“No effort” is deceptive. In sports, in crafts, in the arts and even in business and politics, some people are able to accomplish amazing feats without apparent effort. Mind and body are aligned and everything just flows. Skiers in their 70's slip gracefully down the steepest slopes. A potter forms beautiful cups and vases, but it looks as if the clay grows into the shape rather than he or she molds it. A facilitator brings a fractious group into agreement and commitment just by posing one or two questions.
The contradictions are puzzling, sometimes
infuriating. Often, when I make an effort in practice, I soon end up
tired and tense. If I don’t make any effort, I just sit in confusion.
being left out of the picture, what is assumed but not mentioned in
these verses, is the building of capacity and the maturation of ability.
We have to begin with an effort. I sit straight, for instance, but if I
sit rigidly, I quickly grow tired. If, however, I allow myself to make
small adjustments, I find and connect with the natural straightness in
my body. Now I sit just as straight, but with less effort or strain.
it seems, teachers place more emphasis on adherence to forms than on
natural resting. For instance, students are often told to let their eyes
rest in soft focus on a point about twelve inches in front of them.
Students then look at that point, and their eyes never come to rest. In
contrast, I usually told students to do nothing with their eyes, just as
they do nothing with their ears. When they just let their eyes rest,
they come to rest in soft focus twelve inches in front of them. It’s a
subtle point, but it makes a difference.
The key, it seems, is
whether we take instructions as what to do or instructions as pointing
to an exploration of what is possible. Much of what is presented as
instruction in Buddhist teaching is actually descriptive, not
prescriptive. It is a description of what can happen, not what to do. It
really helps to distinguish between method, i.e., what efforts you make in practice and result, i.e., what those efforts lead to. Confusion on these points is very common.
(For more on this topic, see Up Against a Wall?)
same holds for the breath and for stable clear attention. Some people
try to breath a certain way rather than let the breath find its own
depth and rhythm. As we rest more and more deeply, our ability to sense
imbalance becomes more and more refined, our ability to make adjustments
becomes more and more subtle, and our way of responding to imbalance
more and more intuitive or natural.
The result of all these
efforts in practice is twofold. We are able to rest in empty clarity
without effort and we are able to rest in difficult and intense
experiences without disturbance. It seems like we end up doing nothing
at all, but this nothing is very different from the nothing we began
The same principles apply to all forms of practice:
attention to the breath, koan study, deity meditation, energy
transformation, ritual and, of course, mahamudra and dzogchen.
we can’t just decide to practice this way. It’s something we grow into.
Most of us will benefit with expert guidance along the way. In fact,
most of us probably need the guidance, just as most of us need a teacher
if we are going to play a musical instrument or learn to paint. In the
same way that the hours, days and years of work on a guitar enable a
musician to play even the most intricate passages without seeming
effort, the hours, days and years we put into practice mature into a
practice that is free from effort.