Christina Feldman has been a dharma teacher for many years and is the author of several books. The founder and guiding teacher of Gaia House in Devon, England, she teaches regularly at both IMS and BCBS.
These remarks have been taken from a talk given at IMS in February of 2003.
This evening I’d like to speak about joy in the practice and about joyful effort. Meditation is never meant to be approached as an ordeal, a grim task of chipping away at a rock face. The Buddha once said that this path is a path of happiness that leads to the highest happiness, which is peace. Some people when they hear that think he’s talking about everybody but them.
It is really important that there be a sense of joy in our practice. Joy doesn’t mean that we just have pleasant sensations, blissful experiences, or happy thoughts. It is something much deeper than that. If we are going to be able to really sustain a vital and deepening spiritual practice, not only in retreats but also in our lives, that sustainability will be rooted in the kind of joy we can find in our practice and in ourselves.
It takes effort for all of us to get up in the morning, to raise a child, to bring things we dream of to fulfillment. It takes perseverance. It takes effort for you to come to the meditation center, and to actually engage with the meditation hour after hour. To take one step after another in walking meditation when inwardly there can be countless voices encouraging you to flee, to be elsewhere—this too takes effort. It takes effort to sit with ourselves in stillness during times that are not always easy, when part of us knows there’s countless other things, more gratifying things, that we could be doing in that moment. We can look at all the journeys we make in our life, and the pervading theme in all those journeys is that they ask for effort.
It is really important that there be a sense of joy in our practice.
In many ways the effort we make in our lives is really the visible face of our commitment. We give effort to what we are dedicated to. And for us to bring anything to fulfillment, to deepen in anything, to explore any new landscape, it requires us to find dedication and perseverance and effort. Sometimes I think the only instruction perhaps we ever need to give in retreats is to encourage people to just keep showing up—no matter what doubts, what struggles, what anxieties—just keep showing up.
In the Zen tradition they call this sitting like a mountain—remaining steadfast and firm and receptive amidst all the weather that comes. I personally have no doubt that if you simply keep showing up, your meditation will surely deepen. You will find a greater openness, a greater learning, a greater sensitivity, a deepening sense of the many ways that we can be touched by life. And yet we all also know that it’s very possible to show up physically, and to psychically be quite somewhere else; we can be very far from our bodies, very far from this moment. So I think it is also a matter of how we show up. And this is what we explore when we look carefully at effort.
Effort is always going to be part of our practice, part of all the journeys we make. But the kind of effort we bring to life reflects a great deal about who we believe ourselves to be, what we have faith in, and what we sense to be possible for us.
In the Buddhist tradition much is said about wise effort, and in many different ways. One teacher might say if you want to realize peace and serenity, you should be prepared to sweat beads. One teacher has pointed out that there will come a time in your practice when you look back upon all your heroic efforts and have a sense of futile actions performed in a dream. Sometimes we hear of effort as a quality of simply being present, a greater sense of gentleness, of benevolence, to just simply attend to being here.
Other times we hear about goals, and still another time we hear about having no goals. One of the teachers with whom I sat used to shout at us in sittings. Everyone would be sitting there quietly and upright. Suddenly this booming voice would shout out saying, “Work, work, work, strive for your own enlightenment!” It certainly woke us up in that moment. We hear constantly of the efforts we must make to liberate ourselves. In whatever voice it is delivered, we often hear that all the transformation we’re going to see happen, all the freedom we are seeking to realize, somehow relies upon the personal effort and exertion we make.
I think it is important to understand the kind of effort we make in our practice, and how to investigate it, because effort is not just a means to being awake. Effort in itself is a source of understanding and awakening. The effort we bring in our practice is constantly reflecting who we believe ourselves to be. Sometimes our effort is reflecting images we hold about ourselves, a sense of identity that lies at the core of our being. Our effort can reflect not only what we sense to be possible for us. but also what we sense to be impossible. When our effort is born of unconscious self images, then it very often will manifest as unwise or unskillful effort. That doesn’t lead to greater freedom or joy, but sometimes instead perpetuates the very life patterns and identities from which we would most like to be free.
If we look at the type of effort we bring to our practice, and the kind of effort we bring to our lives, it’s very likely they will resemble one another. Some of our effort can be quite habitual, because some of the identities we hold about ourselves are habitual. I’d like to explore some of those more habitual, unconscious efforts I’ve come across in teaching, and also some I’ve experienced in myself.
There is the striver who comes to practice with a big agenda of goals that must be attained. Sometimes women, for example, may think of themselves as less striving, and yet there are so many subtle dimensions of the striver that can live within us all. This can happen where practice is sometimes treated as something of a test of worthiness. And we know that life itself is sometimes treated as a test of worthiness. In that kind of striving, the practice is sometimes treated as a mountain we need to climb, a place to succeed or to prove ourselves.
The striver often has some very visible characteristics, for example using the vocabulary of good and bad, or success and failure. One looks for signs of progress and is equally acutely alert to signs of failure. And there’s often a sort of checklist in practice. “How many breaths in a row did I have in that sitting? How many times did I move?” That becomes a sign of success or failure. “How many insights did I have today?” Often we can see that when striving is present in our practice, there’s also a good deal of self-consciousness and a constant measuring inwardly. We are looking for evidence of one kind or another. And of course with all that measuring and evaluating going on, the voice of the inner critic is quite often a steady companion. All because we can never really feel quite good enough.
Effort is not just a means… it is itself a source of understanding.
There is another kind of habitual effort which is much more ambivalent, a sort of lethargic, half-hearted effort. We can be quite conscientious about showing up, but everything else looks like a lucky accident if we run into the occasional breath. In this kind of effort, it’s just bad luck if we spaced out completely in the whole sitting. It’s almost like waiting for meditation to deliver a glimpse of something, as if we’re waiting for a delivery to arrive. This is a disengaged type of effort, and reflects an inner belief that life is something that just happens to us—we are not a conscious participant in the kind of world we live in. Sometimes that ambivalent effort manifests as low expectation or a reduced sense of inner possibility.
Just as the striver is a casualty of their own inflated expectations, more of us, I think, can suffer from too limited expectations, from too low a sense of possibility. In this case we can perhaps resign ourselves to far less than what’s possible for us—in our lives and in our practice.
Correctly understood, effort is an invitation to insight.
There’s another habitual and unconscious kind of effort. This is an aversive effort, where meditation practice is approached as a sort of onerous task. It’s a medicine, it tastes bad, but everybody’s told us it’s really good for us. So we’re kind of willing to swallow it. Sometimes when we have that aversive effort we sit and we walk but it’s almost fulfilling a sense of obligation because we’re supposed to. It’s a duty, but with an underlying aversion. And often we don’t spot the aversion; but the clue is we spend a lot of time in fantasies and daydreams, which provide the camouflage for aversion.
There is also the opposite of aversive effort, the warrior effort that manifests as will power, where life and practice, and sometimes even oneself, is regarded as an obstacle to conquer. In this effort, there are a lot of enemies, a lot of things to subdue, to transcend, to force our way through. And this kind of overly heroic effort often carries very fixed views about how things should be. Anything that doesn’t fit in with how we believe things should be is basically an enemy to overcome.
Most people don’t fit neatly into any one of these categories, nor do most demonstrate only one of these dimensions of effort. Depending on our mind state at the moment, as well as the historical beliefs we carry about ourselves, we can find a number of these different qualities of effort appearing during the day. We can start the day as the warrior and end up in the throws of aversive effort or ambivalence.
Correctly understood, effort is an invitation to insight. The kind of effort we make in our practice and in our lives is communicating something. At times it’s communicating the mind state of the moment: doubt, fear, craving, or aversion. Sometimes the kind of effort we’re making is communicating a more historical belief system or self image that dominates our lives. However our relationship to effort manifests, we are invited to listen well to these communications.
I think we need to allow the practice itself to be the practice of freedom, to be the practice of peace, to be the practice of compassion, rather than feel that all of that somehow comes as a result of something else. It doesn’t make sense, does it, that we would strive or struggle and expect that somehow the fruit is going to be peace? It doesn’t add up that we’re going to battle with ourselves and beat ourselves up and chip away at the rock face, and that the fruit of such activity is going to be joy. So let’s find a way to make the quality of effort itself the goal of practice.
Let’s make our effort joyful.
When we cultivate not just wise and skillful effort, but also joyful effort, we discover what I think Joseph Campbell described as the rapture of being fully alive. It is very difficult to define joy, isn’t it? We’re really good at defining misery. We could write a book on it: it looks like that, feels like that, comes from here, moves through me like that; it expresses itself like that, and so on. But defining joy is difficult. One of the most curious things about joy is that it often doesn’t seem caused. We don’t usually say, “Oh, yes, that makes me filled with joy.” Joy comes to us often in quite unexpected, unanticipated moments. And yet also we don’t mistake it for something else. We know what it is like to feel joy, to feel a delight of being, to feel a celebration of the moment; the joy of being touched by sometimes the simplest of things.
Joy has a lot to do with having the openness of heart to receive life as it is. It’s not a result always of some complex endeavor. It’s often more revealed to us in the times when we can discover that space of being and that space of receiving. There’s a Chinese saying, “You should keep a green bough in your heart. The singing bird will come.” I often think of mindfulness practice as learning to keep a green bough in our hearts, and then the singing bird comes in most curious and unanticipated moments. It’s not just a fleeting experience or a state of mind. Sometimes there is such joy in just being awake. Once when the Buddha was traveling through a village this villager came to him and said, “How come you’re so radiant? Are you some kind of angel, some sort of god, some kind of saint?” And the Buddha answered simply, “No, I’m awake.”
Vision and Confidence
Vision is an intrinsic part of this practice and teaching. I’m always reluctant to use the word “goal,” because it comes with so many charged associations, but certainly vision or aspiration is the reason we practice. We practice because we are concerned with the end of sorrow and conflict, with an emerging compassion and understanding. Our aspiration is not something static, of course, and is constantly being altered by experience and by new understanding. Sometimes we can come into retreat with a mind beset by chaos and struggle and agitation. Our aspiration in that moment might just be to find a little serenity. Or someone might come into a retreat with a really broken heart. They’re not coming here to contemplate the profound emptiness and perfection of all things. They’re looking for a little healing, to find some sense of balance, some kind of renewal within themselves.here are two dimensions of joyful effort, and both are interwoven. One is the dimension of vision, the quality of aspiration that we hold, the possibility of having trust in our practice and in ourselves. It is faith in the possibility of really discovering the mind of awakening within ourselves. The other dimension of joyful effort is a confidence that trusts, moment to moment, our capacity to bring to fulfillment the vision we hold. It means having a pervasive confidence in ourselves, our practice, our path, our capacity for depth. A joyful effort asks for these two qualities of vision and confidence to be always in balance, because it’s when they fall out of balance that we tend to fall into unskillful or unwise effort.
Joy has to do with having the openness of heart to receive life as it is.
Sometimes a person comes into retreat and they just feel battered and overwhelmed by life, like it’s just been too much pain or too much struggle. And again, you know, their aspiration in that moment may be just to find a way of reclaiming some inner authority, some inner listening, some inner spaciousness. And sometimes we find what we’re looking for. We discover ourselves again, and we do find the peace, the serenity, the healing. And…that’s not the end of the task.
Sometimes discovering some peace opens up a wider sense of possibility, in which we see that calmness itself is not a destination. This is the beginning of a real deepening of insight. We may see that healing a broken heart is not the end of the path, and this insight inspires us to see how we might bring such healing to suffering wherever it exists. We learn to reclaim some inner voice of authority, and this is the beginning of finding an unshakable balance and wisdom.
We see how one moment of realizing aspiration is almost the beginning of a whole new sense of possibility. We all have dreams and longings that bring us to practice. Sometimes we don’t even articulate them to ourselves. Sometimes we listen to the words of the teachings of mystics and sages and they stir a kind of echo within ourselves, a sense of longing, a sense of yearning. It’s really important to honor those yearnings and their sense of possibility, because it’s what gives meaning to our path. It’s what gives meaning to the effort we bring and to the challenges we meet. It allows us to know what we’re doing and why we’re here. It doesn’t matter if you sit and your body is aching or you mind is chaotic. That’s not important. What matters is that we sense the worthiness of the moment. What matters is that we honor the intention for wholeness, for clarity, and that we honor the intention to cultivate that. And honoring this is actually what brings joy to the practice. It does so even in times when it is difficult or seems to make no sense.
What matters is that we sense the worthiness of the moment.
In our practice what we’re learning is really to breath life into aspiration. We’re learning to embody it, to nurture it, to cultivate it in every step we take when we walk, in every breath we breathe. All those moments are in the service of honoring the deepest intentions we can bring to our life and practice; they’re all in service of honoring our capacity for wisdom, for compassion, for authenticity. Everything we do then serves to fulfill our sense of vision.
Confidence is the second dimension of joyful effort. This is the place where we can falter or be a little more fragile. Nothing leaches out joy or freedom from our lives more than doubt and fear. Doubt and fear make us so hesitant in the face of so many things, makes us afraid of taking new steps or afraid of opening up. It makes us so afraid of disappointment.
I wonder where we think the classroom is for gaining confidence. Clearly not in the moments when we feel certain and unshakable and fearless; neither in the times of feeling uncertain and full of of doubt, or afraid and ready to resign. Yet these are also the times we learn about confidence. When we find ourselves willing to come back and be with that which we were previously so resistant to or afraid of, we learn something about confidence. When we find ourselves willing to be with something that seems so impossible, when we forsake the habitual places of hiding and sanctuary and come back and open up to the present—that’s where we leam about confidence.
Sitting here [in this hall, with other people] is a gesture of confidence, in ourselves and in our path. It’s an expression of our willingness to open, forsaking the habit of abandonment. That’s basically what we do here in mindfulness practice: we forsake the habit of abandoning the moment, abandoning ourselves. And that is a very profound gesture of confidence.
It’s also a manifestation of vision in that it allows us to turn towards what we habitually turn away from. When we do that, we discover the fear was built on very shaky foundations. We learn that our lack of confidence was really built more on what we imagined might be. It’s like so many things that seem impossible, but when we approach them they turn out to be not very solid. Someone said once, “It’s very hard to hate someone you really understand.” It’s also very much harder to fear something you truly understand.
It’s like the story of the little boy who says to his mother, “Mom, imagine you’re surrounded by a herd of hungry tigers all wanting to devour you. What’s it like? What would you do? How would you feel?” She says, “Oh, I would be terrified! I wouldn’t know what to do. What would you do?” And the little boy says, “I’d stop pretending.” We can build up a whole world of impossibility, but it’s really only based on believing in impossibility. And possibility is not based just on believing something else; it’s based upon exploring the possible in the moment, which is something very different.
One of the things that most undermines confidence is not being conscious. When we’re not conscious in our lives, we’re prone to walk some very old and tired pathways. In that unconsciousness, we walk the same pathways we’ve walked a thousand times before; pathways of judgment, of self-condemnation, of self-doubt, of resistance, of fear. We fall into these states in the moments we’re most unconscious, and it so undermines our confidence. I think in such moments we feel like we’re somehow betraying those deepest intentions in our lives that are worthy and and most important to us. This leaves us feeling very fragile and almost unable to trust in ourselves.
When we’re not conscious in our lives, we’re prone to walk some very old and tired pathways.
When we bring consciousness into those places where we’re most unconscious—by becoming mindful—we make ourselves less habit prone and more enlightenment prone. It’s that simple. Everything we do here is in the service of making ourselves prone to insight, prone to being awake, prone to understanding everything. The schedule, the silence, the commitment, everything is in the service of that. I think it’s really important to hold it in that light. We’re not just going through the routine of a retreat. We are here to make ourselves less prone to being unconscious and more open to seeing what’s possible when we are truly conscious.
Sometimes that means challenging ourselves a little. And we can do that out of curiosity, out of interest, or out of a sense of possibility, rather than from duty or expectation. Sometimes we learn in our practice to challenge our edge just a little bit, to see where we’re most prone to slip into some of the unconscious identities and beliefs that can seem so set in stone. We learn to ride our edges a bit. That doesn’t mean pushing or forcing; it means to keep looking at what’s possible, keep questioning the moments we want to throw our hands in the air and say, “That’s it! Not a moment more.” What is possible here? Where is the peace in that moment? If our aspiration is to nurture compassion, to deepen peace, to discover clarity, then it’s in that very moment we need to say, “Where is it? Where is it in this moment? Where is the contentment, the serenity, the kindness, the compassion, the wisdom in the moment that we are in.”
We often think about effort as just a means to take us from here to somewhere else. It’s as if there’s this big gap in the middle. In learning to bring joy to our effort, we’re learning to bring the somewhere else into the here. The effort is in the moment; it is the effort to be awake, to be free, to embody aspiration and confidence. Only then, I think, is our practice really pervaded with joyful effort. This is where we find the joy in the practice and the joy in being.