Category Archives: energy

In a slump? Quick ways to enliven your life


Acrylic on paper by Stephanie Noble

We’ve been exploring questions we can ask ourselves to enrich our lives. ‘What am I cultivating here?’ has lots of aspects to it, and our gardening metaphor enables us to understand the nature of skillful inner exploration.

One of my students said that she noticed she was feeling down, but instead of succumbing or getting into a battle with the emotional cloud as she was prone to do in the past, she went for a walk, meditated and then felt sufficiently up to going to an uplifting movie. Now that’s skillful!


Like a gardener who sees there’s perhaps some overcrowding, a plant not getting enough water or a drab spot that needs a bit of additional color, she noticed what was going on and made some adjustments.

There’s a big difference between this kind of shifting the energy and other unskillful reactions like indulging in mindless distractions and addictions or ignoring the situation, hoping it will go away.


Choosing a skillful way to shift your energy is an individual choice, depending on what kinds of activities amp up joy for you.


Meditation is always good, even if only in five minute doses.


Music — listening to it, making it, dancing to it — is a powerful way to shift energy. Have your favorite music handy! I remember my mother used to put classical music on and do her version of ballet around the house! It worked wonders to lift her mood.


A walk — Try to choose someplace away from traffic or the lure of shopping. No time for a walk? Shift the way you are walking through the grocery store. Notice the sensation of walking as if you are doing a walking meditation — only not as slow, probably. Notice all the colors of the boxes on the shelves and the piles of fruits and vegetables. Perhaps see it all as a painting you have walked into!


A hike in nature, a run, a swim, a bike ride — all of these can be skillful as long as you stay present with the experience rather than ambitious about getting anywhere.


Laughter is powerful in changing energy. It may not feel like something you can just do, but it’s been found that even forced laughter will activate real laughter, and that laughing helps the immune system. And if you have people around you, all the merrier.


Meaningful conversation that stimulates the intellect or deepens empathy can change the energy. This one can be tricky because many of us engage in conversation that drains energy. What is the difference? Notice for yourself: Are you and your companion complaining, venting, gossiping? Or are you exploring, being playful, collaborating in creative problem solving?


Creative expression in any of the arts can change the energy, but only if we stay in the process rather than focusing on the end result, which only activates tension and fear of failure. Not exactly the shift of energy we want! An example of artwork I did in 2006 is shown here. It was fun!


Volunteering shifts the focus, brings balance and cultivates empathy and connection.


What are things you do in your life that switch things up when you’re feeling in a slump?

Does it feel like you’re running on empty?

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.

Women's Ceremony by Anna Petyarre and courtesy of the Aboriginal Art Directory
Women’s Ceremony by Anna Petyarre

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.


What’s Up with all the Buddha’s Lists?

All matter and all experience is conditioned, dependent on something else having happened or existed. Try to think of any object and imagine it existing in isolation. What is it made of? Where did the things it was made of come from? Who made it? Who transported it? Who packaged it? Who sold it? A tree relies on the sun, rain and soil. All the elements rely on one another. All affect one another. This is the nature of dependent co-arising. Our thoughts are conditioned as well, dependent on sensory experience, memory, and events in the past, the present or what we fear or hope might happen in the future. They arise and fall away just as physical matter arises and falls away, in a non-linear complex web of interwoven events. This is important to notice when we look at the dhammas, these lists that constitute The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Why so many lists? The hindrances, aggregates, sense spheres, etc. do not present themselves in list form when we experience them for ourselves, do they? No. We experience ‘worry’ as worry, not as an item on a list of the Five Hindrances. Each component of any of these Buddhist lists is also part of the web of dependent co-arising. Lists are not the way we experience life, but they do have their uses, don’t they? We organize information in this way to assure ourselves that we have addressed everything we need to remember. The many, MANY lists in the Buddha’s teachings, were memorized and handed down from generation to generation of monks in a purely oral tradition for the first 500 years after the Buddha’s death. We can see they did a good job of clear transmission, because even now, 2500 years later, we are still empowered to investigate and discover for ourselves the truth of the teachings. If the transmission had broken down, subverted by some leader’s thirst for power, turned into dead dogma, the teachings could not be verified in the experience of each meditator who dedicates him or herself to meditative practice. We don’t have to be Buddhists to have this experience. There is no one path that can claim the only way to wisdom or enlightenment. I came to the Buddha’s teachings after having already experienced for myself the power of meditation to heal and sense the unity of all being. So when I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center back in the mid-1990’s, it was like coming home. My first teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, read my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ You might wonder why, if I had already literally ‘written the book’ or at least a book, I set aside teaching and writing about what I had discovered in order to study and practice Buddhism for the next fifteen years. Simply this: I love the elegant structure of the way the Buddha’s teachings are organized. This structure offers the best possible chance for someone to awaken. And so I learn it. And so, once again, I share it. That said, I have to add that the compilation of all these lists seems a bit crazy-making. There are lists of Buddhist lists they can be helpful to give an overview of all the teachings. But it’s important for us all to remember that we are not asked to memorize the lists or to take them in all at once, even if it were possible to do so. As we go through the dhammas, we go at our own pace, taking in what we are able to understand, what we are able to see is true from our own experience, and we let the rest wait, rising like dough for us to knead at another time when we are ready. All this to say we are about to look at another list! It’s the last list before we look at the Four Noble Truths, which of course is a list of four and contains a list within it of the Eightfold Path.

The Seven Awakening Factors
For those of you who were on our recent retreat, just think of some of the mental qualities that you may have experienced during your meditative sitting, walking and simply being in nature. We practiced and experienced Mindfulness. That’s the first and foremost of the Awakening Factors, without which the others are unable to arise. In class, students responded quite naturally with several of the Awakening Factors on their own. This is the nature of the dharma. For those who are practicing meditation on a regular basis, the dharma reveals itself. Several students spoke of the quality of peacefulness, which is the same as the factor called Tranquility. They talked about a sense of opening, another way to describe Equanimity, the ability to create spaciousness to hold whatever arises with ease and balance. I reminded the students of some of the comments they made at the end of the retreat. One had spoken of experiencing a quality of aliveness. This is the Awakening Factor of Energy. Another student had spoken of noticing how three roses were in different states of bloom, and that one had been nibbled on and she was so glad there was enough to share. This is an example of the Awakening Factor called Investigation of the Dhammas. I remember noticing a student sitting by the waterfall, eyes closed, deep in Concentration on the sense of sound, and with a smile filling her whole face, in a state of pure Joy. So we come to this ‘list’ not as something foreign, but something wonderfully familiar. Everything in boldface is an awakening factor. Next week we will explore how these Awakening Factors work together to bring balance and, well, awakening! But for now it’s enough to know that all these lists may look daunting or boring from the outside, but when we begin to explore them, we are really coming home to the experience of our own practice.

Energy Awareness

‘When you find yourself in the thick of it, 
help yourself to a bit of what is all around you…’ 

— from Martha My Dear by The Beatles

In class we noticed how the energy within our bodies and within the room had changed after meditating. So when we talk about energy, we are not talking about something that we have not observed for ourselves.
This experience of observable phenomena is basic to the Buddha’s teachings — the importance of noticing and questioning everything. We question the veracity of long-accepted statements and explore with fresh awareness and attention what is occurring in this moment. So let’s explore together, with curiosity, this energy.

What is the nature of this energy we have observed? It’s something that is beyond our ability to name. When we name it, it suddenly isn’t what we’re talking about anymore. But still, we need a way to talk about it. Perhaps we could see it as the resting state of all that is, the default position, like an infinite body of water with no wind acting upon it. Perhaps this energy is the felt sense of the space that fills every molecule of being, the seen and the unseen.

I think of the story of the fish who looked everywhere for this much-talked-about and highly valued but elusive thing called ‘water.’ It took him a lifetime to realize that the water he was seeking was invisible to him because there was no ‘not water’ in his experience. This energy we are talking about is so fundamental to our experience of life that we don’t just take it for granted, we really can’t see it!

We see darkness because there is light, beauty because there is ugliness. All the things that are easy to see are defined by their opposite. But this quality of energy we are talking about has no opposite. The changes that occur are simply the way the energy is moved and contorted. It is still the energy. So we don’t just take it for granted, we forget it exists! And yet when we sense in, we may become are aware of it. It creates phenomena that is observable.

Is this energy the only constant in life? We observe the truth of the Buddha’s fundamental teaching that all things are impermanent because all things, including thoughts, emotions, concepts, ideas, objects, and ourselves are compounded. Two or more causes and conditions were necessary for them to come into being. We can observe this impermanence in the weather, the cycles of nature, and in the changes that occur in our bodies, our relationships and our circumstances.

Believing in permanence is a fundamental source of our suffering. When things are ‘good’ we cling to them. When things are ‘bad’ we forget that ‘this too shall pass.’ As a result, we may do all manner of unskillful things in order to avoid inevitable change. This is the pattern we can observe as we slow down and take the time to center in and really notice. Through our awareness the tight hold of these patterns begins to soften and dissolve. These patterns are impermanent too.

With this awareness, we recognize the gift of being alive in this form right now, no matter what the circumstances or situation. This moment is always the perfect moment to wake up to what is. We can see that we are active participants in the creation of current reality, whether we are conscious of it or not. When we become aware of the infinite quality of the energy out of which all arises and our ability to notice it, conduct it or amplify it, we can also see clearly how some of our life-long patterns constrict it and dissipate it.

Most of us have experienced how the energy under certain conditions becomes electrified. When large groups of people come together in a state of fear or love, the energy activates collective anger and violence, collective joy and euphoria or a profound sense of connection and intention. We’ve seen this happen at music or sporting events, at rallies and marches. We’ve seen news footage of Hitler directing this energy, arousing the collective fear into a powerful punch that still resonates so many decades later. Perhaps just reading that name sent some energetic shock waves through your body. That’s how powerful this energy is! We now know that our brain chemistry changes in a myriad of ways when we are exposed to these energy-activating experiences.

I experienced this kind of mass energy when I participated in the marches in San Francisco in 2002 and 2003 to demonstrate against going to war in Iraq. I marched multiple times, but noticed a real difference at the march where I sat in meditation with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as the marchers assembled at the base of Market Street before the march began. To sit in silence with speakers ranting and thousands of strangers milling about within inches of me was quite a different meditation! But mindfulness training kept me fully present, relaxed but alert.

When we meditators rose and joined the march, the energy all around us felt very buoyant. There was a quality of spaciousness — no bumping into anyone even though the crowd was dense. There was a quality of loving-kindness and gratitude for all these dedicated people from all walks of life coming together to show their concern for the well being of the peoples of the world and the planet. As we marched, this sense of spaciousness spread out from the meditators and seemed to affect the marchers around us — who knows how far up and down the march — allowing everyone to be centered in their profound understanding that war is not the answer rather than getting caught up in surface distractions. There was great camaraderie and deep respect. There was a sense that whatever the results of our wise efforts there that day, we were creating right there in that moment the energy of peace. How skillful!

We often think of peace as the absence of war, but peace is much more than that. Peace is powerful! It is the collective creative energy that arises out of love and respect. When we seek peace out of fear, it is a paltry thing, a wimpy sniveling craving for safety that is simply a forgetting of the potentiality of accessing the energy always available to us. This fear is absolutely understandable. We have spent our lives unaware that we have access to unitive universal energy to transform our current experience. In fact, we believe ourselves to be powerless. Any person who is truly at peace, who feels deeply connected with all beings, will create a very different resonance than one who is screaming their separateness and fear. When we actively engage the loving spacious energy within ourselves and then come together in deep respect, this is powerful peace. The energetic experience is transformative.

When we access our Buddha nature, our quiet voice within, and do so together, a collective energy arises that is infinite in its potential. When the crowd disbands, the sense of euphoria will dissipate, due to the natural ebb and flow of energy. It would be quite human to feel disappointed. In that moment we have the choice of being present with this experience, thus aligning with the energy, or getting caught up in longing for another ‘group high’ experience, thus succombing to the pattern of ‘not enough’ that constricts our ability to be present and fully in touch with our own capacity for aliveness.

I mentioned the ebb and flow of energy. This tidal quality doesn’t mean the energy comes and goes so much as it expands and compresses. We may experience the way energy rises and falls like waves, overwhelming us or draining us. Remember the rule at the ocean’s edge: Never turn your back to it! We could use that as a reminder to be awake and aware of the energy.

A friend of mine was an avid Buddhist student for many years. Then in her fifties she took up surfing. What she learned resting on the ocean and riding the waves has made sense of all the dharma talks she ever heard. The Buddha taught his students to find out for themselves. She is doing that in her intimate relationship with the ocean.

Here’s another phenomenon we may have noticed about this energy: We are familiar with how spending time with certain people makes us exhausted, as if they have drained the energy right out of us. Of course, it is not most people’s intention to drain energy out of anyone, but the effect is still there. When we rely on other people to direct, inspire, shore up our own energy, then we drain their energy. This happens when we are afraid or simply don’t know how to access our own inner wellspring of infinite energy through meditation in whatever form works for us.

People may say about an acquaintance ‘She’s so needy.’ This just means that ‘she’ (or he) hasn’t found the portal to access infinite energy, so is relying heavily on others.

Pause for a moment to sense into your body, into whatever physical sensation you notice right now — pressure, temperature, tension, pain, the quality of energy or the movement of the breath. Now picture a person you know who drains you of energy when you are with them.

While thinking of that person, notice if your body sensations change in some way. Perhaps there is a tightness that sets in, a change in the pattern of the breath, or a sense of aching exhaustion. Just notice what, if anything, happens when you have this person in mind.

Now let that image go. Then focus on the breath rising and falling, that steady flow of energy and see what happens with the sensations in the body. If you experience a return to a sense of ease or well being, then you have just given yourself a clear demonstration of the power of this energy and the power of our thoughts to affect our experience of this energy.

The Buddha taught his students to incline the mind toward wholesome thoughts. Since he was teaching primarily young men, he was probably encouraging them to bring their awareness a little higher up than their loins. But this advice is useful for all of us. We have just seen how, when we dwell on a certain person or situation, we feel drained. When we are drained of energy we are disempowered, living in fear — whether for the other person, the state of the world, or our own well being. We feel paralyzed and helpless.

This is where the powerful practice of metta comes in. Metta, as you probably know is universal loving-kindness. The activity of sending metta, first to ourselves, then to others and eventually to the whole universe, aligns us with our Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature, or whatever you are most comfortable calling it, is our access point to this infinite loving energy. When we access this energy, we feel its power to center us, bring us fully present, and hold us in a loving open embrace. Because the nature of this energy is infinite, we not only don’t need to keep it to ourselves, we can’t contain it! It glows and grows and compels us to share it with the world. Because the nature of this energy is infinite, we cannot be in it and withhold it from any being. We cannot be in it and judge some beings as unworthy of receiving this loving-kindness. So we share it, amplify it, enjoy the sense of aligning with this powerful loving-kindness that is flowing through us.

In class we did an extended metta practice, using the phrases ‘May I be well, may you be well, etc.’ In our next class we will explore this practice in more depth, especially those places where we have resistance, like sending metta to ourselves and to ‘difficult’ people. But for now it is enough to consider this idea of infinite energy and how we experience it.

If the fish had paused to notice that every time he swished his tail, something moved around him, he might have become aware of that elusive thing called water much sooner. Just so we can pause and notice the interplay of our thoughts, emotions and actions with the felt sense of energy in our bodies and surroundings.

I would also like to offer this two-minute video of a starling murmuration in Scotland as a wonderful example of the collision-free euphoric group energy seen in other species, but also quite possible in our own.

Meditation & Creativity: Finite & Infinite

Having explored our own experience of creativity and what might be sabotaging our ability to begin or continue to create without beating ourselves up, now we will begin a discussion of a few common challenges to living a full, open and creative life. Over the course of these discussions, beginning today with ‘finite and infinite,’ you may see some commonalities and overlap. This is because all the things that sabotage our creativity and our lives in general are rooted in fear. We will explore the variations on the theme because you may relate to one way of seeing this fear arising more strongly than another.

Finite & Infinite
What could this mean in the context of what we are discussing?
Many of us are operating from a finite source within ourselves. We border on exhaustion because the energy we tap into is finite and easily depleted. Does this resonate with you? It isn’t a physical exhaustion, though it can manifest there as well. It is usually more a sense of being overwhelmed and never being enough.

So what do we do when we have a finite resource? The intelligent response would be to conserve it, budget it out. Naturally we become a little stingy with this energy as we feel it depleting so rapidly. This stinginess causes us to tighten up, to cling to what we have for fear of losing what little is left. This tightness causes tension in our words, our brush strokes and our interactions with others.

But what if instead of drawing on a finite resource, our metaphorical oil reserves, we could tap into our inner solar energy, our infinite source of creativity and joy?

This shift from finite to infinite resources within us is a natural one that happens as we develop a regular practice of meditation. When we operate from this infinite source we feel enriched in the process rather than depleted. Creating from this source, we feel that we are conduits for something larger than ourselves. You hear people say, ‘The book wrote itself,’ ‘The characters told me what to say,’ or ‘I was painting so in the zone and somehow this is what came through.’ We amaze ourselves when we produce something in this state. Our ego wants to take credit for it but can’t seem to do so, because there is this sense of having plugged in to something, so it’s not ‘ours’ in the small tight judgment-fearing sense of that word.

When we are writing, painting, singing, acting, designing our garden or whatever creative pursuit draws us, we are well aware of this shift. When we are in a finite mode we struggle. When we are in the infinite mode the process feels effortless. When we are in the finite mode we have incessant inner chatter, rude monologues that keep us too terrified to truly engage in the project at hand or keep us questioning the value of anything we do.

When we access that infinite source, we are open channels of creativity. Struggles fall away and are replaced with rich complex engaging challenges that make us feel incredibly alive. We have tapped into something so bountiful we can relax and enjoy it rather than worry about if it, or we, will be enough.

When we make this shift into the infinite, it feels like a blessing that just happened. This state of infinite richness doesn’t feel like something we can access at will. And maybe it’s for the best that we feel this to be true, because to believe otherwise might create a striving for it, which would block the possibility of it.

But when we meditate, by letting go of all striving, we open to that infinite source. It arises our of the quiet, out of our willingness to make space for the unknown, our willingness to be open and receptive and to let go of our need to control our experience. We lay down our defenses and simply accept whatever arises. We let go of the idea that what arises is us and all the judgment that stirs up, and all the fear of judgment by others.

By maintaining a regular practice of meditation, we create conducive conditions for accessing our infinite creative source.

Now when we are in this infinite state we may become so enamored of it that we cling to it, afraid of losing it. And thus it immediately falls away. Our fear of losing it immediately douses the creative flame.

With regular practice we can become more steady in our access to this infinite source. We are more accepting of what is our experience in this moment, regardless of whether it is euphoric or pedestrian, whether we are contented or in pain. This acceptance is not resignation, not ‘oh, whatever.’ It is more awake, alive and juicy than that. Whatever arises is held in loving awareness that has both compassion and curiosity. In our concentration practice we see the transitory nature of all experience. We can discover pure joy, not dependent on causes and conditions. That is the gateway to the infinite.

Now this idea of shifting from a finite source to an infinite source may very well be shifting from left brain thinking to activating the right brain. You may be familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard neuroatomist and author of the book Stroke of Insight, who in 1996 suffered a massive stroke. Her stroke was centered in her left brain, so she was able to really experience the right brain, and because she was studying brains, she saw this as an incredible opportunity to pay attention to her experience. Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade!

She describes the difference between the left brain and the right brain this way:
“The right brain is all about the big picture. It thinks in pictures and it looks at everything as connected. It experiences everything as radiating energy and is intimately connected to the kinesthetic movement and learning of our bodies. It is our intuition, which includes our ability to look at the big picture and see if everything is fitting together in a way that makes sense. It is all about the present moment experience of now.
“The left brain is all about breaking our lives down into details. It thinks in language and uses words to communicate what it is thinking. It thinks linearly and knows that we need to put our socks on before our shoes and why. It is capable of connecting our thoughts with thoughts in our past, giving linearity to our thinking. It is our identity, the cells that say ‘I am an individual’ and these are all the details of my life. It defines things as right or wrong, good or bad.”
Obviously we need both parts of our brain. Each plays a vital role. In her experience of only having the right brain to depend on, she was unable to function in the world, unable to make a phone call or remember what she needed to do next. But in our culture we over emphasize the left brain, and the right brain isn’t exercised and its findings aren’t recognized as valid.
So through meditation practice we are bringing the two hemispheres of our brain back into balance. We are cultivating the ability to access the infinite.

Eightfold Path: Right Effort

Right Effort brings joy and ease. If after meditation we feel neither joy nor ease, then we have not exerted Right Effort. This is true in any other activity in our lives as well.

Effort is expending physical or mental energy. We can feel energy in our bodies, so we can feel when we are straining or when we are resisting making an effort. We can feel when we are trying too hard, over doing it or when our efforts are half-hearted at best.

Each of us has a wide range of energies within us, depending on multiple physical, emotional and environmental factors. But most of us have a set point somewhere in the mid range, a default position. It’s easy to know where our own set point on this range by checking in with our natural inclinations. If we generally can’t sit still and want to go for a run or are restless for a mental challenge, our energetic set point is on the high side. If we’d rather snuggy down with a book and a cup of tea — not just after an active period, but as the main event of our day — then our set point is on the low end.

It’s useful to know our natural set point in order to recognize when effort will be needed. For the high set point, effort will be needed to sit still. Sitting meditation may be a challenge, either physically because the body wants to move, or mentally because the mind is racing.

For those with a low set point, effort will be required to take on physical or mental challenges. This is no reason to beat ourselves up, calling ourselves lazy. But it’s also no reason to limit ourselves to a sedentary life. We just accept that more effort will be required of us for active challenges.

If we have a high set point, we may cut ourselves off from activities that require us to sit for periods of time or ask us to pay attention. Our restlessness seems to preclude this kind of passive participation, and we may mourn that loss or we may prefer to judge those activities as worthless. But we don’t have to limit ourselves this way. We just need to develop patience as we learn a different kind of effort than the kind that challenges our muscles or our brain.

Most of us know from personal experience that when undertaking a new exercise regimen, we can sabotage ourselves if we do too much on the first day. We may injure ourselves or have such an unhappy experience we can’t bear to repeat it. We learn that if we begin small and add on incrementally, with dedication and patience we will achieve our desired results.

This is also true with meditation. If you are not a meditator and would like to start, begin with a few minutes of sitting in silence following your breath. Then gradually build up to 30 or 40 minutes. To expect yourself to be able to sit for 40 minutes the first time out may set you up for thinking meditation is not for you.

We also know from experience that if we don’t feel like getting off the couch and out on the walking path, when we do we feel better. And this is also true for meditation. The effort is simply setting the intention and getting ourselves to start.

As well as sensing into our bodies to see if we are exerting Right Effort, we also want to notice our thoughts – the stories we tell ourselves that support over-exertion or giving up: “I don’t want to stop until I’m done, no matter how I feel, because I’m not a quitter.” “I have to prove how good I am to myself and or others.” “People won’t like me unless I’m perfect.” “Why should I bother? It won’t make any difference,” “If I can just accomplish this one thing everything will be perfect in my life.”

Whatever our stories are, it is worthwhile to really listen to them, follow them back to their source, see if there is someone else’s voice in there – a parent, teacher, childhood friend perhaps? By exploring with great compassion the roots, intentions and fears expressed by these stories, we can begin to unravel the tight knotted tangle of thoughts that trip us up and cause us to be unskillful in our efforting.

The spacious presence that we develop through the practice of meditation is key to Right Effort. In the practice of meditation itself, there is a certain amount of effort required: The effort to honor our intentions to bring ourselves continually back to the present moment and to be kind. The effort to stay relaxed but alert, without fidgeting or falling asleep. Every time we meditate we are practicing Right Effort. We notice when our efforting becomes tense or strained. We can see how unskillful this kind of effort is, how it takes us out of the moment, is potentially harmful and counter-productive.

If we don’t feel joyful or at ease after meditation or other activities, then it is this aspect of the Eightfold Path that we might want to ponder. Like all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort is a guidepost to show us where we may be causing ourselves and others suffering, and to cast a light on our path toward freedom from suffering.

Right Effort is finding the Middle Way, as the Buddha did. As a child and young man, no effort was required of him. He was coddled by his wealthy family. So, not surprisingly, when the opportunity arose, he was drawn to the opposite extreme and followed the ascetics for whom deprivation was a spiritual practice. To attain enlightenment he was told he must exert great effort, denying every desire of his body and mind. He was exceptionally gifted at doing so, but it didn’t fulfill what he was seeking. Finally, he rejected both extremes, indulgence and asceticism. He found the Middle Way to be the clearest path the end suffering.

So when we feel ourselves straining, putting our well being at risk, this is not Right Effort. When we feel ourselves slipping into oblivion, this is not Right Effort. Right Effort is fully conscious, fully alert, yet relaxed and buoyant.

Think of a violin or other stringed instrument. If the violin strings are pulled too tight what happens? If they are too loose what happens? The violin can only make beautiful music when its strings are neither too tight nor too loose. And so it is true with us as well. With spacious awareness we can tune ourselves to Right Effort.

Right Effort comes from a deeper connected place within us. Quieting down and settling in, we find this calm connection and from there anything we do will feel almost effortless because it will rise up from within us in a natural font. Does the tidal water make an effort to rise? No, it is a natural arising out of its nature and surrounding conditions.

This may seem all well and good if we are in touch with our deep connection. But what if we are not aware of it? How do we get aware of it in order to experience this effortless Right Effort?

In this case Right Effort is simply getting ourselves to our cushion to sit. Once there, our effort is to follow our breath and notice and then let go of any ambition for achievement, fear of failure, anticipation of results, reflection on past experiences or judgment about ourselves, our teachers, our fellow meditators, our parents, our culture, a higher power, or any other object of blame for our current state of suffering.

By using the least amount of effort possible to bring ourselves back to the breath, to awareness of this present moment, we don’t waste our energy with tension, regrets or recriminations. We simply accept our humanity and celebrate this awakening to this moment, and then this one. Again and again.