For meditation practice to be sustainable and fruitful, one must bring the proper degree of effort to one’s practice. Right effort is one of the factors of the eightfold path and is a very basic and essential part of practice. It takes effort to carve out time for daily meditation, to read or listen to the Dhamma, or to participate in a sangha. If we don’t apply any effort, we will just float along with our conditioning and be stuck in our suffering forever.
However, there is a difference between effort and effortfulness. Right effort in Buddhist teachings is balanced effort. A simile from the suttas is that of the strings of a lute. If the strings are too loose, they won’t produce the proper sound. If they are too taut, they similarly won’t resonate properly and may even damage the instrument. The amount of effort in one’s practice should also be balanced in much the same way that a lute string should be neither to lax or too taught.
I have seen this idea communicated most often by the forest monks in the Mahasati tradition through encouraging an air of ease and even playfulness in one’s practice. In their own lives, these monks model dedication and commitment to one’s practice, but I’ve also often heard them tell practitioners they should relax and have fun with the practice. This struck me as a very skilful way to communicate right effort. It’s not that one shouldn’t be dedicated to one’s practice, both on and off the cushion, but one needs to find a way to engage with it that is enjoyable and not overly austere. If one’s practice feels effortful, there will be too much ego tied up in it, and it will also be difficult to maintain. If you can’t find a way to relate to your practice with enjoyment, you won’t be able to stick with it for the long haul. It’s not only serious long-term meditators that often come at their practice with a driven and austere mindset. I’ve witnessed many beginners struggle with their practice because they’re approaching it as if they’re attempting to vanquish some foe within.
To make our practice enjoyable, we can approach it like a game. To do this, we first of all have to drop all judgment. We just practice being aware of what is here in the present moment, in our bodies and minds, without any judgment about whether it should or shouldn’t be there. If we are judging what we see with our awareness, it won’t be any fun at all. Instead, simply play the game of seeing how fast awareness can take in the phenomena that are currently present in body and mind. When I am practicing in this way, I am reminded of a game that very young children play whereby you continuously try to have your hand on top of the other person’s. When the other person slips his or her hand out and places it on top of yours, you in turn slide yours out and put it back on top.
This is very similar to how our practice works. In this case, your “hand” is your present moment awareness, and the other person’s hand is mental and physical phenomena including concocting thought and the defilements of clinging, aversion, and delusion. Sometimes awareness is on top, and at other times, proliferating thought and the defilements are on top and are covering the awareness. When we realize the opponent’s hand is on top, we don’t have to make the defilement go away, just as we wouldn’t make the other person’s hand go away in the children’s game, we only have to put our awareness back on top. We just keep doing this again and again. Every time awareness is covered by something, just put it back on top of whatever is there.
The reason I like the simile of this children’s hand game is that the game moves very fast, it is totally repetitive, and there is no real winning of the game, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. This is much like our practice. Concocting thought and the defilements will continually try to put their hand on top of our awareness, and we have to continually put awareness back on top. We do this over and over just as with the hand game. But, there actually is a winner in this game in that the less total time we spend with our awareness covered by the defilements, the lighter our life will be. Eventually, the defilements may even grow tired and go home.
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