Effort and Enjoyment

lakeshore ice 4
Chicago lake shore

Last week I gave a talk to the Lakeside Vipassana meditation group in Chicago.  It was an incredibly cold evening outside (by my standards) but there was a good turn-out and a warm response to my exploration of Effort and Enjoyment in meditation practice.

I’ve been meeting with meditation groups in a variety of locations these last few years: in the USA, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and in a Massachusetts prison.  In spite of the diversity of people I meet, there are some surprisingly common themes among them.

One that stands out to me lately is how often our meditation practice can be unconsciously motivated by self-aversion.  Often when I talk about “enjoying your practice,” the common reaction is one of surprise that this is either possible, or even desirable.  There can be an assumption that whatever is experienced as pleasant is somehow unspiritual (whatever that means), and that Right Effort means only blood, sweat, and tears.  I know from my own experience that practicing  with this underlying attitude is unsustainable.  Meditation soon becomes a chore, a duty, and just one more thing to feel guilty about when I don’t do it as often or as well as I “should.”

Most of us are familiar with paying attention to what’s happening on the micro level in our bodies, through mindfulness of breathing or physical sensations, but sometimes it’s helpful to zoom out and check what’s happening on the macro level of practice.  What underlying assumptions, views, beliefs are motivating my practice?  Has it become just another self-improvement project, a subtle or not-so-subtle form of violence to who I take myself to be right now?

If so, it can be helpful to put more effort into the brahma-vihara practices, cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  In particular, the cultivation of joy for one’s own good qualities can be a powerful antidote to the tendency towards self-aversion.  The Buddha recommended doing this practice to a lay person by the name of Mahanama, and suggested that it would lead to complete freedom – so perhaps it’s worth a try!

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