This Practice Column is excerpted from a book in progress, to be published by Shambhala in 1993.
In both meditation practice and our lives we need to discover the critical balance between effort and surrender. On the surface it seems that these two qualities might contradict each other: how can we make effort, be purposeful, and at the same time surrender to what is happening, to the natural unfolding of our experience? This paradox becomes the focal point for understanding the spiritual journey.
Without the proper effort nothing happens. We simply live out, and act out, all the old habit patterns of our conditioning. It’s extremely difficult to step outside of these habits, to awaken in a clear and fresh way to what is actually happening, and to make choices based on wisdom rather than on reactive conditioning. Where does this effort come from? What motivates us to make it?
A few simple reflections have great power in inspiring us to make the proper effort. One is to reflect on the fleeting, momentary nature of experience. Although we may understand this intellectually, it takes a caring and wise attention to see and feel it deeply. Where has all our experience gone? Moment after moment it disappears. We may hold on to ideas or memories, but they too become another passing experience of the moment. Given this great and obvious truth of impermanence, what is it that is of value in our lives? What is it that is worth cultivating? In the Buddha’s own quest it is this reflection which motivated him to seek enlightenment. “Why should I, who am subject to old age, disease and death, also seek that which is subject to old age, disease and death?”
And after his great awakening, the Buddha encouraged and exhorted and admonished the monks and nuns and lay people: “There are trees, there are the roots of trees. Meditate now, lest you regret it later.” In those days, trees were convenient places to meditate. The Buddha realized just how fast our life goes by, and that the opportunity to practice, to awaken, is a rare and precious gift. Unless we use the time of our lives well, we are left with a feeling of having missed something of inestimable value.
We can also reflect on what first awakened interest in our own journey of understanding. Was it some deep experience of suffering, or compassion for the suffering of others? Was it some inner search for meaning or purpose in one’s life? Sometimes we lose touch with that which first inspired us; it can be helpful to reconnect with that initial interest and investigation. It can rekindle the fire of effort, of passion for this amazing journey of understanding.
The other side of the balance is the quality of surrender. This does not mean a passive resignation, but rather a surrender to the dhamma, to the truth of the moment’s experience. This enables us to make effort, to arouse energy, but without agitation or grasping. We have a sense of spiritual urgency and at the same time there is a softening and surrender to just what is happening in the moment.
In the early years of my meditation practice I would cultivate this quality of surrender by reminding myself that my job on retreat was just to sit and walk, sit and walk, sit and walk. And then to let whatever happened, happen. By upholding my side of the effort, I was then able to surrender to all the ups and downs of practice. There were times that were smooth and easy and wonderful, and there were times that were full of pain and difficulty. I just kept sitting and walking, sitting and walking. And the dhamma continued to unfold.
Concentration is the key to wisdom. When the mind is concentrated, it is able to see clearly the nature of phenomena, the nature of the mind itself. The power of concentration gives strength to the mind and makes it possible to abide in ease. Without it, we find ourselves caught over and over again in the torrent of thoughts, plans, judgments and memories. When we learn how to train ourselves in concentration, we enjoy an inner stillness and peace.
Imagine yourself standing on the top of an arch, falling down first one side and then the other. Each time you fall off, it’s necessary to climb back up to the top. In the beginning of meditation practice, this is what our minds are like as we try to stay with the breath or some other object. We are continually being pulled away by different thoughts or daydreams, and we may experience some effort or struggle to come back to the object.
At a certain point in the development of concentration, the arch inverts and becomes a trough. At that time, it’s as if we are balancing at the bottom of the trough. Then, even if the mind is pulled away, it naturally falls back to its place of rest. When this level of concentration is reached, the practice becomes much more effortless and we begin to enjoy the taste of the meditative mind.
There are two simple ways to develop this power of concentration. The first way is to give the mind a primary object of attention. This might be the feeling of the breath at the nostrils, staying mindful of the sensations of the air as it passes the tip of the nose or the upper lip. Or it might be the movement of the chest or abdomen as the breath enters and leaves the body. With each of these, we train the awareness to connect with the beginning of the breath, and then we sustain the attention for the duration of just that one breath. Then we connect again, with the beginning of the out-breath and hold the attention till the end. It is important not to become overly ambitious. We have the capacity to feel one breath completely. If we try to do more than that, if we have the idea that we’re going to be mindful of the breathing for a half an hour, that is much too much. It is far beyond the capacity of the mind, and so we quickly get discouraged. Connect and sustain for just one breath. And then one more breath. In this way, we are working well within our capacity, and the mind more simply and easily begins to concentrate.
The second way to develop and strengthen concentration is to use the technique of mental noting or mental labeling. This means that with each breath we make a very soft mental note, “in, out” or “rise, fall.” In addition, we also note every other object of experience that might arise in the meditation. If thoughts arise, note “thinking”; if sensations become predominant, note “pressure,” “vibration,” “tension,” “tingling” or whatever it might be. If sounds or images come into the foreground, note “hearing” or “seeing.” This continuity of mental noting keeps the mind clearly focused on the experience of the moment, and from the continuity of mindfulness comes the power of concentration.