Wise Effort

Over the past weeks, I’ve been aware of how challenging it is to bring wise effort to the practice of meditation and to daily activities.  Often we push ourselves too hard, and other times we lack focus and purposeful motivation.  Some of Winnie Nazarko’s remarks during the March retreat at Spirit Rock give helpful hints about how to find the right balance of effort.

Wise effort is the sixth step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path and falls under the category of concentration.  The Buddha himself was a big striver.  Before he found the Middle Way, his austerity practices were so stringent that he was eating only one grain of rice a day, and he nearly died of starvation.  He realized that he needed to nourish his body in order to liberate his mind.

We need to rouse enough energy to practice, without pushing ourselves in a punitive way. We know that working hard does not always correlate with wise effort.  People with workaholic tendencies may promote worthy causes or harm others and the environment.  Until he committed suicide, Hitler worked tirelessly.

One of my models for wise effort is the Dalai Lama, who wakes up early each morning to practice four hours of meditation before interacting with people.  He uses wise effort to establish a disciplined practice, so that he can see clearly what’s needed in each moment, and he can treat others with kindness.

There’s a story about one of the Buddha’s disciples, Venerable Sona, who went through a crisis of doubt. He had practiced sitting and walking meditation day and night, until his bare feet were bleeding and raw.

In spite of unrelenting efforts, he despaired of ever breaking free from ego consciousness. When he was about to abandon the life of a monk, the Buddha read his mind and saw his despair.

Knowing that his disciple was an accomplished musician, the Buddha asked him, “Is it true that before you took the vow of poverty, you played the lute with skill?” Sona replied, “It is so, Master.”

The Buddha then asked, “When you strung the lute too tightly, did it make a beautiful sound?” Sona replied, “No, Master. The sound was shrill, and tense.”

“Ah,” the Buddha responded. “And when you strung the lute too loosely, did it make a pleasing sound?”

“Not at all, Master. When the strings were too loose, it made an unpleasant sound.”

“So how did the lute sound when it was tuned just right?” Sona replied, “It made a beautiful sound, Master.”

Then the Buddha told his disciple, “Sona, your practice must be just like this.  If you practice with too much zeal, your practice will be like the strings of the lute tuned too tightly; if you practice with not enough zeal, you will sink into sluggishness, and you will lose all mindfulness. If your practice is evenly tuned, it will be like a lute that makes beautiful music.”

With the Buddha’s wise words in his heart, Sona returned to his practice.

He was able to tune his mind and body “just right”—not too tight and not too loose. According to the story, his mind soon awakened, and he was liberated.

Unfortunately, tuning ourselves is much more complicated than tuning a musical instrument.  The great 12th century Chinese Zen teacher Yuanwu, said, “If you want to attain Intimacy, the first thing is, don’t seek it.”  He also advised students, “Be at rest wherever you are,” while practicing continuously.

How can we strive without striving?  How can we be at rest and at the same time apply Right Effort?  Buddhist masters refer to their practice as “effortless effort” or “endeavorless endeavor.”  Tibetan practitioners tell us to “hasten slowly.”

Recently Mark and I watched a movie about the challenges of cultivating wise effort.  One Track Heart is a biography of Krishna Das, who has become a famous leader of Indian devotional music called kirtan, chanting the many names of God with audiences around the world.  Last year we participated in one of his sold-out kirtans in Houston, where he seemed to be singing effortlessly and joyously.

But Krishna Das struggled through many ups and downs to cultivate that effortless state.  In filmed interviews, he remembers being a lonely, depressed child.  Born on Long Island in 1947, he was named Jeffrey Kagel, and he grew up feeling aimless and unmotivated, playing guitar in a band, without any clear goals.

Then, inspired by the example of Ram Dass, Krishna Das traveled to India in 1970 to be with a Hindu guru named Neem Karoli Baba (known as Mahara-ji).  After a couple of years of deeply devotional practice, Krishna Das returned to the States, determined to serve his guru by singing to him.  But when Neem Karoli Baba died in 1973, Krishna Das felt bereft and became addicted to cocaine.

He tells a story about entering a hotel room where one of his spiritual mentors from India was staying in America.  Suddenly the monk spun around, pointed right at Krishna Das, and said forcefully, “Stop taking cocaine!”  Krishna Das never again messed with drugs.  But he almost gave up singing kirtan, because although he was becoming very successful, his ego was so tempted by fame, power, money and sex that he couldn’t stay connected to the spirit of the music.

In desperation, he traveled back to Mahara-ji’s still-flourishing ashram in India, and there his heart opened to the loving energy that flows through all life.  Now Krishna Das sings with passion and commitment, flowing effortlessly as a musician in service of love.  His singing connects him over and over to this very moment on his spiritual path.

Modern, industrialized societies encourage us to be achievement–oriented perfectionists.  We have a consumer mentality towards our experiences and want to make sure that we are getting our money’s worth.  According to our cultural standards, pleasure is the measure of our success, and we want to enjoy meditation practice.

As Winnie points out, though, when we pause to meditate, we have an opportunity to let go of the egotistic self as the center of the universe.  We learn that it doesn’t work to try to gain mastery through an act of will: “OK, sucker!” (grabbing the mind by the scruff of the neck and forcing it to follow the breath.)

Until we let go of our consumer orientation, we direct our effort towards chasing pleasurable mental states, wondering, “How did I walk into the room before that last blissful sit?  Maybe I can create similar conditions to recreate the bliss.”  Or we use competitive effort, comparing our practice with that of the person who sits with the straightest back or who walks with the slowest, most-precise steps.

If we try too hard to eradicate the sense of self, we may find ourselves evaluating and grading our progress: “Am I meditating well, or is my practice slipping?”  While striving to perfect our practice, we may develop a kind of Dharma pride: “In the last sit I had it, but now I’ve lost it.”

Winnie cautions us not to micro-manage and try to control our experiences by asking ourselves: “Am I getting what I want out of meditation practice?” “Did this sit meet my expectations and my high standards?” “Am I on top of my practice?”  “Am I having a good time?”

Such questions can make us miserable.  Often wise effort isn’t about trying harder.  Habitually we try to edit the present moment, following what’s pleasant, avoiding what’s not, and ignoring the rest.  We endeavor to control, shape, revise, and improve what’s unfolding in the present moment.

But, at the point where things arise into existence through causes and conditions, attempting to manipulate reality is stressful and futile.

Here are some of Winnie’s guidelines for developing wise effort:

1. Be in the present moment regardless of what’s happening.

2. Accept whatever is arising.

3. Open up to what’s happening without editing.

4. Let go of expectations.

5. Be aware of desires to change or control what’s actually occurring.

(Use desire or control themselves as objects of meditation: “Manipulating, manipulating”)

6. Instead of discounting an unfamiliar experience, note it with interest:

(For example, when nothing seems to be happening, you can note, “Calm, calm.”)

7. Rather than gritting your teeth and resolving, “I’m not going to have an ‘I,’” use the arising of “me” as an object of meditation:  “Selfing, selfing.”

8. Don’t fight with desire (craving the end of craving).  Just note: “Desire.”

Wise effort entails surrendering with non-resistance to what exists in the present moment.  Each time that we notice, relax, and open up with kind awareness to the full range of experiences, the mind surrenders habitual ways of striving so that it allows what’s actually present. When we stop clinging to preferences, we can accept the truth of the moment.  By opening to the flow of now, we let go of delusions and have moments of clear seeing.