PART 1: The Path Of Wise Effort:
 Is Your Effort Too Hard?

Carla Brennan
May 2014

George began feeding daily doses of cod liver oil to his German shepherd, Maisy, because he read that it would benefit his dog. Each morning, while Maisy struggled, he would hold her tightly between his legs, force open her mouth and pour the oil in.

One day as George fought to hold Maisy in place, the dog broke free and knocked over the bottle of the cod liver oil, spilling it. When he returned with a towel to clean up, he found Maisy happily licking oil off the floor. George was shocked to realize that she had not been fighting the oil, but how he had been giving it to her.

Are you resistant to meditation or are you actually resistant to the way you approach meditation?

Each step of the 8-fold path requires the appropriate use of effort. If our effort has too much force, too little intention or is without compassion, it will undermine the benefit of the practices we have been taught. Meditation will seem unnecessarily demanding and each session will feel like hard work. Meditation can become just another seemingly burdensome task to cross off a busy day’s list.

The Buddha’s instruction for Wise Effort was relatively simple. In whatever we do, we choose what is wholesome and skillful over what is unwholesome, unskillful. Many of the Buddhist teachings are devoted specifically to listing these. (For example: the ten paramis, the seven factors of awakening, the five hindrances, the three poisons, etc.) Wisdom – at the everyday level – means understanding what leads to greater love, clarity, and freedom and what leads to more conflict, confusion, and bondage. Effort that is focused on this essential understanding of wisdom turns everything we do – and every choice we make – into the practice of awakening.

Many of us have a mistaken idea of what skillful effort actually is. Our culture is biased toward making change through excessive controlling, judging, forcing and striving and we often assume this is how we must practice. We try to control our feelings and force ourselves to improve. We strive toward a distant goal and we judge our progress.

None of these approaches will help you on the spiritual journey. These strategies will eventually leave you discouraged and depleted. They simply are not sustainable.

Because our learned patterns of reactivity are so strong – especially in the early years of practice – it take substantial quantities of diligence, determination, and persistence to skillfully counteract our impulses. These energies are powerful but gentle; they entail strength but not force and resolve but not striving.

What contributes to resistance in your spiritual practice, what makes it seem unnecessarily difficult? Can you recognize any of the following patterns operating in your heart and mind?

• Our effort is primarily motivated by the “small self” rather than wisdom.

The small self (or ego-self) is a combination of self-images, identities, and conditioned patterns. It commonly operates from a mistaken perception of inner deficiency, in other words, a perception that we are is not good enough as we are and that we are fundamentally flawed. A nagging feeling that we must work harder may haunt us in our meditation practice. We may persistently feel we are not doing it right or well enough. We may dismiss our abilities or insights. Meditation becomes yet another arena where we struggle with our self-worth.

Although the small self has its place, that place is not in running, defining or judging our spiritual life. Wisdom does not arise from within our personality but from a source beyond any conditioned state. The promise of Dharma practice is not in “fixing” the small self, but in discovering the freedom that exists beyond the limits of ego.

• Our effort lacks kindness.

Compassion and kindness are the foundation for all Buddhist practice. If our effort does not reflect these, then – simply put – it is not Wise Effort. Too often we have learned to motivate ourselves through the use of derision rather than kindness. We meet our unpleasant feelings with self-rejection and shame rather than compassion. The inner bully takes over. Without a foundation of love, the inevitable challenges of spiritual practice and of life will be become intolerable.

Wise Effort understands the difficulty of being human. It remembers to relate to oneself with generosity and acceptance. Wise Effort welcomes our feelings, our thoughts, our sensations with friendliness, extending a warm hand to each, in what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls “handshake practice.”

• One part of our personality struggles against another.
When different aspects of our psyche are in conflict with each other, we may feel stuck in meditation. An internal dialogue may go something like this: 
One part, in a berating tone, may demand, “You should be meditating more; you’ve always been too lazy and undisciplined!” 
Another inner sub-personalty, reacting like a rebellious child, retaliates angrily, “No way, I won’t! Don’t tell me what to do!” 
The result is that either meditation doesn’t happen or it happens with resentment and tension. Soon meditation is associated with these unpleasant feelings. Resistance becomes the norm.

A sign of growth in practice is when we become weary of being controlled by these inner dynamics, when we accept them with love and clarity, and when we choose to practice from deeper intentions.
• We think we can make happen what we can’t. 
Sometimes students try to force their way to enlightenment, especially on retreats. This is a mistake, of course, and reveals a deep misunderstanding of what spiritual awakening actually is. A Zen master once said, “Enlightenment is an accident, and meditation makes us accident prone.”

Awakening is a natural process beyond what we can control. Can you make a flower bloom? No, but we can create the best conditions for that to happen. In the same way, the purpose of all of our spiritual practices is to remove blocks and create the most conducive conditions for our innate wisdom and love to blossom. Too often, unnecessary energy is wasted on attempting to control the uncontrollable.

• We have a narrow view of practice with unrealistic expectations.
Students can adopt rigid (and incorrect) ideas about what they should be doing, what the practice should look like, and what they should be feeling. These ideas may include everything from strict adherence to the “proper” meditation posture to trying to rid the mind of any thoughts. We may create unrealistic standards for practice and then be disappointed when we don’t meet them. We may compare ourselves with an idealized fantasy of what it means to be a spiritual person, then try to make ourselves be that, often denying our actual feelings. We may struggle to fit ourselves into the tight box of always  “doing it right” or of being a “good meditator”. |

The real meaning of practice – being aware of what is –  is lost.

• Our effort lacks patience.

Patience is one of the paramis, the ten qualities of a buddha. Impatience is type of aggression, while patience implies a deep acceptance and, from a Buddhist perspective, a willingness to not harm.
Impatience toward oneself usually arises from a combination of anxiety, self-judgement and frustration. We may be desperate to find relief from our suffering, or feel we aren’t progressing as fast as we should be, or we want to be more “successful” than we think we are.

Patience arises from a wise understanding of our limitations and from the tender openness of lovingkindness. Patience is the capacity to accept delays, problems and uncertainties and to know that things don’t always go the way we want them to. Impatience comes from resistance to fully embracing the present. Patience understands that this moment – right here, right now – is always an opportunity to be awake. Wise Effort understands we are in this for the long haul and that we can’t control the outcome.

• We are ruled by doubt and a pervading lack of confidence.
Often students don’t have confidence (in Pali it is the term saddha: translated as confidence, faith, conviction, trust). We lack confidence in our own wisdom, in the teachings offered us, in the practices we do and, especially, in our own capacity for liberation. The strength or weakness of this confidence is perhaps the defining characteristic that determines whether ones practice deepens or remains stuck.

How are you administering the beneficial “cod liver oil” of spiritual practice? 
With force, control, judgment, resistance? Or with love, curiosity, joy, acceptance, ease?
. . . coming next month 
Part II: The Path of Wise Effort: What Helps Our Effort Become Effortless?