Energy as a Spiritual Faculty

Two weeks ago, we discussed faith (or saddha) as the first of five spiritual faculties that support practitioners in freeing the mind from attachment and suffering.   Tonight we’ll touch upon the second faculty of energy.

Energy, or viriya in the Pali language of ancient India, may be conceived of as effort, persistence or strength.  Faith fuels energy by removing doubts and by bolstering enough confidence and commitment to keep trying.

As a spiritual faculty, energy is neither a macho display nor an effort that is dictated by outer authority.  Instead of being an obligation, it’s a natural consequence of confidence and inspiration.  When he taught about wise effort, the Buddha used the analogy of tuning a stringed musical instrument, not too loosely and not too tightly.

We tend to follow comfortable habitual patterns, which are sustained by energy.  On retreats we become aware of how much effort it takes to maintain stories about ourselves.  Without the usual distractions and non-productive plans and memories, we can tap energy that’s liberated and channel it constructively into mindfulness and presence.

During Shaila Catherine’s new years retreat, it took diligent effort to renounce the habit of shifting my posture whenever my mind is busy planning for the future.  But each time I resisted the impulse to squirm, I had extra energy to apply to focusing on the breath in the present moment.  As I redirected my energy in a wholesome way, I felt more alert and focused.

The Buddha motivated practitioners to enhance their energy by reflecting on the precious opportunity to practice the dharma.  So few people hear teachings that can liberate their minds, and even fewer live in conditions that support meditation or retreats. He also advised monks to contemplate the inevitability of death, urging them not to waste time, but to practice diligently, investigating the workings of the mind, while still possible.

Shaila offered suggestions to inspire us in applying wise energy to our meditation practice:  For instance, we can contemplate the goal of liberating the mind from greed, hatred and delusion, and all causes of suffering.  Another suggestion is to reflect upon an inspirational quality of the Buddha or upon one of our own virtuous actions.  On the retreat, I practiced visualizing the Buddha’s generosity as a teacher and then recalling times when I’ve freely given Dharma teachings.  This process motivated me to make a concerted effort to meditate mindfully and to “walk my talk.”

Strong determination helps to avoid hindrances and to honor ethical precepts.  Instead of indulging hindrances like aversion to unpleasant circumstances, we can practice nipping them in the bud.  With right effort, we learn that although we can’t control conditions, we have choices about how to respond to them.

Recently at Houston Hospice I met a 10-week-old baby who was dying of an incurable genetic condition.  As I sang her nursery songs, she watched me with serene, intent eyes that kept me completely focused in the present moment.  In the hour that I sang to her, I let go of thinking about the tragic brevity of her life and simply treasured the experience of gazing into her timeless eyes.

We need to expend enough energy to leave habitual grooves and to face pain mindfully, but not so much that we struggle and push ourselves mercilessly. It is more effective to soften around painful emotions than to judge ourselves harshly for experiencing them.  It takes persistence to continue practicing through hard times.

Shaila described how tigers wait patiently for quick-footed prey to come nearby before they pounce.  Even though they succeed only in about one of every twenty attempts, tigers keep trying until they kill enough game to sustain them.  She used an analogy that helped me stop trying to force my mind to enter states of concentration:  “Once you’re on the dharma train, set your baggage down, and trust that the train is moving towards freedom.”

The Buddha’s teachings highlight four kinds of wise effort that help orient the mind in wholesome ways.  I found them helpful, for example, as I was writing this talk:

1. The first type of wise effort is avoiding unwholesome states that have not yet arisen: If I notice my attention drifting away from the task of writing, I make more of an effort to focus on the theme at hand.

2. Abandoning unwholesome states that have already arisen: When I realize that I’m caught in a pleasant fantasy about a seaside vacation that Mark and I have been planning, I tell myself, “Not now” and bring my attention back to completing the sentence that I’m writing.

3. Cultivating wholesome states that have not yet arisen:  By bringing to mind Buddhist principles that have enhanced my life, I encourage myself to finish writing the dharma talk.

4. Maintaining wholesome states that have already arisen:  When gratitude arises for having access to the Buddha’s teachings, I pay attention to it and feel more fully the benefits of being on the dharma path.

Today I had an opportunity to practice using energy wisely.  I phoned 311 (the Houston help and information center) to inquire about the status of service order #1194952.  After I dialed my way through a thicket of available options, a real person came on the line to ask pleasantly, “How may I help you today, Ma’am?”  I gave her my order number and explained that I had called 311 on October 14 and then again on November 18 to report a large—and expanding—pothole at the foot of our driveway on the edge of Yupon Street.  Since last year, various neighbors have also called 311 to complain that our side of Yupon Street is badly eroded and in need of repaving.  The woman located my file and replied, “There’s a note saying that the city’s maintenance crew is discussing the best way to address your issue.”  I queried, “Do you have any idea how long that discussion might last?”  Her reply was, “No ma’am, I have no way to communicate with them.”  “Could I leave a message for someone in the maintenance department to phone me?”  “No, ma’am, our regulations state that there is to be no direct communication between maintenance personnel and city residents.”  “Are you saying that I should wait an indeterminate amount of time for the pothole to be filled in the best possible manner?”  My bureaucratic friend seemed relieved that I finally understood the rules of the game, “Yes, Ma’am!  Is there anything else that I can help you with today?”  “No thanks, I appreciate you taking time to explain the situation.”   I hung up, grateful that fifteen years of weathering extraordinary bureaucratic obstacles in Mexico had enabled me to avoid wasting energy on a nonproductive tantrum and to see the humor in today’s Kafkaesque dialogue.

Gradually, as we practice mindfulness, we learn to support our effort with confidence and faith.  If our meditation practice seems stuck or besieged by hindrances like restlessness or sleepiness, we can remember the Dalai Lama’s words, “Never give up.  No matter what’s happening around you, never give up.”  When our meditation practice is going smoothly, strategic and skillful application of energy helps us move out of comfort zones.  Instead of going on cruise control, we can tap wholesome energy to deepen our practice, cultivating and maintaining mindful presence.

Shaila posed some questions that I hope will evoke a valuable discussion here tonight:

What do you consider is worthy of expending energy?

As you reflect on today’s efforts, when did you force with too much energy?

And when did you slack off with insufficient energy?

While answering these questions, do you have an attitude of harsh judgment or kindly interest?