"When understood, the Buddha’s universe..is anything but alien and inhibiting. It is a world full of hope, where everything we need to do can be done and everything that matters is within human reach. It is a world where kindness, unselfishness, non-violence, and compassion achieve what self-interest and arrogance cannot. It is a world where any human can be happy in goodness and the fullness of giving." ❦ Eknath Easwara

March 17, 2012

The Joy of Effort - Approaching Meditation Practice as Skillful Play

"When explaining meditation, the Buddha often drew analogies with the skills of artists, carpenters, musicians, archers, and cooks. Finding the right level of effort, he said, is like a musician’s tuning of a lute. Reading the mind’s needs in the moment—to be gladdened, steadied, or inspired—is like a palace cook’s ability to read and please the tastes of a prince.

Collectively, these analogies make an important point: Meditation is a skill, and mastering it should be enjoyable in the same way that mastering any other rewarding skill can be. The Buddha said as much to his son, Rahula: 'When you see that you’ve acted, spoken, or thought in a skillful way—conducive to happiness while causing no harm to yourself or others—take joy in that fact, and keep on training.'

Of course, saying that meditation should be enjoyable doesn’t mean that it will always be easy or pleasant. Every meditator knows it requires serious discipline to sit with long unpleasant stretches and untangle all the mind’s difficult issues. But if you can approach difficulties with the enthusiasm that an artist approaches challenges in her work, the discipline becomes enjoyable: Problems are solved through your own ingenuity, and the mind is energized for even greater challenges.

This joyful attitude is a useful antidote to the more pessimistic attitudes that people often bring to meditation, which tend to fall into two extremes. On the one hand, there’s the belief that meditation is a series of dull and dreary exercises allowing no room for imagination and inquiry: Simply grit your teeth, and, at the end of the long haul, your mind will be processed into an awakened state. On the other hand there’s the belief that effort is counterproductive to happiness, so meditation should involve no exertion at all: Simply accept things as they are— it’s foolish to demand that they get any better—and relax into the moment.

While it’s true that both repetition and relaxation can bring results in meditation, when either is pursued to the exclusion of the other, it leads to a dead end. If, however, you can integrate them both into the larger skill of learning how to apply whatever level of effort the practice requires at any given moment, they can take you far. This larger skill requires strong powers of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, but if you stick with it, it can lead you all the way to the Buddha’s ultimate aim in teaching meditation: nirvana, a happiness totally unconditioned, free from the constraints of space and time.

That’s an inspiring aim, but it requires work. And the key to maintaining your inspiration in the day‐to‐day work of meditation practice is to approach it as play: a happy opportunity to master practical skills, to raise questions, experiment, and explore. This is precisely how the Buddha himself taught meditation. Instead of formulating a cut‐and‐dried method, he first trained his students in the personal qualities—such as honesty and patience—needed to make trustworthy observations. Only then did he teach meditation techniques, and even then he didn’t spell everything out. He raised questions and suggested areas for exploration, in hopes that his questions would capture his students’ imagination, inspiring them to develop discernment and gain insights on their own..."

From "The Joy of Effort" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

You can read the entire essay, "The Joy of Effort" here:

Or, you can listen to it as a dharma talk here:


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