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Insight Meditation and The Art of Wise Effort

by Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on October 21, 2018)

In our fast paced achievement driven culture, we often neglect to pay attention to the quality of effort we bring into our lives. If we examine this closely we may discover that when we fail to bring a balanced amount of effort to any given task, and to our lives in general, we and those around us suffer. We may end up paying the price with increased stress levels, harmful emotional reactivity, and a feeling of disconnection.

Perhaps mindfulness training from the Buddhist Insight Meditation tradition, where the quality of our effort is given a high priority, can provide some help. We can learn from these teachings and skill sets to live our lives with more balance, natural focus, and ease. Let’s begin by examining the problem more closely. Here are some examples of my own struggles to apply a balanced effort in my life. When I was in college I wrote a paper that ended up being much longer than required. When I got it back the professor commented that it was a fine paper, but the last five pages were not really necessary, so why did I write them? I couldn't just leave it alone at a certain point, it had to be perfect in my eyes.

An example from my formal spiritual training was when I was practicing intensive meditation in a Zen monastery in Japan. The teacher kept strongly encouraging me and the other meditators to "give it your best," so I strove very, very hard to get it right. One day I went to Kyoto with some of the monks. There I happened to have my blood pressure checked (at a public machine that did it for free), and it was extremely high which is rare for me. I had been stressing myself out meditating with an intense striving attitude.

Another time in a Zen monastery I was sitting in meditation for longer than normal. In this practice I was trained not to move. It went on and on, and at one point the teacher came by and yelled at me, "You move, and I will kick you out of the monastery."  I did not move, even as tears of pain fell from my face. Finally he rang the bell. I left on my own accord the next day.

These are examples of what we might call unwise effort; throwing energy at something out of a perfectionist ideal, or using force out of willful pride, or just not being sensitive enough to relax, open and see what is called for in a given situation. 

Do you like me, have a tendency to "over effort" without looking at whether or not it is actually beneficial to do so, or do you have the opposite tendency?

There is a story about a monk who came to the Buddha to say he was leaving the community out of frustration with his meditation. He was trying much too hard and was full of negative self-judgment. The Buddha asked him what he did before he was a monk. He said he was a professional musician, a lute player. The Buddha then asked him what happened to the quality of the music when the lute strings were too tight or when they were too loose. The monk said, the sound would be discordant and in an extreme case the strings would break.

Just so, the Buddha taught the quality of your effort in formal meditation and daily life activities should be neither too tight nor too loose.

The Buddha is simply affirming this natural human capacity that we all have. When we first learn a new skill there is mental effort, and trial and error involved. It often doesn’t feel natural, and our effort is either "too tight or too loose". Over time, if we learn it well, then the energy expended can be much more balanced and the activity becomes more natural and skillful. People at the "top of their game" often exude the quiet confidence that comes from these qualities. Reflect for a moment on any areas in your own life where you touch this relaxed balanced focus. How does it feel in your body? Your mind?

For many of us it can be difficult to not get caught in extremes of effort, so we return to the Buddha for practical strategies we can explore for ourselves.

The Buddha taught The Middle Way, its central meditation practice is called mindfulness. It means to bring a clear, steady attention into the present moment in a non-judgmental way, and then to apply this to develop wisdom. To begin, we choose a simple aspect of being alive in the present moment, for example the sensations of breathing and walking. When the mind wanders we learn to recognize this and gently but steadily come back to the present. Through this process we develop a calm focus and get used to seeing how the mind wanders and how to skillfully bring it back.

Wisdom arises when the attention opens up and we see whatever life presents in a clear and non-clinging way. There can be a natural corrective to our level of effort in this seeing. If we are trying too hard at something we can be aware of the extra striving with relaxed interest and notice what happens. We can work with impatience, a strong cause of distraction, not by trying to be patient, but by seeing impatience just as it is when it arises in the present moment. These mindfulness skills translate directly to daily activities in the same way they do in formal mediation training.

Before you wash the dishes, or answer a text perhaps take a mindful pause, proceed and notice how this affects the quality of your effort as you engage in the activity. Or while driving a car notice if your hands are gripping the wheel with tension and what happens when you observe this. Or notice if you are distracted and gently focus more clearly on the road ahead. In general, while doing a task or in a relationship interaction just relax into your body and mind and ask yourself "how much effort is called for here?" Listen to the inner response and adjust accordingly using your mindfulness skills if necessary.

Since all we have in life is living this present moment again and again, caring for the quality of effort we put into whatever makes up our lives can be a secret key that unlocks greater joy, balance, and skill in living.