Walking on the edge of effort and effortlessness

Where is the inter-being between effort and non-effort? Too much effort and we are tight and constrained. Too little effort and nothing happens. Pema Chodron has a wonderful phrase: “Not too tight, and not too loose.” Practice is walking on the edge; adjusting our effort to meet the circumstances with a flexible mind.

Practice Effort is like a large soundboard, similar to the one’s used at concerts. Each lever is adjusted to exactly the right sound, the right loudness, the combination of bass and treble, for the whole to harmonize. They are constantly adjusted as the concert moves from song to song, from experience to experience. Just so, our attention is adjusted to fit the situation — our internal and external conditions. Sometimes are attention needs to be stronger and sharper, sometimes it needs to be softer and more receiving. We keep adjusting our effort so our clear attention can hold the unique situation as it arises and changes.

Sometimes, I experience this great effort for enlightenment as too achievement oriented. “Spiritual Materialism,” Trungpa Rinpoche used to call it. We are marking spiritual progress as notches on our belt. This is quite different than being comfortable with surrender. Or the ability to accept our life as it is with the deep understanding of what underlies all life. That no matter what is showing on the surface of life, there is the underlying mystery of life constantly at play.

Dogen’s beautiful phrase: swimming with our arms the surface of the waves of vicissitudes (up and down), and, simultaneously, having our feet walking on the bottom sand in the dark silence and emptiness of the deepest part of the ocean.

If we practice as if spiritual life is a series of accomplishments, this will not help us when the going gets rough and when life doesn’t call for a series of accomplishments.

From Pema Chodron page 231 in “ No time to lose.”

I saw a cartoon entitled “Reasons not to Meditate”. First there’s a drawing of an infant, with the caption “too young.” Then there are students, parents with children, and people at work, with the caption “too busy”. The next drawing shows an elderly person, with the words “too old”. Finally there’s a corpse, with the message “too late.”

When we’re about to die and we’re having our last thoughts, will they be about the dream house we didn’t build, the mortgage we didn’t pay off, the novel we didn’t finish? Feeling that we’ve failed to accomplish our worldly goals is not the frame of mind we want to be in when we die.

It’s not uncommon to find ourselves thinking that we’ll practice when we have more time. We’ll start meditating when the conditions are better. Meanwhile our kleshas (negative reactivity) only get stronger, and our mind is even less able to relax.

I was recently with a dying practitioner who admitted that her dharma practice now seemed meaningless. She didn’t understand what relevance it had for her as the ground was slipping away. This could happen to any of us if we don’t use our bodhichitta practices and meditation as a way of surrendering and letting go.

With each meditation session, you could train in opening to whatever arises, and relaxing with the immediacy of your experience. Just acknowledge your pleasant and unpleasant thoughts without bias and let them pass away. Then at the time of death, you will be ready to let go of your attachment to this life and surrender to the process of dissolving.

This passage really impacting me when I read it years ago. How do we practice that really helps us live and die in peace? How can we see our practice in a non-dual way. Spiritual life does not head just into success, pleasure and gain. (rather the opposite, old age, illness and death) Can we find a depth of understanding that can include everything?

Pema writes:

You can make a project out of precision.
You can make a project out of gentleness.
It’s hard to make a project out of letting go.

Dogen writes:

Loss is enlightenment
Gain is delusion.