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?
At 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:
“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”…
Effort 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.
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?