Balancing Effort & Effortlessness

Central to the practice of meditation and the journey of awakening is the ability to hold a paradox. When we learn to look closely, life is full of paradoxes. However, we easily overlook them, in part, because the ego gravitates towards the simplicity and clarity of dualistic categories: right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair. The pandemic brought this to the surface of the collective consciousness: how much we all struggle with uncertainty.  

One important paradox to hold in approaching meditation is the importance of both effort and effortlessness.

Neither is right nor wrong in an absolute sense; the issue is what to emphasize at a particular moment in time.

In the earlier phases of practice, there needs to be a considerable amount of effort. Meditation is a practice. It’s a discipline. It’s a habit. 

The metaphor of climbing a mountain is a very common one in spiritual traditions. The earlier phases of awakening tend to have this quality to it. The language and practices around this “ascending the mountain” phase of the journey tend to reflect an archetypally masculine approach to spirituality. You can see how particular traditions, lineages and teachers employ this language and this kind of approach. Rinzai Zen and certain styles of vipassana, such as Goenka and Mahasi Sayadaw, reflect this emphasis on effort and discipline. 

At a certain point, the journey of awakening becomes a lot more about descending the mountain. This reflects a more archetypally feminine approach to spirituality. This phase of the journey is more about effortlessness; we abandon the struggle and surrender. This evokes the famous metaphor of The Buddha who spoke of The Dharma as a raft. Don’t cling to anything, even the teachings of The Dharma. Once a particular teaching or practice has taken us to where we need to go, we can release it. Of course, it still requires effort to walk down a mountain even if it’s considerably less than is required to climb up it.

In my experience, the descending the mountain phase of the journey has a natural and spontaneous flourishing of love, devotion and compassion. This isn’t to say that this should happen or will happen for everyone, but this is certainly a theme that I’ve noticed in many other traditions and people as well.

So how we approach meditation is not a matter of either effort or effortlessness. It’s learning to hold the paradox of “yes/and,” rather than “either/or.”

It’s not a problem to solve; it’s a paradox with which to become intimate. This tension between effort and effortlessness orients us in our meditation practice but it’s also a fruit of our practice that develops with time. The more that we practice, the more the mind becomes flexible, open and receptive. Awareness can start to notice how quickly the ego gets locked into certain stories or simplistic categories. 

We need to expend considerable effort in order to learn and apply the teachings, to refine the body-mind and to develop the ability to see more clearly and to act more compassionately.

I also think there is a certain level of energy that one must exhaust that defies logical explanation; perhaps it’s simply stored up energy (karmic impressions, psychological conditioning) in the body-mind. We have to reach the point where we feel it, deep down in our bones, that we are sick and tired of looking for happiness outside of ourselves; we have to recognize experientially the futility of this struggle to find satisfaction in fleeting sensory experience or external markers of success to supposedly validate our self worth. This is what the yogic traditions mean when they describe samsara as a kind of endless wandering.

In truth, we are spiraling up and down, cycling through these phases of waking up and waking down throughout various points in the never ending process of awakening. In contrast to much of the language we find in the yogic traditions, my personal view is that we’ll never get to a point where “we’re done.” This is actually more in line with a view of the path that we find in East Asian traditions which speak of “The Way,” as more of a pathless path rather than one with a particular goal as in most Indian traditions (moksha, nirvana, buddhahood). 

What wants to be done with the spirituality journey? Isn’t it the ego? It certainly isn’t this mystery of Being that defies language but which we attempt to label with words like Presence, rigpa, pure awareness, Shiva Shakti.

If we think through an Integral lens, on one level (Growing Up), we desire personal growth, evolution. From the perspective of Waking Up, what we are really seeking is the end of seeking. This is another paradox to hold. These two statements can be true at the same time.

A good question to reflect on is: what am I emphasizing now at this particular phase of my practice? If you’re new to meditation or looking to get started, it might be worth considering your personality or even taking one of those personality tests. Are you a very laid back person who has challenges with motivation and discipline, or are you a goal orientated, overachiever who could learn to be a little more relaxed and playful? 

Whatever brings you into balance, into the middle of the path, at a particular moment, that’s usually the right move.

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