Sometimes I think I’m a lousy meditator. There are days when I don’t seem to have a moment of mindfulness in my sitting. I wonder, Am I really trying hard enough? Am I lazy? Unspiritual? Fortunately, the fact that I’ve learned to be very forgiving of my failures in meditation means that I don’t suffer too much about all this—but maybe that just makes me less motivated. If I’m forgiven for every failure, how am I ever going to succeed?
The truth is that many years ago I decided I wasn’t really in control of what happened in my sitting practice—other than showing up on the cushion. In my early practice I struggled and struggled to keep to the meditation instructions—follow the breath and when you notice the mind has wandered, let go of the thought and come back—but nothing seemed to happen. In fact, I felt agitated a lot of the time when I was sitting. Afterward I might have felt better, but the experience itself was kind of unpleasant.
Eventually I broke through and had some experiences of calm and clarity, and over many years (and many retreats) I’ve worked with the delicate balance (and imbalance) of “effortless effort.” When this is working, there’s a flow—I’m “in the zone”—and there’s a sense of natural awakeness and easeful letting go. When it isn’t working, I can feel lost, confused and overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings I don’t control. It’s then I begin to wonder if my approach to practice makes sense.
Recently I came upon the first sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya (the Connected Verses), where the Buddha is asked how he “crossed the flood,” meaning, how he became enlightened. His answer is so simple: “By not halting and not straining, I crossed the flood.” Then he’s asked how that worked. “When I halted I sank; when I struggled I was swept away.” This was a perfect characterization of what I’d tried to follow in my own practice—just keep showing up no matter what, without striving too hard.
In Twelve-Step programs (my other practice), when they talk about “one day at a time,” I think this is what they’re saying: don’t get caught up in trying to solve all your problems—or in attaining enlightenment—just take care of what you need to do today. Just put in your time on the cushion. Don’t be struggling with yourself about how good or bad your practice is. That’s not your business; you’ll be swept away. Your business is showing up. If you give up because your practice isn’t fulfilling your own model of what a “good” meditation should be, just as the Buddha said, you will sink.
And maybe that’s what the Dalai Lama is talking about when he suggests that you shouldn’t be constantly judging the state of your meditation practice, that only looking back over long periods, like five or ten years, can give you a real sense of your progress. Maybe he’s talking about not halting.
But still, when I’m in the midst of one of those long dry spells in my practice, I have my doubts. Am I fooling myself? Am I really making enough effort? I’ve tried working with teachers who urge a more rigorous noting, but I always come back to the gentler approach. Is that just a reflection of a character flaw? Maybe I should be pushing harder to stay concentrated and mindful. The trouble is that when I’ve tried that, I’ve usually wound up feeling worse. So I suppose I’m stuck with what I’ve got. My daughter, when she was six, told me, “I’m not the boss of my brain.” Words to live by.
I teach meditation, so I’m in “physician, heal thyself” territory here, and it’s true that I understand a lot of what’s happening with all these doubts. The question What is Right Effort? isn’t an issue just for me. I have counseled many people to be gentle on themselves, to trust in the practice, to view what’s happening in a broader context, and to remember impermanence. Trust the dharma, even if you don’t trust yourself. Advice I can use.
As a dharma teacher, I can’t help but notice that the photos of other teachers seem to always show beaming, smiling faces. The message seems to be, “If you meditate like I do, you’ll be happy!” The meditation instructions, too, can seem to leave little room for imperfection. I wonder if we ought to put a label on the teachings: “Any resemblance to your actual experience is dependent upon preexisting karma. The teacher and center make no assurances as to your awakening (or even having a good time).”
My life has so many ups and downs—sadness, joy, stress, excitement, fatigue—and all of these states are reflected in my daily meditation practice. Sometimes I want my practice to be separate from all this, like some magical state I can enter to escape reality. In fact, I think meditation is a heightened awareness of reality, not an escape. And underneath the reality of all the agitation is also the reality of my own inner calm and wisdom. If I don’t halt and don’t struggle, this calm and wisdom naturally appears—on its own schedule, not mine.