Applying Correct Effort to Correct Effort
Whenever we’ve talked about the Buddha’s Dhamma, it’s been easy for each of us to accept the basic proposition: understand these basic facts of life—essentially dukkha, how it arises and ceases, and the eightfold path that leads to its cessation; cultivate that path in our daily lives; and experience the many wonderful benefits that attend on a life lived in open friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Not only do most of us accept the Dhammma as an intellectual proposition, we’ve also caught glimpses of what it’s like to experience a life lived in the Dhamma, at moments during meditation, or with the sudden flash of insight that comes occasionally during a particularly insightful discussion, or afterwards, while driving home, waiting for sleep to come, or waking up next morning.
Given how easy it is to see the truth in the Buddha’s message, given the moments in which we’ve directly experienced its promise, why is it so hard to keep working the program? Why is it so hard for every one of us to maintain the schedule of regular meditation that we know would help us; why is it so hard to keep our energy focused on getting rid of those qualities we know are blocking us from flourishing as we’d like; nurturing those qualities of skillful purpose that will bring us closer to becoming the kind of person we want to become; protecting such qualities as already exist in us; and preventing the emergence of new qualities that threaten our well-being and our course on our chosen path? In other words, why is it so damned difficult to maintain samma vayama: the correct application of effort?
The answer, as last week’s post pointed out, involves the Five Hindrances—attachment to worldly things, ill will, restlessness, torpor, and doubt. The first two of those are relatively easy to identify as they arise in the course of meditation (and they almost alway do, at one point or another). And it’s also easy to understand how to deal with them—notice them at the earliest possible moment, probe until it seems they’ve lost their emotional affect, and gently return attention to the breath.
It’s the last three hindrances that create particular difficulties for most of us. Partly because the three are difficult to tease apart; we’re sitting there and we’re suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful combination of weariness, desire for the meditation to be over, discomfort at our position, and the feeling that this is never going to work and it was a fool’s undertaking from the beginning.
Sue said that she and Laura had an interesting but unresolved discussion on the hindrances last week, with special focus on “sloth and torpor”, and she suggests that it would be a good idea to maintain that as the focus for the gathering on Sunday the 14th.
Sue provided a link to a handout that Gil Fronsdahl prepared for his talk on the hindrance of sloth and torpor. Here’s a link to the audio of Gil’s talk on the subject, given at the Insight Meditation Center; right-click on the link to download it to your computer, or just click to open an audio stream in your browser window.
Laura suggested that it might be worthwhile to re-visit Bhikkhu Bodhi’s observations on Correct Effort.
Finally, I would suggest that you might enjoy listening to any (or all of) the several talks that Stephen Batchelor has given on Mara, the demonic figure who personifies the hindrances and who appears again and again in the cononical texts. Here’s a link to a self-contained lecture he gave last year at Gaia House in England. About ten years ago, Stephen published a marvelous short book Living with the Devil which explores the many similarities (and the few differences) between the figure of Mara as he appears in the Buddhist texts and the figure of Satan as he appears in Abrahamic traditions.
I wish that I could be with you this coming Sunday; I’m eager to hear how your discussion goes.