Friday, October 10, 2014

Verse 2.1 — practice, making no effort

“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.

What’s 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.

Often, 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?)

The 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 with.

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.


Again, 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.

1 comment:

Kaz said...

Re: It seems like we end up doing nothing at all, but this nothing is very different from the nothing we began with.

Thank you. This is huge! For very definite and undefined reasons, I think, this is why I practice. And what’s crazy is that it’s really doesn't make sense, but it does 90% feel “right”. (That other 10% is reserved for the equally compelling aspect, doubt.)

I would add: …doing/being nothing at all, but this nothing is very different from the nothing we began with.