A friend of mine recently told me that she hadn’t realized how much of a weight she had been under from the duties involved in administering her father’s estate until the day she gave the final checks to her brothers and sisters and was truly done with that sad responsibility. Weight lifted, she could suddenly see how much her energy had been depleted, and how much strength had been sapped. Because of course, being life, it wasn’t just the one thing. At the same time she was dealing with work transitions, other family matters, health challenges and of course the lingering grief over the loss of her father.
They say ‘when it rains it pours.’ We recognize the truth in that. Life doesn’t always present challenges in an orderly queue, each one waiting its turn. But whether they happen all at once or in succession, we may doubt if we have the strength and energy to handle it all. It just becomes too much. Sound familiar?
The Fifth Paramita is Strength / Energy, another quality or ‘Perfection of the Heart’ for us to explore and consider. We can see that it’s relevant in all our lives, because even the hardiest among us sometimes feel physically exhausted, mentally fatigued and emotionally drained.
Speaking to energy, the Buddha’s teachings have us look at the Hindrances of restlessness and of sloth and torpor. Just recognizing when they arise in our experience, not making an enemy of them, we can see how they cloud our ability to see clearly what is happening in our lives and in our way of relating to our current experience. One student in class noted that when she has a decision to make she feels a sense of restlessness until she decides on a course of action. That restlessness is discomfort with things not being settled. Another way handling that discomfort is to give up, become a channel-surfing couch potato or lose ourselves in any one of a variety of addictions in order to avoid being present with what is going on with us. A couch potato is sloth personified, and a mind lost in addiction is in a state of torpor. We can become mentally fatigued when we exert a lot of energy leaning into or living in the future, planning, daydreaming or worrying; or when we run away from the challenges we are facing in this moment.
In the Noble Eightfold Path, we learn about Wise Effort. Certainly this has to do with how we use our energy. Are we striving in a way that depletes us? Are we not making any effort at all, ending up lethargic and unmotivated? So how do we bring ourselves into Wise Effort when we’re feeling things are off but aren’t sure why?
Wise Effort is based on Wise Intention, so when we get that ooky feeling that our effort is unskillful in some way, we can ask ‘What is my intention here?’ The answer will let us know if we are trying to be perfect, trying to prove something — to ourselves or someone else, living or dead. Or if our hidden intention is to harm or sabotage ourselves or someone else by making no effort at all, a kind of passive-aggressive reaction. This is all worth exploring in a skillful way, either by ourselves after meditation or with the help of a therapist if it just feels too tangled and we’re not able to break the cycle of judging ourselves or blaming others. Another skillful question, always, is ‘What am I afraid of?”
Because my spiritual path, and my meditation practice, was renewed through a serious encounter with depletion, the subject of energy is central to me. When in the early 1990’s I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome and eventually had to give up my career, I had a lot of time to meditate and investigate the nature of energy.
I began to see that when I am caught up in living in a tight fearful way, my energy is limited, finite, shallow. When I am living fully in the moment, creating spaciousness and compassion to whatever degree I am able, I loosen into a loving relationship with whatever arises, and my energy is equally spacious, unrestrained, infinite. When my life was one big to do list with no time for meditation, walks in nature or anything else that connected me to true joy and understanding, then I got depleted very quickly. During that period of my life, that state of depletion became the extended norm, and I got very ill.
But what does that mean: finite and infinite energy? Well, scientifically speaking, this solid-seeming world is really energy, vibrations at varying frequencies coming together in patterns that form and dissolve all the objects we perceive to be solid, including ourselves. For convenience we perceive everything as solid, but it’s very inconvenient really when we get attached to that self-limiting view, believing it to be reality. It can also be very painful, because we cling to one fleeting version as the way things should be.
As we sit in meditation practice, we relax and release pent-up tension. We attend the vast field of physical sensation we experience, and we are able to let go of the idea of our skin being the edge of our being. Because it is not a solid edge at all, but porous. And we are breathing in and out air that defies our desire to name exactly when it is a part of ‘me’ and when it suddenly is not. But in meditation, attending actual sensation, we are in this vast sphere of experience — no boundaries, infinite. Yes, it is centered in consciousness here and now. We are not flying off to some other realm. All the realms of experience are available here and now, passing through our field of experience, named or unnamed.
This is how we access and come to understand the infinite. We don’t need to explain it to ourselves. We only need to know how through our practice we can experience it. Quite naturally, without striving, we let go of thinking that life begins and ends with our to do list. We create enough space to check in with ourselves to see what is important to us, and what is not. We access infinite energy and our relationship with life and the world shifts into something joyful, where we are able to do whatever is necessary in a mindful way, another part of the dance of life.
When we go on a silent meditation retreat, each person is assigned a daily yogi job. This might be vacuuming the hallway, washing pots and pans, cleaning a bathroom, sweeping a courtyard or scrubbing a shower. Whatever it is, after a few days it somehow transforms from drudgery into a labor of love. And that sense of aliveness in the moment of doing any activity can be brought home and applied to everything we do.
Which is a big relief, because most of us most of the time are functioning with a heavy reliance on finite energy, which isn’t very reliable. Finite energy is manufactured out of caffeine, striving, willpower, pushing, scolding, demanding that we work harder, go faster, and accomplish more. We give our all without taking time for ourselves. We are out of balance. And our energy is quickly depleted. Finite energy may seem to be getting the job done, but there is some crucial aspect missing: That infinite quality of connection, loving-kindness and pure attention. We may think it’s working but at some point an unwelcome amalgamation of stressors can force us to acknowledge that when push literally comes to shove, finite energy doesn’t work.
Through regular meditation practice, and particular through going on retreat, we begin to see how our striving was based in fear, and that fear just creates more and more tension in the body and mind. When we release the tension by attending sensations arising and falling away in our field of experience, relaxing the tight kinks that hold us in a forward-leaning fearful striving mode, we discover something very interesting. Life does not require us to push it or shove it into shape. We don’t need to push the river of life! We can become skillful in navigating it instead.
So notice for yourself to what degree you are trying to push the river instead of coming into skillful relationship with whatever arises in your experience. Notice how much energy you exert when you could be rowing — merrily, merrily, merrily — gently down the stream.