Category Archives: wise effort

Inquiry Series: Pause in place and set a kinder pace

Over the past weeks we have been looking at three valuable questions — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? These are particularly helpful when we feel something’s not quite right in our lives. For example, when we:

– have difficulty in a relationship
– get hurt feelings
– feel stuck or frustrated
– can’t appreciate the goodness in life
– get caught up in thoughts of the past or future
– are hard on ourselves and/or our loved ones

Noticing when something’s askew and asking What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? allows us to see more clearly what’s going on. We may see where we are misunderstanding the true nature of our experience. This is not a fault-finding expedition, but a compassionate look with some clarifying tools we may never have realized we had readily on hand to help.

Already happy?
It’s good to know about these tools, these valuable questions, even if we are feeling fully present in our experience, not caught up in endless thoughts about the past or future. We can save them for the proverbial rainy day when they will come in handy. Most of us do have at least occasional bouts of troubling emotions and circular thoughts, so these questions can be packed in the emergency kit for just such occasions.

Wise Effort
When we undertake this kind of inquiry, it’s important to do so with wise effort. The answers can’t be mined with a pick ax. Instead they arise in the space we create with our compassionate attention and gentle inquiry. This is only possible when we give ourselves time to quiet down, pause and unplug from our to do list and our devices. A regular meditation practice helps create the spaciousness needed, but the inquiry and the answers come afterwards and at other times during the day if we are open and receptive to them.

This is quite a different experience than the ‘Let’s DO this thing!’ attitude we may take when confronting a big project. There’s no charge of adrenaline and no goal to aim for. There is no urgency in our inner investigation. If you sense an urgency, that’s just a fear-based aspect wanting to get ‘fixed’ and done. But this is not a one-off project. It’s a rich and rewarding habit of a lifetime. Be compassionate toward that urgent aspect, but don’t let it dictate the agenda here.

Clarification on the word ‘story’
Last week in our exploration of the question Is this true? I used the word ‘story’. This usage of that word is easily misunderstood. Calling our long-held patterns of thought ‘stories’ is not to discredit them or throw them out. It is to allow some light in so that we can see more clearly. If we’ve always accepted the story whole-cloth, how interesting to look more closely and see the distinct threads woven together to create the pattern.

When we ask ‘Is this true?’ it is not to get rid of the story. It is to look with compassion and clarity at all the assumptions within the story. Most of our stories have aspects of truth and aspects of misunderstanding or misinformation within them.

The teacher/author Byron Katie has made it her life’s work helping readers and students question Is it true? How do I know it’s true? and Who would I be without my story? That last question helps us to see how tightly we hold onto even the most painful stories. The story might be ‘I’m a total klutz’ or ‘I’m the kind of person who could never do…’ something we very much would like to do. These self-defining belief-stories are hard to challenge. We’ve built a lifetime of ‘proof’ that backs up our story. This kind of inquiry can seem threatening. If I’m not this story I so firmly believe in, then who am I? And yet some deeper wisdom within us encourages us to explore, to question, to open to the possibility that we are quite possibly not a total klutz at all.

This inquiry is a gentle and incremental process, not a tearing up of the book of our lives and writing a whole new version. It’s an invitation to be present with what arises and be willing to look with open eyes and open heart. We hold ourselves in kindness. May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.

Do You Get an ‘A’ for Effort?

wise-effort-handsAs we look at the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, at first glance Wise Effort seems the easiest to understand. We see from our own experience and by observing others how over-efforting and under-efforting cause all kinds of problems in life, from the tense host striving to make everything ‘perfect’, causing her guests to feel uneasy; to the couch potato who seems unable to move forward in life; to the ambitious dreamer who seems always in motion but whose wheels are spinning.

Any of these sound familiar? Using the Eightfold Path as a guide for self-exploration, we see that this is not about self-improvement or changing who we are. We are instead looking at patterns in our thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are causing us, and probably those around us, unhappiness. These patterns do not define us. But they may be confining us a bit, and that’s why we want to look more closely.

To investigate, we don’t use our overdeveloped muscle of critical facility, the fault-finder that is often particularly adept at turning inward and causing misery. Instead, with regular meditation, we cultivate mindfulness, compassion and spaciousness where all the tight patterns are able to loosen, soften and quiet down. Only when the cacophony of harsh judgments and strident opinions have been given enough space to settle down, do we have the opportunity to hear the quiet, calm, loving voice of our own inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. This is one of the great gifts of regular meditation practice.

Once we have accessed that inner wisdom in meditation, we can recognize it at other times as well. We can actively seek it out at any time, just by quieting down and listening in. And over time we begin to align more and more with that wiser way of seeing what is actually going on in our experience. We become less reactive and more responsive. When it comes to effort, we are better able to identify the cause of our unskillfulness. We can see what’s really happening with the examples I gave above:

If you relate to the host who wants everything perfect for her guests but instead creates tension, let’s review Wise Intention from the previous blog post. We can see that her intention is not wise. Why? She is fearfully caught up in wanting people to see her in a certain way, in order to admire, respect and love her. She is busy shoring up her separate identity. That is literally off-putting. She puts people off by setting herself apart. She wants to be seen as the kind of person she aspires to be.

A wise intention, such as the intention to be compassionate to herself and all beings, would ensure that she takes care of herself, takes on only as much as she can handle, asks for help or, if she can afford it, hire help, so that she can be fully present to interact with her guests. If this means she doesn’t get a write-up on the society page, so be it! If that was her intention, it was painfully unwise. What people respond to is coming into a space and being greeted by a person who is fully present, fully engaged and not freaking out about whether the space or the food is up to the standards of some magazine editor who probably eats mostly take out in her NYC apartment anyway.

After a dharma talk of setting truest intentions one student came up to me and said that she thinks her truest intention is authenticity, but she wasn’t sure about the wording. That reminded me of an insight I had on a silent retreat that has stayed with me for many years, and has helped me and students I’ve shared it with again and again. I promised my students I would include it here. It is:

I have nothing to hide.
I have nothing to prove.
I have nothing to fear.
I have something to give.

See if this phrase empowers you to live without regard to how people see you. For me, it helped me to stop seeing myself as an object being viewed by others, and allowed me to simply live from the center of my being. This is a challenge women often relate to more than men. Men are generally encouraged to ‘Be your own man.’ But women, traditionally, have been encouraged to put others first and to polish themselves up to be beautiful objects in body and manner in order to attract a mate. Even the princesses among us who promote themselves as the center of the universe are caught up in needing to be objects to be adored, totally dependent on exterior approval. Plenty of men fall into this pattern as well. But rather than demanding that others see us as the center of their worlds, it is possible to live with ease and clarity, making all our efforts grounded in wisdom.

If you related more to the couch potato, your compassionate investigation will not include derogatory terms like ‘couch potato’! That’s not your wise inner voice but one of the many judgmental ones that contributed to the pattern of lethargy you find yourself succumbing to. Set a wise intention — to meditate regularly, to be compassionate, and to attune to the muscles that want to move and the mind that wants a challenge. As a kindness to your heart, eat sensibly and get up and move about. Find the natural strength and fluidity that is within you, waiting to be set free. That is compassion. If you just can’t muster the will to make an effort, ask for help. But choose someone who will help you investigate what’s going on rather than a drill sergeant who makes you feel even more miserable about yourself even as you ‘get into shape.’ Compassion is not giving in to your most fear-based patterns of thinking, but attuning to the vibrant potential for living fully in every moment.

You might be inspired by this story from PBS Newshour called ‘Back on my feet’ :

If you recognize yourself in the dreamer with the spinning wheels, your compassionate investigation will be to notice the circular patterns, the walls you have set up and the short circuits in your thinking that bounce you back to square one again and again. By living in the future, imagining some perfect life, you are completely missing the offerings of this moment. No matter what your situation, no matter how imperfect, there is in this moment some beauty, some light, something funny, something touching. There is a zen story that speaks to this:

There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.

So set the intention to meditate, then listen in to that wise inner voice, the one that helps you set an intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with yourself and all beings. Discover how to live fully in this moment and your life will unfold in its own way, more and more aligned with your truest intention. Let your life surprise you with its gifts!

Wise effort is not how much we accomplish, but the kind of the effort we are making in whatever we do. Often when we are exercising we are caught up in a goal: To get to the end of the course, the trail, the time period allotted; to change the way our body appears so that it will be more attractive or acceptable; to have bragging rights that we are able to run or even won a marathon. There’s nothing at all wrong with winning, but focusing on that isn’t wise effort. We can win with wise effort and go on to enjoy the activity. Winning with unskillful effort leaves us exhausted and without a sense of purpose in our lives.

Wise Effort is meditating on a regular basis, setting up and sustaining a daily practice. Kudos for that! Once we are sitting, we continue to use Wise Effort to stay present and compassionate with ourselves, to adjust our posture as we so that it is both erect and relaxed, and we rely on the bones instead of the muscles to support us, and if we notice any tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree we are able.

Goal-setting in meditation is not wise effort, sabotaging our ability to stay present and compassionate. The goal stays ever distant, always on the horizon. When we shift away from imagining the outcome and instead cultivate in this moment a spacious way to be in relationship with all that is occurring right now, we become available to insight and deepened understanding.

Awakening is both potentially instantaneous and a lifelong rich exploration. It happens each time we become fully present, each time our heart is cracked open a bit more with compassion, each time we recognize that we and all beings are intrinsic to the whole of being. We become more and more familiar with our Buddha nature, that wise inner wisdom that speaks softly, has no agenda and all the time in the world. So it really is up to our Wise Intention and our Wise Effort to practice meditation, become more spacious and available to attune to that inner wisdom. All the fear-based judgments and opinions within our thinking mind have enough room to co-exist and feel heard, even if they don’t get to rule the roust. We understand the protective impulse of their fear-based intentions. Over time we begin to see them for what they are: patterns of thought initially launched by some words or actions of someone long ago, who was unskillful because of all the fear-based patterns they were dealing with. Another opportunity for compassion. Which is not the same as condoning or approval of behavior.

Our Wise Effort is to keep cultivating spaciousness and compassion, for ourselves, for everyone in our lives, even those who push our buttons, and for the contributors from the past whose own unskillfulness set off an unskillful pattern within us. This is our practice. Sometimes it is skillful to put distance between ourselves and someone who pushes our buttons. Although we are developing inner wisdom, there is no reason to force ourselves to confront our demons constantly. In fact, we are actively seeking our community of people who support us in our wise effort, and letting go of actively involving ourselves with people whose fear pushes them to antagonize us. At some time we may be ready to sit with them, but we can give ourselves permission to wait until the time is right. Meanwhile we send them infinite lovingkindness whenever we think of them: May you be well. 

Wise Effort has a quality of effortlessness because the exertion is appropriate for this body, mind, time and place. It is enough to keep us engaged in an optimum way and mindful so that we are not prone to accidents.

What are some examples in your own life of wise or unwise effort? What might be a skillful way address the challenge?

On silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, all attendees are given yogi jobs so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or create meals. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen, vacuumed dormitory hallways, swept porches, cleaned bathrooms and maintained the Council House. But on one retreat I really wanted as little potential interaction with other retreatants as possible, so they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls.
Right away I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space.

Since I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, each day as I took up my sponge, squeegee and scrub brush, I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work. It started with bare tolerance, trying to be a good sport. Then I noticed some hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job.
Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings.
A few days in I sensed into my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

So coming into the present, noticing all the judgments and opinions that arise in relationship to what we are doing, we develop a skillful relationship with even the most mundane tasks. In this way all we do becomes part of our practice. That’s Wise Effort.

No one has our individual answers. But if we notice that we are out of balance in the area of effort and that this under or over efforting is causing problems, then we can skillfully test out either taking on physical or mental challenges, or we can let up on the whip a bit.

I have written many posts over the years on Wise Effort. Feel free to explore more.

Patience is not just waiting around

Patience is considered a virtue, yet in our go-getter culture where decisive action and taking the lead is prized, patience is often undervalued, as if it is just sitting around and waiting for someone else to give us what we want.

But patience is not just waiting. It’s learning to be present with what is, even when what is present is challenging. Impatience causes us to throw up our hands and give up when things don’t happen quickly. It can also make us do dangerous things. Just yesterday, we were behind a vehicle that was parallel parking. And not very well. Oh brother! We’ll be here for a bit! We sure know how to pick lanes. You know the drill. Impatience rose up. But we waited. A couple of drivers behind us also felt impatience arise, and acted on it in a way that put all of us in danger. Just to save another twenty seconds. Sound familiar?

A student in class mentioned the grocery checkout line and how people complain that the new chip system on the credit card reader is so slow. And then you get stuck behind someone writing a check. A check! Really? In this day and age? And, please, could you have a more involved signature? Impatience arises. And when it does, there’s an opportunity to pause and notice it: The sense of urgency to be somewhere else, the boredom with being here, the judgment of others for doddering and of ourselves for poor time management or always managing to pick the slowest line. And while we are noticing that, we can take a moment to notice the sensations in the body: first the tension from our impatience, and then ones that might be more pleasant or neutral. A grocery store is a wondrous place to awaken to the present moment. All those colors and patterns! Very trippy. And then there are the people. When we come into the present moment a sense of wonder and tenderness can rise up and surprise us. We feel a sense of camraderie and even deep compassion for the people in line, even for the lady writing a check.

So patience is the result of being present with whatever is arising in our experience at this moment. And impatience is the trigger to awakening to the present moment, if we stop to notice it. If we don’t, it could trigger a bad mood, or poor judgment that puts us and those around us in danger.

So that’s patience as an antidote to rushing. But there’s another kind of patience that has to do with letting go of our need to see immediate results.

Patience sustains us for the long haul of whatever challenges we face. I was so impressed by my little granddaughter’s patience when learning to sew. She didn’t give up or get angry. She kept trying to thread the needle, even though it seemed the thread might never go into the needle. She seems to know that learning anything new takes time and patience.

She didn’t inherit her patience from me! I remember when I was twenty and took a belly dancing class. I enjoyed the first class. I got the rhythm and could shake my hips easily. But in the next class the teacher had us try to coordinate playing cymbals in our fingers while we were shaking our hips. Suddenly I felt totally out of my depths. I couldn’t do it! Oh no! I didn’t like that feeling. So I never went back! I was so attached to the idea of being a good dancer, even in a dance I was just learning, that I couldn’t sustain the difficult feelings of failure, even if it was only temporary.

It’s uncomfortable to be really unskillful at something. It takes patience. Is there anything you wanted to do but didn’t because it would take you into that uncomfortable identity-threatening place? That’s where the quality of patience really shines. To be patient with our own ineptness is definitely a perfection of the heart.

representativesPatience can also be used as a powerful force for change. Recently Democratic representatives sat on the floor of the House of Representatives Chamber in order to bring gun reform to a vote. The patience to sit until the opposition understands their commitment is not some passing fancy, is a vital action, isn’t it?

But, one might ask, why now? Why didn’t they do this before? Well, they could have, and perhaps they should have, but one part of patience is learning how to be present to notice the flow of energy. In the teachings of the Tao there is the concept of Wu Wei, which I like to talk  about using a sailing analogy, and Wu Wei is the guiding rudder of the boat. Being fully present we observe the tides, currents and winds so that we can chart our course and be present enough to recognize when the time is most auspicious for a particular action. The same action done at a different time would have a different result.

Patience, then, is not just waiting around hoping for things to go our way. It is being fully present with whatever arises in our field of experience. It is embodying our wise intention and using wise effort. We act at the moment that our effort is most effective. At that moment it may feel almost effortless and even joyful.

My mother was a lifelong peace activist, and there were times when she seemed beaten down by the whole process. She felt a sense of defeat because all her effort seemed for naught. All she lacked at these times was insight into the nature of karma, and the patience to trust that as long as she was doing her work out of love for all beings, a difference would be felt. I think of this especially this year when Senator Barbara Boxer is retiring. My mother worked tirelessly, organizing door-to-door volunteers for Boxer’s first run for the House of Representatives. Mom didn’t live to see the amazing span of Senator Boxer’s long career and her many important contributions to the world, based on values my mother shared. Just so, we won’t necessarily see all the results of our efforts, and our impatience to see the results can wear on us. But if we act with wise intention and wise effort, there is a sense of immediate satisfaction in that, and maybe we can let go of needing to see the fruits of our labor. That is patience!

Sometimes we get impatient with ourselves, causing negative self-talk and misery. We can be impatient with others whose way of doing things and sense of timing is at odds with our own. We’ve seen how that plays out on the road or in the grocery store, but this also happens in our primary relationships. Couples often have a discord in this area. My father was always prompt and impatient for my mother to get ready to go out. She preferred to be fashionably late and that drove him crazy. When they traveled he had a schedule of museums they would visit and sites they would see, but she preferred leisurely strolls, impromptu discoveries and hanging out in outdoor cafes. She let herself get absorbed in the daily life of the place she was visiting, open to whatever might happen. So they would get impatient with each other. Much later in life they learned to occasionally go on separate trips.

We might be impatient if we live with someone who has a different idea of tidy, clean or organized. Can we find some compromise? Can we choose to take care of the things that matter to us and not hold a grudge if they don’t matter to the other person?

One of my favorite stories Anne Cushman used to tell, and maybe still does, is about her son Skye when he was a toddler and they would walk to the neighborhood park. Anne was all about getting to the park, but he was all about whatever was happening in this moment, wherever they were. He would get engrossed checking out an ant on the sidewalk perhaps. So for her it felt like it took forever to get to the park, until it would dawn on her that Skye was her best dharma teacher because he was showing her how to be fully present as he held up some interesting find for her to appreciate.

We all get impatient from time to time, but it’s worth noticing when we are feeling that way so we can observe what is actually going on. This is not to scold ourselves, but to see the truth of our experience.

If we can create enough spaciousness and compassion to hold our current experience we can calm our restless eager need to rush past the wonder and on to the next great thing. This, right here and now, is the great thing, if we can only be present to experience it.

What has been your experience with patience? Is it a major challenge? What have you found helps you to be more patient? Or do you consider patience of value?

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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.


Wise Effort & the Elements

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is an excellent tool to investigate what’s up in your life at this moment. ‘Why does my neck hurt?’ ‘Why am I foraging in the refrigerator again?’ ‘Why am I so annoyed at my husband or a coworker?’

Whenever something is up with you, pause and give yourself some time to settle in, meditate, come into the moment and feel some sense of compassion for yourself. Then, when you are ready, see what aspect of the path is out of balance. Check in with your intention, your effort, your view. Note if you are being mindful, if you are doing regular concentration practices. See if what has you discomforted has to do with something you said, did or the way you are making your living or spending your money.

Once you have identified the aspect where you feel out of balance and unskillful, you can enrich your investigation by bringing in some other aspects of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. For example,if you realize that you are striving or slouching, then you look at Wise Effort. Instead of giving yourself a hard time about not exerting Wise Effort, simply look at the nature of your effort with a compassionate but clear-eyed examination. To make this a deeper and more meaningful investigation, you might want to include a look at the Elements.

Wise Effort & The Elements

Fire is naturally involved in any effort. Effort requires energy which is calories being burned. Effort requires mental energy and the electrical charges of our brains. Effort is helped by a passion of purpose which is fired by our Wise Intention. So you can see how fire would empower you to effort, but you need to be sure that this is balanced effort, that you are not on overdrive and powering through, or else you will burn out.

Water gives fluidity in your effort that makes what you do feel almost effortless. But if you are swimming upstream or against a current, then your over-efforting can exhaust you and you feel like you are drowning. Being aware of the water component helps to assess whether effort feels wise.

Earth lends strength to effort. You can draw from your earthy elemental nature and rely on it. But you can also beat yourself over the head with the metal pipe! Notice what is true for you.

Air is the breath that keeps you present, and it clears things so you can see whether your effort is skillful. Air is also the voice you give to your effort.Listen to how you speak about effort. If you hear ‘I will try or I am trying’ — that’s an opportunity to see where the wind resistance is, and how might you find the currents of air within you to glide with the natural ease of wise effort

Every aspect of the Eightfold Path can be enhanced by looking at the Elements. And every teaching in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness — the Five Aggregates, the Five Hindrances, etc. — can help to look at each aspect of the Eightfold Path with even greater clarity and understanding.
An ongoing exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, combined with daily meditation practice, a weekly meditation group for practice and discussion, and at least one retreat annually, will open you to all the joy that is possible in this, or any, moment.

Wise Effort – Finding the right balance

While meditating before giving my dharma talk I noticed that when I over-effort — striving and straining, trying to get something right — the ‘cure’ is to apply my intention to be kind. Loving-kindness, releases the tight knots of unskillful exertion. I feel released into a quality of supported ease, where I am not alone, separate, singular in my efforts. I send metta to myself: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease…and I find the joy of wise effort in my meditation practice.

Conversely, it is easy to see that the ‘cure’ for under-efforting, where the mind dulls and lethargy sets in, is to apply the intention to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation. There is joy in cultivating mindfulness.

We can discern between Wise Effort and unwise effort if we are paying attention. Unwise effort leads to suffering for ourselves and others. Wise Effort is a direct cause of happiness. There are few things in life that can cause such an immediate sense of well being as Wise Effort.

In our Cooking Pot Analogy, we have established that you can’t start the fire without the match flame of Wise Intention. Now you can see that Wise Effort is represented by the crossed logs of a campfire.

Have you ever built a traditional log fire? If so, you know that you can’t just set out a log or two and hold a match to it. You need to lay out the logs in a way that they will remain steady and support each other. And you need crumpled wads of newspaper and kindling — smaller pieces of wood that will catch fire more easily — in order to start the fire and get it going strong enough to eventually light the logs. Building a campfire that will actually heat the pot requires a combination of understanding the requirements of the task and a willingness to take the time necessary to do it. That is Wise Effort.

Imagine being so hungry to eat the contents of the cooking pot that you rush through the laying of the campfire, thus get poor results and no meal. Or conversely imagine getting so caught up in the campfire building that you lose sight of the overall purpose — to heat the pot. Wise Effort keeps a balanced awareness of both the bigger picture and the task at hand.

We have explored Wise Effort — as Right Effort and Spacious Effort — before in this blog, and if you are interested in exploring further, I encourage you to check out these older posts.

This time around we have the benefit of our year long study of the teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to work from, so it seemed right to use the word ‘Wise’ because we have earned it! (If you are just joining us don’t worry, that’s not a prerequisite.)

We can look at the Five Hindrances that we studied a few months ago and recognize how they cause unskillful effort.

  1. The hindrance of desire might cause us to want instant gratification without effort, or to set our eyes so much on ‘the prize’ that we are caught up in striving and can’t be present, even when we achieve our goal.
  2. Aversion might cause us to resist making any effort at all, perhaps because nothing seems worthy of our effort.
  3. Restlessness and worry cause us to spin our wheels, to be ineffectual in our efforts.
  4. Sloth and torpor leaves us stuck in enertia, perhaps depleted from unskillful over-efforting and lost in depression and despair.
  5. Doubt might cause us to second guess every move so that we exert effort in unskillful fits and starts.

We can also look at the Five Aggregates, these aspects of life experience we erroneously believe to be who we are. When we are caught in the illusion of being a separate self our efforts are often unskillful, because our intentions are built on the fear of disappearing. If we can reset our Wise Intentions again and again, we may find that the fear softens and releases.

If you ever have the opportunity to observe babies and toddlers for any period of time, notice how they naturally do what they need to do in order to learn and experience life and they do it with joy. I imagine this joy is in part a feeling of being at one with the universe. There has not yet been a sense of separation established, a mindset of being solo in this life. When we believe ourselves to be separate, then we have a more exhausting challenge and feel unsupported. The baby, the plant, the tree is intrinsically supported because it doesn’t see itself as apart from the whole energetic is-ness of being. Well, all right, it’s hard to know what a tree thinks or believes, but when we release into the understanding of the nature of inter-connection, it certainly gives ease and powerful energy to our efforts.

For our class discussion, we explored various examples — from our lives or the lives of people we know — of unwise or unskillful effort and its consequences.

One important theme was the painful consequences of over-efforting. We all have had the experience of taking on a project and pushing ourselves to complete it within a tight time-frame. Even though our body is sending out signals that we need to take a break or quit for the day, we plod on, determined to finish. And what happens? Accidents, pain, long-term suffering, sometimes permanent disability, sometimes death. Hello? We need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies as we go about our tasks. Wise Effort knows when to stop!

Similarly, an all or nothing attitude can get us into trouble. If we have been exerting no effort and suddenly decide ‘enough is enough’ and set ourselves a grueling course of exercise — going from couch potato to marathon runner in one day — we totally sabotage the possibility of developing a sensible exercise plan. The next day we will be in such pain that it’s back to the couch for us. ‘Well, I gave it a shot!’ Really?

Another way we sabotage ourselves into unwise effort is by procrastinating. We put ourselves into a time crunch and give ourselves ‘no choice’ but to rush to complete the task. Well, we did have a choice in every moment along the way. We just kept choosing the unskillful one.

A clue to unwise effort can often be found in the language we use when talking to ourselves. For example, the word ‘should’ is used frequently to point out that we feel misaligned with our intentions, that we are exerting unskillful effort. See if you find that word in your vocabulary. It’s an opportunity to explore where you are conflicted and what’s keeping you from exerting Wise Effort.

Tension in the body when you are doing something is a clue that we are operating from a finite depletable source of energy; that we are striving, forcing things, feeling some conflict about what we are doing, whether it’s the amount of time we are given to do it or whether this is something we want or feel is right to do. Back to questioning our intentions!

We discussed how Wise Effort could be applied to planning a big event, like a wedding. Although it’s important to see the big picture, it’s wise to then divide all that’s required into do-able bits, manageable tasks, and only do the one that’s needed now. Allow this task to be its own event, to be joyful and meaningful in itself.

Remember that the most skillful surgeons bring all their experience to bear on this moment, fully present, loving what they do. In fact, loving what you do is a prerequisite to Wise Effort. You might say ‘Well there are some things I love to do, but there are some things I just have to do, love it or not.’ 

Yes, that’s true for all of us, but let me share my experience on a silent retreat: 
Every retreatant is given a ‘yogi job’ so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or provide meals. On this particular retreat I asked for a job that would allow me to maintain my silence completely, so they gave me scrubbing shower stalls. Yup, that would do it. Oh joy!
I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space with cleaning product fumes. The cleaning products are non-toxic and the work requires a half-hour to forty-five minutes a day, but still… I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, and each day I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work:
  • At first I did it because I had to and I just tolerated it as best I could to get through it. I was a ‘good sport.’ And I labored with the hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job. 
  • Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings. 
  • And then I felt my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
  • I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

You can see from the above example that at a certain point the goal was set aside, the idea that at any one point in time that shower had to be glowing to pass inspection. Many of us live life as if there is this looming inspection day just ahead, and we will be judged. So we spend our time — yes I say ‘we’ because perfectionism is something I deal with — judging ourselves constantly, seeing all that we do with some imaginary judges eyes.

Perfectionism arises, at least in part, out of a need to feel we can control the world, but can we? Of course not. Things happen all the time that are completely outside of our control. No matter how immaculate our house or person, a big wind could come and make a mess of it. No matter how good a job we do, someone might not approve of us, might not like us, and we will still survive. Passing inspection is not the goal of life.

To strive for perfection is to live in delusion, one of the ways we create suffering for ourselves and others. In many traditions of craft, such as rug or quilt making, it is important to have one mistake on the piece because no one but God is perfect. Whether we believe in God or not, it’s a good reminder to not be attached to perfectionism.

Does this mean we don’t do our best? Of course not. It is a joy and pleasure to work hard. But Wise Effort means being present with the joy of the work and not live with our minds entangled in the future, focused only on the end result.

Wise Effort is balanced effort, neither pushing too hard nor avoiding exertion. Finding that balance takes awareness, noticing the nature of our effort in this moment. Are we straining, striving, stressing, or are we lethargic, lax, bored, avoiding mental or physical exertion? And if so, how do we respond to that recognition? With judgment or with kindness, and a resetting of our intentions?

If we have our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind, then our efforts are going to be wise, and unskillful efforting will be seen and instead of judged, simply adjusted with kindness and renewed wise effort.

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.