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.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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