Saturday, November 6, 2010

Zen and the Three Stages of Efforting

I had a full day at the zen center today, mostly participating in a half day retreat/workshop on chapter 28 of Dogen's Shobogenzo. I'll write something about it another day; I have a bit of a headache from working with it all day. Before Dogen, we had meeting of what we have been calling our "lay training group." We dug in deep on the question of what is "lay Zen practice" anyway, something that I think many practitioners around the world are trying to figure out to some degree or another. I was also scheduled to give the talk for the group, and so I did - about Right Effort, which fits right in to considerations about how rigorous people who live in the world of jobs and bills and family might practice.

One of the things I have experienced this fall is what I will call the three stages of efforting. Perhaps this could be refined into even more subtle breakdowns, but what I have seen again and again are appearances of the three that I will talk about now.

Stage 1: Self-Driven Effort

This is the kind of effort we normally think of when the word effort comes up. It's that pushing, sometimes forcing exertion done to achieve some goal. You push down hard on the shovel head, and soil and rocks come up. You see your mind wandering in meditation and you drag it back to your breath or some other focus.

One of the troubles with this kind of effort is that it's usually done in service to an "I" that you believe is in need of something. It's often also attached to a particular outcome. And there frequently is at least a bit of violence involved, and sometimes much more than that.

Stage 2: Jumpstarting Effort

Jumpstarting effort begins the same way that self-driven effort does, but it's employed differently. It's a push at the beginning to get the ball rolling, but once things are going, it drops away. An example from my meditation practice might help here. One of the phrases in the Anapanasati Sutra, which we've been studying at zen center this fall, is "gladdening the mind." So, during one period of zazen, I decided to ride that phrase on my breath, to work with it. I began by actually saying the phrase to myself as I breathed in. "Gladdening the mind." Breathing out, "Gladdening the mind." This initial push went on for a few minutes, and then it just dropped away, and there was just riding and maybe gladdening going on. So, that's what I mean by "jumpstarting" - it's like the jumper cables on a dead car battery. You don't drive around with the cables on; you only use them to get things going.

Stage 3: Selfless Efforting

This is the point at which the efforting is coming out of total connection to the present. It doesn't feel like "effort" at all, and yet something is happening. It isn't "you" doing it; it's the functioning of the whole works of life. Here, there is no attachment to a particular outcome, nor any specific goal desired to be achieved. You might be aimed in a particular direction - like getting the garden bed ready for winter - but what's happening isn't hitched to achieving that.

From my experience, this is a place of great trust. You have to trust in what's emerging, moment by moment, for this efforting to emerge itself.

Now, perhaps you're thinking that stage 1 is bad and stage 3 is wonderful. I'd like to discourage that kind of thinking.

The first three or four years I practiced Zen, I was very much living a stage 1 effort. Not always, but frequently. I sat hours and hours of zazen. I read piles of dharma books. I pushed myself to do retreats, even when I didn't have much energy. When I saw my mind wander while sitting, I'd get rough, thinking I was failing or not doing good enough because I was always thinking and feeling shitty. (This could be called being "too tight.")

After a certain point, the experience I had began to shift towards the other two stages of efforting. There was more flow, more spaciousness, and less pushing really hard. But at the same time, I was also experiencing what I'd call "burn out" from the previous years, so while things started to open up for me, I also got lazy, and almost quit formally practicing all together. (This might be called being "too loose")

Going through jukai and then becoming part of this lay practice group brought about a refocus for me. And what once was needed - stage one effort - came back into play. It can be considered "wrong effort" in that it's self-driven, but at the same time, I seemed to have to do some of that pushing and driving myself again into order to remind myself why this kind of working in the world isn't terribly helpful. This, to me, is a way to understand how samsara can be said to contain a gate into nirvana. Another way to put this might be to say sometimes you have to do something wrong in order to see how to do it right.

The fascinating thing about these stages is that during a single period of meditation, or while doing a single task, you might experience all three of them, maybe multiple times. You're mopping the floor. It's really dirty in one corner, and you get frustrated, and start pushing hard on the mop. Then you see the rest of the floor, or look at the mop in a certain way, and that efforting drops away. Then maybe the phone rings, you stop, answer the phone, come back, and need to jumpstart the process with a bit of effort, which leads you back into the flow of the moment, and there you are, flowing with the mopping, until you think about your cranky co-worker and get upset and find yourself back at pushing the damned mop across the floor.

I think, in the end, lay practice life is exactly like this. There are times when you have to push, have to ramp it up. There are other times where you subsist well on less formal practice, going along applying what you have learned with an interspersing of jumpstarting. And for some, it's just functioning in that self-less efforting. They do lots of formal practice, or not. But whatever their life is in the moment, it feels fairly effortless, even though the person might be quite busy in a conventional sense.

Anyway, this is what I have seen and experienced recently. Perhaps it might be useful for someone out there. In any case, it's really interesting to take a look at how effort works in your life. Go ahead and check it out for yourself. Maybe you have something to add that I have missed.

1 comment:

Francois said...

bonjour! thanks for sharing in your experience and observations. i think this is really helpful, especially your appreciation of trust. i've shared the link with the group of my sangha up here, as we are the studying the 8-fold path one step at a time and sometimes need a little help a little closer to home (real living practitioners, namely!).

Bowing in gassho to your efforts,

Shôgôn François