Do you ever feel discouraged?

Happy Easter in Buddhism Happy Easter Everyone! I thought today would be a good day to start a series of articles on how to become unstuck – overcoming the long winter of our discouragement to arise anew. Sloughing off our sense of a limited, fixed, deluded self — a self that doesn’t in any case even exist — and arising and identifying ourselves as a wise, peaceful, positive, loving, happy, blissful, free person instead.

Easter and Spring both seem to me occasions to celebrate the ripening of deep potential and fertility. Isn’t that what Jesus was showing when he arose from the dead on what is, according to Christian friends, the most uplifting day of the Christian calendar? Isn’t that also what eggs and bunnies are about? And, when the daffodils do finally manage to get their little yellow heads up above the snow, isn’t that what daffodils are about too?

Self-effacement or self-sabotage?

don't believe everything you thinkAt my day job last week I was asked to fill in an incredibly long and complicated (to me) application form in a very short period of time, and I was protesting inwardly and a little bit outwardly too: “Don’t make me do this! It’s way above my pay grade, someone else could do it so much better, there’s so much at stake, I’m going to blow it!”

Later that day I overheard someone talking about the impossibility of their realizing emptiness in almost exactly the same terms!

I realized we were both under the influence of discouragement, and therefore setting ourselves up for failure. Only when I got going and realized I probably could do this after all, (with a little encouragement), did I start enjoying myself; and I did a perfectly okay job of it. Likewise, only when we get going and get rid of the notion that we can’t do emptiness, (with a little encouragement and inspiration), can we start enjoying ourselves and get the job done.

Laziness in disguise

Discouragement is rampant in our times, and when it is applied to our spiritual practice it becomes a dangerous type of laziness, called the laziness of discouragement. Over the last year or so, quite a number of people have asked me to write something about it. Now that I’m back in the land of self-deprecation bordering on self-sabotage, I thought it would be a good time to start.

We have enormous spiritual potential. And everything depends upon our mind, our thoughts; including our sense of self. Holding onto the thought of a fixed, limited self is preventing us from changing and realizing our potential.

British self-effacement can be endearing and sometimes even humble, but as often as not it is a tight grasping at a limited sense of self that is holding us back from attempting or achieving anything that will help ourselves and others. The self-talk thoughts, “You’re useless”, “You’re too old”, “You can’t do this!”… these are not humility, these are aversion, and comments we would not want to put up with from other people. That we put up with and heed our own self-defeating thoughts is a big shame, considering we have a precious human life and Buddha nature and can do anything if we go for it. As one Facebook friend put it:

overcoming discouragement in Buddhism

“Discouragement is a problem for me – often there is no boundary between being self-effacing and being self-destructive in my mind. My teacher once very helpfully pointed out that the full name for discouragement is ‘the laziness of discouragement’, but we don’t often think of ourselves as lazy when we’re feeling discouraged.”

Which is true. We might be assuming that putting ourselves down is almost innocent. We don’t think of it as a delusion, but this laziness of discouragement IS a delusion. Perhaps it is even the most pernicious delusion, insofar as, under its influence, we let our life go by without changing ourselves, and it keeps us forever stuck in suffering if we let it.

We can understand the delusion of laziness better if we appreciate what is its opposite, positive mind, which is effort. So perhaps we can start here.

What is effort?

“Effort” can sound like a lot of effort! Joyful effort, its full name, is better, but still seems to require, well, effort. Is “energy” any better? Inspiration? Enjoyment?  I’m inspired to practice, I’m happy to practice, I love practicing, I enjoy practicing – these are all manifestations of effort, far more than “I need to put in the effort”, “I really ought to be practicing”…

amazing race to enlightenmentEffort can sound tense, can sound like we’re squeezing or pushing for results. Sometimes we are — as competitive westerners we can bring our competitive streak to our spiritual practice. We may be sitting next to someone thinking “I wonder how they’re concentrating? Oh no, they can meditate for far longer than me! Oh, their posture is so much better…” We tend to push a lot in our own culture, job, family, society and so forth – we push for results. And we can also feel under pressure to fake for results in order to look good.

Do you ever live your life as if people are looking over your shoulder and judging you? Perhaps feeling guilty when you don’t think you’re up to scratch as mothers, workers, partners, and even spiritual practitioners? Then we feel we need to push and try harder (or fake better!); but guilt is certainly no substitute for joy, and this is not effort. I love to practice Buddhism or Dharma as if no one is looking.

When I first went to America, I noticed that Americans are unafraid to tell you about their qualities, whereas you could never get a Brit to tell you about their qualities except under torture. Brits resort to understatement and self-deprecation: “I am perfectly useless at that… I can’t meditate for the life of me”, whereas Americans like to put their best foot forward at all times, which can be good, but which can also sometimes mean faking it a little – it’s a bit like a job interview culture. Perhaps some of us associate effort, then, with pushing, and not being entirely authentic – and basically not really experiencing any change. However, effort is all about changing.

If we can avoid the extremes of self-deprecation and insincerity, and have a joyful, confident, enthusiastic, and relaxed approach to our meditation practices, we are guaranteed to change a great deal for the better.

What is “virtue”?

Effort is defined in Buddhism as “a mind that delights in virtue”.

Virtue means the causes of happiness. Again, not what we always think when we think of the word virtue, which can sound a bit too, well, virtuous (goody two shoes = not what it means.)

So, effort delights in the causes of happiness. This doesn’t sound much like effort as we know it! But we can see that if we did have a mind that delighted in cultivating the causes of happiness, we’d end up being very happy, because we’d be joyfully creating joy! With effort our meditation becomes delightful, like a child playing his favorite video game, and how much effort does THAT take?! We are aiming at enjoying our practice so that it feels effortless – and that funnily enough IS what genuine effort feels like.Buddha's face in flower

We may not be there yet, but it is as well to know that this is what effort is. Not pushing. Not squeezing. Not clenching. Not forcing. Not grasping at results. Not feeling miserably as if I am over here TRYING so hard to practice, and the results are over there, years or even lifetimes away in the future, an unbridgeable chasm between us — setting ourselves up for failure. Not comparing and contrasting what everyone else is doing or fantasizing about what they think of us. Not putting ourselves down or believing all our own inner narrative about who we are. Effort is all about being in the present moment, enjoying virtue or the causes of happiness, identifying with being a happy person – enjoying, in other words, being positive, kind, wise, happy, and free.

A little tip: To begin with, if you have to, you can pretend you are enjoying your virtuous activities — or rather imagine that you are.  I remember when I first got into Buddhist that I used to do this with really long prayers, prostrations, fasting, and so on, as I didn’t always automatically enjoy these spiritual practices. So I would think: “I’m really enjoying this!” until I believed it. It is just thoughts, after all. It worked for me.

Next time, more on how we get stuck and how to get unstuck.

YOUR TURN: Please help me with my continued market research on the subject. Do you ever feel discouraged? How do you overcome it?


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

34 thoughts on “Do you ever feel discouraged?”

  1. Luna’s articles have inspired me to write some poetry on my own experience as a kadampa practitioner and the struggles we all go through with our delusions on our path to enlightenment. She has been kind enough to let me post on her page, I hope others can relate to the limited self I speak of and our craving for freedom coupled with our discouragement and attachment to a limited self. I am an occupational therapist and this is a poem I wrote about one (and really all) of my patients. If you would like to read more of my poems I will post some on kadampa poets Facebook page.

    Dancing Shoes

    You silly patient, you clearly can’t move
    You had a stroke, you lost your groove
    You see, there’s stages to recovery
    It’s quite simple, why can’t you see?

    You’re not going to fall asleep tonight
    And wake up tomorrow in some great delight
    “Hey look at me! I can dance! I can swim!”
    Oh silly patient with your insights so dim

    Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how things go
    Keep goals small, keep expectations low
    Always stay positive, do not despair
    You’ll be able to move, success is out there

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, great success takes time
    I keep reminding you of this, why do you still cry?
    Life isn’t fair but don’t give up
    Yes, I know, this life is so tough

    But me? Oh yes, well see, I can move
    Let me just put on my dancing shoes
    I don’t have poor Insight to my disease
    just look at how I conquer delusions with ease

    And how I just keep progressing on my path
    I don’t become discouraged
    And I DONT cry like that
    I just simply keep my eye on that prize
    And realize that success comes from many, many tries

    And I just sit there and I have fun
    And I don’t count all the times I’ve tried but not won
    Oh silly patient, why can’t you see?
    Why can’t you be wise like your therapist, like ME

    But wait, all of that was just a dream
    It’s not all as easy as it seems
    All of that, I really do wish it were true
    But really, I am just, exactly, like YOU

    I wake up each morning and I want to move
    But I just can’t do it, where are my shoes?!
    I must have placed them over there
    Behind that old squeaky rocking chair

    Or maybe they’re In the attic or closet
    God, I really can’t believe that I lost it!
    The only pair that let me go
    From 0 to 100 just as quick as you know

    But wait, this too is also a dream
    Those shoes that I have, they’re not what they seem
    They actually, really, do not exist
    Here let me explain, I’ll make you a list:

    -There are no such thing as dancing shoes
    That take you from suffering, that beak the rules
    -All of us, each one, we have to try
    All day and all night, and yes, we will cry

    Because for some reason we all thought we could put on those shoes
    And that’s it, were done, nothing left to lose

    But life is small goals, small steps, small tries
    We can’t move at ALL but we don’t even want to TRY
    To move a finger, a leg, or even a thigh
    Because, honestly, the threat of failure is way too high

    We can’t move at all but we hope to dance
    Without trying to move to one singular stance
    We keep thinking “Oh yes, well maybe today,
    I’ll wake up and dance without work in any way”

    We’re so scared what we’ll find along the way
    That we decide to stay still, we decide not to play

    We could all be dancers
    ALL on Broadway

    Where are those shoes? Oh well, Never mind.

    I guess they’re lost.

    I guess I won’t try.

  2. I can not tell you how timely this article is as I struggle to reconcile personal success with complete powerlessness to change my parents’ (apparently) dire circumstances… Anyhow…I wish we had more tools in our tradition for practicing self-compassion which is the antidode to self-criticism. I did my dissertation on this actually and based on the research highly compassionate people can be more self-critical when the desire to help is no match for current skills/abilities. One of my participants (counseling student) said “how can I give myself a learning curve when these are real people who need help now?!” I think sometimes we shy away from self-compassion mistaking it for self-cherishing and fearing deluded pride we really do see ourselves as the lowest of all. But this has the potential to devastate the perseverance required to succeed at our ultimate goal. I believe the key (and what helps me) is to remember the love of our Spiritual Guide and all the Buddhas, to seek blessings and to remember that we are not alone. That’s the gateway to the joy which in scientific terms is soothing positive affect induced by attachment (or bond) to a caregiving object.

  3. Although my mum is a Buddhist and my whole childhood I have been exposed to this way of thinking, only recently (I’m 18 now), after trying to figure out what my health troubles are and having major anxiety about death have I decided that I really needed to change my mind and practice what my mum had been doing for so long. It has helped in certain aspects a lot, and we have all Geshe-La’s books and I remember a lot of simple stuff from when I was younger and the internet has so much anyway, but sometimes it can be very overwhelming. Has anyone got any tips on how to go about thinking and practicing while still at uni and interacting with people my age. And also how to apply and do all these ways of thinking and meditations without it causing more stress due to not completely understanding something or it (obviously) not having an immediate visable effect. Thank you.

    1. Hi Jasmine, it’s great that you have been exposed to Buddhist ideas for so long and are now interested in your own right — lucky to be so young 🙂 Where are you at uni? Are there any centers or branches nearby? In my experience, people your age are pretty open-minded about meditation, so interacting with them and sharing your ideas shouldn’t be a problem. I think take it day by day and don’t worry, you certainly don’t have to understand everything right now, already — just find the meditations you like to do and focus mainly on those. xxx

      1. Thank you for your reply! I am at Leicester uni and hopefully will try and visit the local centre when I go back after the holiday as it’s not too expensive 🙂 And ok, taking it day by day seems like a good idea, I’ve had a lot of trouble not worrying about every little thing concerning the future lately and intitally approached trying to practice with a bit of neurotisism, wanting to change everything in a short space of time, so I’m working to be more relaxed about it. I’ve been reading so much of your blog and it’s abosultely wonderful, thank you so much for taking the time to write these beautiful articles!

  4. Thanks Luna. Great article.
    I understood for the first time recently how having unrealistic expectations (detailed in JPGF) really undermines my confidence. I came to see that there’s an unconscious part of me that wants to do the best/ be the best in a competitive or proud way. It’s no wonder that discouragement kicks in with that mind as we’ll be constantly falling short and thereby feeling like a failure. (Not that we shouldn’t sensibly try our best in all things )
    What also helped me learn this practically through non competitive exercise. People set the example of not comparing one another to each other and sensibly trying to improve without unrealistic expectations. And they also gave each other and themselves encouragement.
    This was a very helpful lesson for me in how to walk the spiritual path.
    I also address my own habits of thought now which put me down. I challenge them and use logic to prove them wrong. I also LOVE the emptiness meditations that Kadam Morten has taught on the emptiness of – in this case- the self that is useless, no good etc etc and use this a lot. It always works
    Love x x x x

  5. Hey wise ones, any advice for someone who’s feeling really discouraged (including nightmares) because she’s got a ticket and a flight to see her Guru in Portugal but no accommodation? (* needs to be approx 1/2 a mile from the venue due to various disabilities. Been looking since booking opened, but no joy. The promised reserved room at a nearby hotel fell through as well.)
    Uhmm yeah, please help if you can ❤ Jas

    1. Do Kangso!I had some obstructions regarding accomodation which cleared after that very quickly.

      1. Thank you venerable one. Yes, Kangso is a powerful practice. I shall certainly try it. Doing lots of Vajrasattva mantras and Prajnaparamita practice at the moment, which I know are also effective.

  6. Sometimes I feel incredibly discouraged. I think things like, “if you can’t even stop doing x or Y, how on earth do you expect to become enlightened?!?”. But then, I always make a point to think back to how my mind was 1 year ago, or 3 years ago or 10 years ago and when I can really see for myself how each of those tiny, seemingly insignificant changes have added up to make for a much happier and healthier me, then I regain the mental energy to keep going.

  7. Madeline that’s such a good point about having a resting state. I think a lot of us don’t allow ourselves to even have one. Even when on the outside it looks like we are resting or doing something light, on the inside there is conflict and we think we should be doing something more virtuous or useful. However, within the context of a spiritual path, we can transform rest by viewing it as necessary to be able to make progress. Otherwise it just becomes chilling out with no purpose.

    1. It’s a bit like going to a Welcome roadside service station when you’ve been traveling on the motorway — you like the break, you enjoy it, you need it, but you’re not going to stay there longer than necessary, you’re still happy to be getting back on the road. That is my friend Eileen’s example for the power of rest, I like it!

  8. Can I conclude that when I’m relaxed, happy and joyful that I must have effort and by definition be practicing, and hence not need to either push myself somewhere else or think that that my current state is not good enough?

    1. I think that’s right, it is good enough. At the same time, we can continually and naturally be engaging in the causes of more joyful effort by remembering the meditations on precious human life, death, superior intention, and so on — a Bodhisattva is never complacent, even though they stay happily practicing in the moment. If that makes sense?

  9. I have this idea that we all have a resting state that we default to when things are quiet, and something I’ve come to understand about myself is how critical it is that my resting state is free of worry or sadness or any number of other negative states that may creep in from time to time. I have lots of very simple things I do to get me there like taking a walk someplace green or riding my bike. I also write and draw and sew. The common thread among all of these calming activities is that they are things I’ve loved to do since I was a child. They also cost little or nothing and don’t depend on anyone else. I learned to really value my peace of mind after losing it for several years when my life was flooded with a cascade of experiences I was unable deal with all at one time. I am also certain that I’ll never make even the smallest progress without it as a starting point and because of this I’m always willing to turn away from situations that undermine it, sometimes to the total horror of people around me. For example, it’s been my primary reason for leaving several jobs (one after just 4 days) that on paper looked like great deals but to me represented a departure from things I know are good for me. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this resting state business is any kind of enlightened state, more of a pause from which the good stuff can even have a chance of emerging, with the right effort.

  10. Oh, how much easier life is when we can loosen our “tight grasping at a limited sense of self”, stop grasping at results and focus on the job in hand. It’s easy to get discouraged, and ‘joyfully creating joy’ sounds like an excellent opponent 🙂

      1. Ah yes, ‘do not hope for results’, isn’t it. Practicing happily brings them naturally, sooner or later. It’s like Gen Chönden said, we get discouraged if we worry about our limitations. Focus instead on the solution.

  11. Last week my teacher was talking about how we pretend to ourselves we don’t have the delusions ( basic denial I guess ), maybe a type of self-preservation, so I was trying to be more honest with myself about them.

    This lead me to being more aware of the laziness of discouragement which causes a lack of moral discipline, a lack of joyful effort in my Dharma practice. I decided to be more child like ( although being as skilful as I could ) and pretend I had already found myself in the Pure Land, trying to look beyond the veil of my contaminated point of view. “That which I saw before me was the illusion, and the pure view was more realistic.”
    This lead to a greater ability to have respect for those I encountered and a greater willingness to see everything unpleasant before me as a reflection of my contaminated mind.

    Thereby, where I would normally become very discouraged, I was more able to respond with effort ( of not retaliating etc ) . In turn encouraging myself to purify more, to generate more merit, instead of being shocked at how deeply polluted my mind really is.
    Then I can use my leisure time to rejoice in others’ great efforts, and it’s much easier to appreciate others’ efforts than to reflect on my own qualities, being British! Especially when I can see how much effort is required to stem the flow of negative personal narrative.
    I hope this helps with your research and that you are not discouraged by the British weather!!!
    With love, Juliet

  12. Thanks Luna, very helpful and def looking forward to the next! So am now trying not to make any EFFORT but just to make a bit of effort. Funny how we can be so ingrained in our ways that we feel letting go of our EFFORT is slapdash and sloppy and will lead to no end of problems, so if we don’t force ourself down on our cushion with our tired tight little mind the world will come tumbling down. (and how guilty will we feel then….with no one to blame but ourselves)Yes , some meditation is a marvellous thing to help us cope with Samara’s problems but do i gain anything by sticking rigidly to my ‘usual practice’ with a tight mind, when things are tough, or better to sit quietly with a light mind, try and get some feeling of having the support of Geshe-La, and gently engage in some reading and Heart Jewel.Funnily enough its so ingrained I’m having to make effort just to let go of my EFFORT! At least that’s my new years resolution…..who says it has to start on 1St Jan ? X

    1. Meditation is familiarizing our mind with positive states of mind. Sitting quietly with a light mind etc is sometimes the very best way to feel inspired — pushing always has the opposite effect.

  13. You really do hit the nail square, on the head! we all do suffer various degrees of this laziness of discouragement now and then. It is a way for the inner enemy, self cherishing, to get at us, ” it’s not working…not worth the effort…who do you think you are? you are not good enough…”, and so on; trying to preserve its very existence! We do need to bathe in the Joy of correct effort; then all seems effortless( when we get it right!). As always, NOW is the time to practice correct effort, with Joy! This is the time for growth and new beginnings; lets make the most of it! I look forward to your coming articles; your words are great encouragement. Thanks Luna!

  14. When ever I feel discouraged I read back over my notes, I get the giggles with the laughter they bring or the tears of the love that I felt during my growth, I always remember the kindness and strength of my teacher, (excellent one btw) then I remind myself of where that strength and teaching originated, and how Geshe-la’s smile and strength gives so much faith to so many, then a gem seems to shine with a little clarity from within my being , it went a little dull for a while, loosing it’s sparkle, so I see it as dusting and polishing like my home, to clear away the dust of delusion, and remember it is only a little confusion. then I light my candle and look at Trijangs happy face, and remember Dharma is the place………

  15. What a wonderful article! I think it is often difficult for us westerners to let go of the idea that we are inherently faulty and that only external intervention can help us spiritually.
    I do get discouraged at times. For me, it is usually when I realize just how pervasive my delusions really are. Something my teacher told me at the beginning of our acquaintance helps me whenever I get into a negative mind, though. She said that there has to have been a lot of positive karma somewhere in our pasts because we are now in a position to practice dharma and to receive teachings. I extend from that and realize that now I go to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sanga for refuge, so I will continue to be able to practice dharma in future incarnations. So, even though it may take lifetimes to get where I want to be, I have lifetimes in which to do it!

  16. Yes,Easter and Spring are all about renewal..From that bare and insignificant cherry tree at the end of my garden,flowers will bloom in profusion.The potential for it to bloom and produce fruit is indestructible.How amazing!
    My own particular type of laziness is thinking ‘Im too old…’clapped’ out’ that creeps into my mind like Bank Holiday rain and puts a damper on my generally happy effort to keep practicising and not even think about results.I have to counter that mind with the kindness of the Nike corporation’s ‘Just Do It’.Oppose the bad habit of limiting thoughts, trust the Path and just keep walking it like those countless practitioners before me.
    A healthy dose of medicine like a death meditation at least once a week tends to put things in their correct perspective of course so that my wriggling deluded mind doesnot go running off like the naughty dog rolling in some foul substance that appalls everyone!
    Also Ive learned that the big Teachings like the Festivals are crucial.I definitely need the encouragement and the BIG blessings I get from them to provide the high octane fuel to keep this vehicle travelling with some proper power otherwise the wheels are in danger
    of not moving or even going backwards.
    Happy Easter,Luna!Another great article.As you may be able to tell,I so look forward to reading Kadampa Life…it always helps and encourages me.Job done!xxx

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