Bhante Gunaratana on effort and meditation

The following is from an interview with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, abbot and co-founder of the Bhavana Society Monastery and Retreat Center in Hampshire County, W.Va., near Wardensville. “Bhante G,” as he is known worldwide, is one of the leading Therevadan Buddhist monks teachers in the Western world and author of several books, including the best-selling “Mindfulness in Plain English” (Wisdom Books), which can also be read in its entirety online. ‘Right Effort’ is the discussion theme for February for the Meditation Circle. In a related vein, how much effort should we bring to our meditation practices?

QUESTION: How much effort should be bring to our meditation practice? Zen teachers sometimes speak of ‘effortless effort’ and to ‘just sit’ when meditating. How hard should we be trying when meditating?

BHANTE G: When it comes to meditation, your effort should not be haphazard or blind. It’s a committed effort. Before you even start, you should consider: “Is this the right moment for me to practice?” Suppose it’s a busy time, the TV is blaring somewhere, people are running around. No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to do the practice. So you have to understand the situation, you have to be mindful of when to sit.

But once you’ve chosen the place and time to practice, by all means, apply every ounce of effort to overcome laziness, drowsiness, restlessness, worry and so on. These are very common, ordinary obstacles. In Buddhism, we call them ‘hindrances’ since they hinder our progress. When hindrances arise, we shouldn’t be lazy. We shouldn’t think: “Well, this is just way too hard. I’m wasting my time. This stuff always comes up and blocks me when I try to meditate. I give up.” You must encourage yourself and always renew your effort at sitting. You might tell yourself: “I can do this. This is possible. I can overcome my sleepiness, I can work with this restless mind. I see other people who have learned how to do this. I can do this myself.” So you must exert yourself, you must try to shake yourself awake and tell yourself: “Hey, you! Don’t chicken out of this!”

As for “effortless effort,” well, that’s a lazy man’s advice. There is no such thing as effortless effort. Things don’t come to us just like air. On the other hand, laziness, drowsiness, lust, greed — they come to us very naturally! Good things often don’t come to us naturally. We have them in us by our nature, but we must work hard to arouse them. The trouble is that our mind is like water. Water always finds its way down to the lowest place. In a similar way, our mind tends to drag us down into the lower state of things — to base ideas, lazy practices, the easy way out. Yet if we head that way, we’ll end up going down the drain from all the rubbish in the mind! So we must turn up the volume on our effort. We repeat the same thing, again and again and again, until we achieve it. We bring commitment to our meditation practice, in spite of whatever happens in any one sitting.

There are really three stages of effort. In Pali, the first stage is called arambhadhatu .That means the ‘element of beginning.’ When you read an inspiring book about meditation or have an inspiring discussion with a friend or teacher on Buddhist practice, you may become enthusiastic and start meditating right away. Yet a few weeks or months later, your effort may wanes. You slide right back into the same old same old. How do you avoid that?

That’s where the second stage
of effort comes in — nikkamadhatu. That essentially means ‘proceeding’ with your effort. You stick to it, you work at your meditation practice with dedication and regularity. Even then, you can become lazy or may waver in your resolve. Then you have to play your last card. You have to give yourself a pep talk, but also be firm with yourself: “This is it! I won’t budge from this cushion even if my back is killing me! OK, so I’m restless — I’ve seen that before. Alright, now my knees hurt — I’ve experienced that, too. I can sit through this. I can work with this. Reduce me to a skeleton and still I won’t budge!” That is the third kind of effort called parakkkamadhatu. ‘Parak’ is valor. In the armed forces, you are encouraged to bring valor and bravery to your work. Meditators also need that kind of effort.

Sometimes people come here to the Bhavana Society with all good intentions to meditate. They book a place months in advance and come to stay for a week, or two weeks, or a month. Then a few days later, they tell me: “Um, Bhante, I have to go. I forgot I had to get back because I have this job to do and….” Or you may experience an inspiring meditation retreat, return home and start practicing. Weeks or months later, your resolve may waver in establishing a daily practice. Remind yourself: You can do this. See the example of your teachers and fellow meditators. Seek out the support of sitting groups, attend retreats regularly. Really, it comes down to this: when you take the time to practice, when you make that commitment, stick to it with all the energy you can muster.

PALI QUOTE: Saddhay Araddhaviriyassayam dhammo nayam dhammo kusitassa (AN.)
TRANSLATION: This dhamma is for one who is energetic, not for one who is lazy.


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