Make Effort! Strive to be Free! Just like this cyclist on his long country ride.
Meditation Lesson 5.
I have spoken about letting go of thought and returning to the meditation object, and staying there. This shift of the mind is foundational to success in meditation training.
It is like shifting a pile of earth, that somehow was put in the wrong position. Effort is needed, and get out shovel and barrow, or whatever we use to shift dirt. And that pile of earth will simply stay where it is, until this effort is made.
Likewise, we need to make effort to shift the mind from busy-ness to quiet. Thinking does exert considerable influence over the mind, and the habit of thinking is very deeply entrenched. In fact, the Buddha once declared that this perpetual wandering of the mind in thought, unguarded and unguided, has been going on “since beginning-less beginning.”
In addition, the modern era aggravates this habit of unnecessary thinking. Secondary education and especially University studies can get the mind so used to perpetual thinking that it may be almost impossible to quieten the mind in meditation. This was certainly my experience. Modern education trains the mind to think hard, and at high speed, for very long periods of time. So do many jobs, especially the better paid ones.
On top of this, TV and other forms of screen entertainment have so invaded the lives of most people that much of the non working time of the people is now spent on the screen. And TV has become more and more sensational since the 1960’s, when I first saw it. This greatly aggravates the compulsiveness of thinking.
All this only increases people’s need for inner peace, and some kind of meditation to cultivate this peace. Interest in meditation has much grown in recent decades. The benefits of meditation are now widely recognised, even in drug based medicine. To the extent that many of Eric Harrison’s students came to him from doctor’s referrals. Eric was a famous meditation teacher in Perth, where I lived. I had the good fortune to meet him, and I had several valuable meetings with him in the nineties.
So we need to make effort to shift the mind out of its age old habits of thinking. We need this to succeed in meditation. This shift will not occur without such effort.
I used the expression “make effort”. In actual fact, we spend energy in this endeavour. And we humans have only limited reserves of energy. Especially when we are tired. So we need to spend our limited energy wisely.
It is important to adjust the level of energy expenditure. Not burning up too much energy and getting depleted. Nor being too lax, so that no progress can be made. And adjust this effort to suit the energy available.
This also applies to the length of sit. There’s no point doing marathon sessions for a few days or weeks, and then no meditation for months. Or years.
It’s also important to be realistic about how still we can make the mind in this five minute period. Perhaps the goal should be to slow down the mind, rather than come to complete rest with the meditation object. Perhaps stillness and silence is a goal for the future, in your practice. Perhaps a long term goal.
You could devise some method to estimate the speed of your thoughts, so you can monitor this slowing down of thinking. It is now almost forty years since I left university, and it is now difficult to remember the compulsive thinking I had back then. Thirty seven years of daily meditation practice has completely changed my mind, and life.
Slowing down and eventually stopping the mind thru meditation is no small task. A variety of skills are called for. Hence this introductory Course on How to Meditate. And a variety of meditation techniques. More on this later.
The Effort to Enjoy.
You may well experience times when the mind is reasonably still, and you are able to take rest with the meditation object. I certainly hope this happens for you. And soon.
Then the next step is to cultivate the spiritual Qualities. Principally joy, appreciation and inspiration. Just because the mind is relatively quiet does not mean we are necessarily enjoying experience, nor are we particularly inspired, nor filled with gratitude.
Again, we need to make effort to cultivate these Qualities so important for our meditation. Gently urge your mind towards Qualities such as these. Try naming the Qualities that seem most relevant to you now, and use the mind suggestions or affirmations. Look for any trace of these Qualities now present, and value these. Find some way of strengthening these Qualities. Encourage the Qualities to arise, consciously think thoughts that will help them arise. Do nothing to discourage them.
Outside your formal meditation times, find ways of strengthening and building these Qualities. Also be vigilant to protect them from self sabotage, especially when difficulties arise. This will accustom the mind to the Path to Freedom. Makes your meditation so much easier.
Try visualising these Qualities, perhaps symbolically as white light growing in your heart, and then spreading out thru your limbs.
Do not allow criticism of yourself to arise, just because you are not a perfect meditator.
All these techniques and pursuits take effort, and we need to spend energy on them. Remember, this is energy well spent. More on this later.
Stillness is helpful, but not Necessary.
However, there is no need to wait until the mind is still before we start cultivating the spiritual Qualities. This cultivation can be done at any time, and it’s important to seize any opportunity to do this during the day.
But when the mind is still from meditation, it is so much easier to work on the Qualities. We have the spaciousness of mind to build. We are not being distracted by a whole lot of mental noise. Indeed, it could be said that the main reason to meditate is to create the best conditions for developing the Qualities.
Buddhism talks of “four great efforts.”
- The effort to let go of disturbance
- The effort to avoid disturbance
- The effort to cultivate the Qualities, and return to them
- The effort to protect the Qualities
In the first sermon the Buddha gave after his enlightenment experience, he talked about the Way to be Free, or the Way of Being Free, in daily life. Eight factors or principles were listed, including effort or vāyāma.
But the Buddha emphasised the difference between helpful and unhelpful effort. The actual expression used in the First Sermon is sammā vāyāma, or perfecting our efforts.
When our minds are caught up in unnecessary and unhelpful thought, we are actually spending energy. We are making effort to complain, worry, imagine difficulties, revisit old traumas, or be planning when we should be resting our poor tired out mind.
Thus the Buddha advises “perfection in our efforts”, or sammā vāyāma. Why not spend all that energy letting go of thought, and approaching rest? Instead of just wasting it?
My webpage “Course in Meditation” describes how to
gain the full benefit of these Meditation Lessons