This is the fifth of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages us to develop: Dana: Generosity, Sila & What It Means To Be Virtuous, Renunciation & The Art of Letting Go, Wisdom & The Fruit of Practice.
Viriya is the fifth of the ten paramis, the perfections espoused by Theravaden Buddhism.
Once you have established your practice the question of how much energy or effort should be applied arises, there are seeming contradictions that must be resolved.
You are told that you have Buddha nature, that you are naturally perfect, just as you are. Why then do you need to do anything, let alone put any energy into doing it?
Simply put, in terms of absolute reality, this may be true, but in terms of relative reality, in the world you live in day-to-day, you don’t “know” this, you don’t experience it.
In fact you experience just the opposite—the world seems to be full of suffering and you seem to be anything but perfect.
Some teachings advise that you just need to let go, to sink into your true nature—it sound so easy, but it isn’t.
Letting go paradoxically takes great effort. Letting go implies that you drop all your usual reactive habits of mind. To do that you first have to see them, to see how much of what you do is on auto-pilot.
This is what the practice is for, to help you see how little of your time you actually spend in the present moment, how much of your time you spend spinning in mental stories about yourself, reliving old hurts, missing something that is no longer there, fantasizing about the future.
A thousand mind movies, all of them starring you.
The practice of just being in the present moment starts to undo these mental patterns.
To shift these deeply imbedded patterns isn’t easy. The root of the pali word viriya is vira which can be translated as hero. You not only need to put energy into the practice, you need to do it courageously, heroically. You are going against everything our culture teaches you and your own imbedded views on how you should be and act.
At the same time, putting in too much effort doesn’t work either. This can easily turn in to trying to “succeed” in the practice, or to fulfill some sense of obligation, that you “should” be practicing hard, all the time. The old adage “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” applies. Too much effort simply makes practice grim. You need to relax into your true nature, not force yourself into it.
Statues of the Buddha always show him with a small smile—you need to enjoy the effort.
So how do you know if what you are doing is for the best? An understanding of “Right Effort” the sixth step of the Noble Eightfold Path will help. Right effort has four aspects, all of which you need to apply to your practice.
The first aspect is to do whatever you can to prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising. In practice, when you see a familiar pattern of thought arising that you know leads you to places of mental suffering it can be skillful to deflect the mind and go to a form of concentrated practice, to in essence ignore what’s arising. When this isn’t possible, when as we say “the train is on the tracks”, you need to be able to let the train run by but not get on it, not get hooked into the old familiar pattern.
Just see it for what it is, just another impermanent arising in the mind. Laugh at how ridiculous it is.
In your day-to-day life this aspect of right effort has a broader meaning. You need to look at your life and see that some of the things you habitually do, places you go, people you hang out with, lead you to unwholesome states of mind, speech and action.
You have to be honest with yourself, and slowly start to change your life into one that is more conducive to practice.
The second aspect of right effort is to do whatever you can to get rid of unwholesome states of mind once they have arisen.
This implies that you first see them for what they are. This takes energy. It’s so much easier just to go along with these old familiar patterns. Sometimes in practice the same old story arises in the mind over and over again. It can be useful to look at the underlying emotional content, and let go of the story. These stories hook you emotionally, they are so compelling. Thinking the same thoughts, with slight variations, is not useful.
One of my teachers said that once you have thought the same thought five times, repeating it again is probably useless. Just feel the raw emotion. That is what is actually happening in the present moment. Accept these emotions, unpleasant as they might be. This is a wholesome mind state.
The third aspect of right effort is the partner of the first, do whatever you can to cultivate wholesome mind states. This seems so obvious. Do things that bring about calm, joy, compassion, loving kindness, equanimity. But how often do you do this, consciously choose to live your life in this way?
You have to think about all the choices you make with this in mind.
The fourth and final aspect of right effort is often the most difficult: When wholesome mind states have arisen in the mind, do whatever you can to preserve them.
First off, you have to see that you are actually in a wholesome mind state. This takes a great deal of effort sometimes, because you are programmed to look for what is wrong, to look for things that you can use to judge yourself as unworthy. It is way easier to see the unwholesome and unpleasant.
When you do experience a wholesome mind state, when you feel calm and joyful you need to accept it. Too often you fall into thoughts like “I can’t be calm like this, I need to stay on the edge, be watchful, worried” or even “I don’t deserve to be happy”.
These thoughts are of course unwholesome mind states, you’ve lost the wholesome.
You have to learn that it is OK to be calm and joyful. You have to let yourself be filled with wholesome mind states. This takes effort. It doesn’t just happen. There is no magic. There is just the practice.
Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003 he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA & Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. Barry currently leads the Full Moon Sit at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. This article is based on a dharma talk he gave there. For more information on go to his website.
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Assistant Ed: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Bryonie Wise