on my way to the refrigerator to fulfill a hunger that had nothing to do with my stomach, I was so consumed in my desire for ‘a little something’ that it was a shock when I heard another voice within me asking if this was really going to appease my desire or was it actually fueling it. Who was that?

I’d never heard that wise voice before in this context because when I am caught up in greed, I am deaf to its kind loving words. They don’t suit my goal or the kindness doesn’t feel deserved. But that one time, for whatever reason, I heard it. Having heard it once, there is a better chance I will hear it again at another moment when such wisdom would be useful in bringing me into the moment, aware of what I’m actually doing.

By noticing the hindrance, naming it as hindrance, and seeing the hindrance as simply an obstacle to clarity of mind, we unlock its hold on us. A calmer, more fully-informed way of being prevails.

We practice awareness to develop the ability to see and hear the wisdom that is always available to us. We practice compassion to be better able to stay present with whatever arises. Our compassionate eyes do not need to look away from what is difficult in the world and within our minds. We can hold it all in an open friendly embrace, neither grasping nor pushing away.

The hindrances of worry and restlessness also blind us. We only pay attention to what feeds the worry, however remote this information may be. The antsy quality of restlessness doesn’t allow for the possibility that it might be okay, maybe even joyful, to simply be here now in this ordinary moment.

Sloth and torpor also cause deafness and blindness. We don’t want to pay attention to any sense within ourselves that calls us out to play, to breathe, to be active, awake, alive. We create what we hope is a safe couch-potato or bedridden refuge for ourselves, but in fact it is not a refuge at all. It is a dulling down, a deadening, an enervating escape. A true refuge is a place where rest refuels, energizes and balances us. As we develop awareness we can begin to see the difference between shutting down and refuge.

Doubt is blind and deaf as well. When we doubt, we punch holes in everything that is offered. (For example, if we are given a compliment, we discount or distrust the source.) We see only the holes, and not the whole of the fabric of being. We even embroider the holes and make them seem more real than the fabric itself. If wisdom were to arise and speak to us, we wouldn’t trust it. And such is the nature of this quiet still voice that it would simply be quiet. It has no agenda, no goal, and all the time in the world since it is beyond time. It is simply there, always available, woven deeply in the fabric of being. But we have to be available for it as well, by sensing into the texture of the fabric of this present moment experience.

Compassion provides clarity.
When we notice one of the hindrances arising or being active within us, that noticing is skillful. It’s awareness! Yay!
But in the next moment the hindrance might draw us back into all kinds of self-abuse. Compassion at this moment makes all the difference in how we proceed. With compassion, we can stay present with seeing clearly what is happening in this moment.

Compassion is not indulgence but an infusion of honesty. It tells us, ‘Hey, these hindrances are universal and a longstanding part of the human condition. The hindrances are not who you are. You are not uniquely flawed because a hindrance keeps arising, anymore than a swimmer is flawed because a wave in the ocean overcomes him or her at some point.’

So we use compassion and universal loving-kindness skillfully when we notice the presence of a hindrance. ‘Aha!’ and then, ‘How human an experience is this!’ With this two-fold noticing, we are able to stay present to witness the dissolving of the strength of the wave of hindrance that might otherwise drown us.

Rejoice! Recognizing the blindness and deafness of the Five Hindrances helps us to dissolve them. When we are present and the hindrances have fallen away, we are grateful. We are encouraged to notice and stay present with this awareness of their disappearance. Rejoice! Notice the joy! Notice the tranquility! Notice the happiness!

The Buddha likened this state of being (at least temporarily) hindrance-free to being free from debt, to being released from prison, to being liberated from slavery, to having safely crossed a dangerous desert, and to having recovered from an illness.

Recently my three-year-old granddaughter had a terrible bout of stomach flu. Such misery! The next day when we visited her, she told us, ‘All that tummy ache. All that poop!’ She was fully recovered, happily dancing about the house. The simple joy of normal life after she had been so knotted up in pain gave her a pronounced bounce in her step, a lilt in her voice, a ready smile, laughing at nothing, when usually she is quite serious about her play. She was rejoicing. Isn’t it great to be alive and pain-free?

Back into the Fray
Of course things change moment to moment, and this sense of gratitude and delight we feel can easily turn into greed for more. ‘Why isn’t it always like this?’ we might complain. Or the fear of losing it arises. A myriad of other thoughts can come along to drag us instantly back into one hindrance or another.

But to the degree we can stay present to see the arising of a hindrance, we can meet it with awareness and compassion. Then it dissolves and we can expand into a spacious delight where we can rest in mindfulness, concentration and absorption.

Naming and Claiming
If we notice a hindrance, we might be in the habit of saying, ‘Oh, I’m the type of person who has this hindrance’? This naming and claiming game is just a divisive diversion. In this moment when we recognize a hindrance, we are seeing clearly. We can be appreciative of this moment of clarity. And we can send loving-kindness to ourselves to create more spaciousness in our heart-mind to hold this new information in a way that will support expansive understanding instead of diving right back into a hindrance.

Metta (Loving-kindness)
We practice metta to remind us that it is available in any moment, to cope with whatever arises. If we discover we are being hard on ourselves, we use metta to gentle up our approach to the challenge at hand. If we are holding a grudge against someone, we can send them metta — not because they ‘deserve’ it, since metta is not a reward, but because when we enter a state of sending metta, we better understand the unitive nature of being. We let go of the isolationist indoctrination of our culture that has had each of us in a tight little knot unable to sense our connection. We might say or think:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.


* The Buddha’s Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, and doubt.

How can what is difficult be the easy thing?

Anna Douglas,
co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center
and my dear teacher

Pema Chodron says, ‘Move toward difficulty.’ My teacher Anna Douglas, tells me, ‘Do the easy thing.’ What’s a Buddhist student to do?

This was the basis of our discussion in class on Thursday. (We are pausing in our study of the Buddha’s Five Hindrances to let the dharma lesson sink in and speak to us through our own experiences.) This discussion arose from a tradition we have in class of transitioning from meditation into the dharma talk by reading one excerpt from the Shambala classic The Pocket Pema Chodron.

This time we read #12 (We have already read through the 108 chapter book once and are on our second go-round because wisdom is always fresh, and we learn something different each time we hear it.) In this lesson, titled ‘Move toward difficulty,’ the title itself seemed strange to us, because it didn’t sound like simply being present with what is. Why would we move toward difficulty any more than we would move toward ease and pleasure? Why wouldn’t we just stay put, being present?

But in the body of the brief reading, Pema says that we are conditioned to find fault with our present experience. So perhaps a willingness to ‘move toward difficulty’ is simply countering our natural aversion to it, bringing us into the present and a willingness to be with what is difficult.

I am currently reading a book recommended to me by a friend whose taste in books I have found to be trustworthy and in step with my own. However, it was with trepidation that I opened A Pearl in the Storm, How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean by Tori Murden McClure, wherein the author took on the self-assigned project of rowing a 23-foot boat across the Atlantic Ocean. I am still reading it and am caught up in it in a way that surprises me. My taste generally goes towards cozy English cottage cups of tea and inter-generational sagas. Either that or the joyous rigors of the Satipatthana. But adventure and purposely putting oneself in great physical adversity? Never.

Tori Murden McClure

So here was a woman who truly was ‘following the difficult!’ And how do we reconcile it with Anna Douglas’ advice to me to do the easy thing? How can both of them be right?

The key is this: For the author, who rowed for thousands of miles in a solo expedition from the US toward Europe, this activity was ‘the easy thing.’ Not to discount the incredible hardships she endured, but she very clearly states that she would much rather be stuck in a storm in a solitary quest abreast the vast ocean than to walk into a room full of people and try to come up with chit chat. She was fully living in the moment, savoring her experience. How she treasured the sounds of the dolphins chirping, the whales that passed by, including a huge sperm whale, and the starry night sky unlike any she could have seen from land. Living on power bars, desalinating water to drink, rarely being truly dry or pain-free, and rowing from early in the morning to late in the evening was all part of the experience for her.

Each of us tends to follow our own preferences and tendencies, making use of our talents as best we are able. When we are honest and authentic in what we do, when we have nothing to prove, nothing to fear, nothing to hide and something to give, we follow what might look to others to be a very difficult path, but for us, because it stems from our natural bent, it is the easy way. And even when it is difficult, there is a joy in rising to this particular type of challenge.

How very different this is from the driven way that many people live. The ‘I’ll show them’ mentality indeed gets things ‘accomplished’ — but at what cost? And what is the quality of the deed done? And when the desired goal is met, is the person even present to enjoy the achievement, the award, the accolades? Or is the mind reaching ever toward the future toward another goal, another opportunity to prove that we are worthy of being alive, breathing and eating?

One student said, “But what about the arts? Where would we be if artists didn’t strive and push themselves?’

This reminded me of the daughter of an old friend who has known since she was very small that ballet was her way in life, the most natural expression of her being, and all she ever wanted to do. I think we can all agree that the life of a ballerina looks to be about the most grueling of all the arts. Yet this young woman thrives, not on striving, but on growing and blooming into the ballerina that she is. She has danced with some of the largest ballet companies in the world and she is still in high school. Her natural aptitude and genuine passion for what she does makes this most difficult art the ‘easy’ thing for her. Even when it’s challenging, or maybe especially when it’s challenging.

I also remember when I was deep in a writing project while raising young children and I was working away at my IBM Selectric (how I loved that typewriter!) every morning for several hours. When friends would say, ‘You are so disciplined!’ I thought, ‘Ah so THIS is what discipline is: When you do something with passion, when you are in the flow of a doing that doesn’t feel like work at all.’ I had always thought discipline was something we imposed on ourselves. But here it revealed itself as something quite naturally arising.

Certainly my writing and teaching the dharma takes a great deal of time and a certain amount of effort, but it is time doing what I love, time I enjoy, time that feels authentic, true, natural, real and fun for me. It’s my kind of challenge.

Last night at a gathering of my dear art critique group, a friend told a story of a child who paints with great dedication. In complimenting her, my friend kept referring to ‘your work’ and the child asked, ‘Why do you call it work?’ Indeed!

So two Buddhist teachers say too seemingly opposite things and we are left to consider and  find the intersection of the two. ‘Move toward difficulty.’ ‘Do the easy thing.’

Wise Effort. Balance. Authenticity. Anchored in the present moment. All of these we experience when both these pieces of advice can be met at the same time.