“You don’t have to be good.’ This is the first line from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. It is such a touchstone for so many of us who find we are always working so hard to be good. We may be surprised to find these words are such a release for us, such permission -- not to run out and be bad, but to stop striving so hard to be good.
We talked a little about striving last week when we discussed the bodhisattva. It is so easy to get stringent and determined around recreating ourselves in the mold of a bodhisattva or any other form -- a good Buddhist, a good person, a worthy person. Or perhaps we don’t care about good, but strive to be admired for beauty, talent or brilliance.
But the striving itself keeps us from ever finding joy in any accomplishment. Instead it causes us to strengthen and tighten the pattern of striving. We can’t appreciate the achievement because we are stuck in looking forward to the next goal. That is the pattern we create with our striving. We are attached to the tight tangle of trying hard and are blinded to who we truly are. So when we think about letting go, it seems threatening to who we believe ourselves to be.
We may be proud of the very things that ultimately cause us and those around us misery. We are usually conditioned to be proud of will power. We have seen how well it works to achieve things. Culturally we embrace will power as one of the highest virtues. And we see it as trying really hard, putting blinders on to any distractions and pushing through. There may be times where life depends on such determination. But it is a sprint mentality, not sustenance to feed us for the whole journey of life.
Imagine if will power were music. It would sound forced, strident and sharp. Playing that tune would be all about conquering the notes, racing to the finish. It would care nothing about savoring the rhythm, melody or harmony of the music itself.
We have explored in the past the concept of Right or Wise Effort. Wise Effort is one of the eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment.There are certain qualities of Wise Effort that are missing when we get caught up in striving, pushing through with will power. Wise Effort is first about being present, anchored in sensation, noticing what is true in this moment. It stems from the awareness that arises, an awareness that is compassionate and insightful, seeing the world fresh in every moment.
When we recognize we are not using Wise Effort, we simply refocus our intention. In class, when we begin meditating, I offer up the prompt to set the paired intentions of being present and being compassionate. We don’t need to get caught up in judging our failure to have Wise Effort. We just come back to it again and again.
Wise effort, anchored in these two intentions, rises up from the truth of the present moment -- what’s going on in our body, our mind, our heart; what’s going on around us -- all the causes and conditions that whirl about us at any given moment that may infuse our thoughts and emotions. With compassion we temper our effort to accomplish something. If we are focused on a goal to get something done, we might not be present to do what needs doing in the fullest and most authentic way possible.
Authenticity is a naturally arising expression of being fully present in the moment and being compassionate with ourselves and others. Wise Effort is attuning our actions to the natural rhythm of this authentic expression. Striving feels quite inauthentic because it comes from some external focus, a desire to be seen in a certain way by those around us.
The opposite of striving -- giving up, not bothering, daydreaming -- comes from a sense of powerlessness. The only place of power is in the present moment. The past and future are just ideas we have in our thoughts in the form of memories, regrets, hopes, plans or worries. If we get stuck in these in past or future thought patterns, unable to be fully present in the here and now of life, we lose touch with our own access to infinite power. Only in this moment right here and now can we, with compassion, transform a sour situation into something vital, lively and joyful -- whether in the world or within ourselves. This is Wise Effort.
After meditation, take a moment to look at the current situations of your life and notice where you are perhaps living in the future, hopeful and striving, or fearful and losing ground.
Perhaps what comes up is an area in your life that seems particularly dysfunctional -- an inability to get a handle on something. These are the areas where we go dead, where we fall out of awareness of the moment, even if we are practiced meditators who are usually able to be fully in the moment much of the time.
Is there some area where you go dead, where you get caught up in the future or the past?
For me it is around eating, especially around sweets. I can at times get caught up in a tight little pattern of circling back to the kitchen for one more of whatever treat is in the cupboard or fridge. It’s a circular journey where I get lost, even though, or maybe exactly because, I’ve done it so many times. If there is something sweet in the house, my mind can not leave it alone. I cannot rest until it is gone. Wouldn’t it be great to have the ability to pace myself, to have a little bit today, and, if I feel like it, a little bit tomorrow? I purchase or bake a treat with that very idea in mind. And then something else kicks in. There have been times in my life where I have been able to muster up the will power to steer clear of sweets all together. At these times I am very proud of myself, redefine myself as a person with a strong will, an admirable person. But that pride, pleasant as it seems, is in the end just an extra load, an extra label, and it doesn’t get to the core of the problem.
It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t have some place where they go mindless and get caught up in tight patterns. Going mindless so that we do something self-destructive and then beating ourselves up about it is a pretty toxic combination. It is the exact opposite of our paired intentions to be present and compassionate. We see the results of this mindlessness and lack of compassion all around us in the world, where people are living out tight patterns of destructive behavior, bringing misery to themselves, to those around them, to society as a whole, and to the earth.
Mindfulness meditation is a training to help us be fully present in all areas of our lives. Wise Effort encourages us to set the intention to be present, even in difficult moments so that we can see what’s going on, what sparks the mindless pattern, the words we use to make it okay, the way we might scold ourselves afterwards, perhaps the way we take it out on others, etc.
With Wise Effort, I can notice the actual sensations of my desire rather than act upon the cues I am conditioned to believe must be followed. With Wise Effort I can do this. But because of the life-long pattern of either riding the steam roller of will power or wallowing in the swamp of lethargy, finding that authentic expression of Wise Effort in this area is more challenging.
With meditation practice we are developing the ability to be conscious. We can sit with our thoughts and notice the things we tell ourselves, seeing them as threads of thoughts passing through our awareness. Since they do not define us, we can notice them without the reactivity of harsh judgment or despair. We can pay particular attention to when we find we are justifying a choice. For example, I have several sentences that repeat on a regular basis, the latest ones I’ve noticed are, ‘Grandmas should be plump,’ and ‘The fat is filling out my wrinkles and I would look older if I were thinner.’
When we find ourselves justifying our choices, that’s a clue to a challenging set of self-destructive patterns. After all, we don’t bother justifying going for a walk, eating a healthy meal or washing up.
So if you found an area in your life where Wise Effort seems to be lacking, you might want to take the time to really notice what is going on, adding spacious awareness where there is a deadening dread or a powerful drive.
Here are a few guidelines for this exercise: Try it out right after meditation or any time when you are quiet and the wise inner voice (the one that accesses our connection to all that is) can be heard. Set the intention to be present and compassionate each time you find that your mind has wandered or you are being rude to yourself.
Notice how much of what comes up is directed from outside sources, bringing up comparing mind, the inner scold and a sense of personal failure. Question the truth of everything, but do so in a respectful way.
Consider journaling as a way of noticing the way you talk to yourself and a way of making note of any insights. Let it be an interesting ongoing journey of discovery, not one more chore on your to do list.
You’ll find Wise Effort supports and sustains you in a way will power or striving never could. And remember, you don’t have to be good!