Viriya: persistence; energy; vigour; courageous effort; heroic exertion
I recently had the good fortune to sit a two-week retreat offered by Gil Fronsdal at the Insight Retreat Center near Santa Cruz, California. As Gil led us deeper and deeper into one of the core texts on mindfulness of breathing, the Anapanasati Sutta, I again found myself exploring some familiar – and difficult – inner terrain.
Fortunately, not long before that retreat I’d read a quote from another US dharma teacher, Eugene Cash, that had become a kind of mantra for me: “If it’s in the way, it IS the way!” Something about the simplicity of that slogan resonated, and helped shed light on the often-unconscious resistance I have to aspects of life that appear to be obstacles to my practice. And by coincidence (or not), a friend had recently sent me a similar quote reminding us that the messiness we encounter in meditation practice is not a mistake, it’s actually the raw material that we work with as fuel for the transformation process. This is from an article in Tricycle magazine by Aura Glaser, a dharma teacher in the Tibetan tradition. She writes:
“Although our deep-seated tendency is to reject the unwanted in an effort to prevent suffering, it turns out that all the ways we resist actually limit our lives, bringing us pain. And yet how do we find the courage to open to, and accept, all of what we are and all of what is arising in our body and mind? How do we tap the confidence to live with that kind of openness and receive what is arising in the moment, just as it is, with clarity and kindness?
… We sometimes imagine that if we just lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won’t encounter life’s sharp edges. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquility and joy. We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, all of our unresolved trauma pushing up from the depths like a geyser of black mud. Working with all that has been pushed down is a central part of the spiritual journey.”
Sometimes we can have reservations about doing longer retreats because of the possibility of some kind of “geyser of black mud” emerging. But in my own experience, one of the benefits of retreat practice is that even though challenges may come up, often these challenges catalyse the inner strengths that are needed to meet them, and this is part of the magic and mystery of being on retreat. With hindsight, this is what I experienced during the recent two-week retreat. Afterwards, I recognised that even though the inner challenges I’d been working with had been deeply painful, each time I was able to accept them as a necessary part of the journey, somehow the energy needed to work through them became available.
Towards the end of the retreat I remembered that viriya, sometimes translated as “heroic effort,” is actually one of the seven factors of awakening that we need to cultivate in the service of freedom. So I started to work with this factor of viriya more intentionally, and discovered that just inclining the heart-mind in that direction seemed to set off a kind of chain reaction: making the effort to meet a particular obstacle freed up even more energy when that obstacle was overcome, and the whole process felt quite exhilarating at times.
In our ordinary lives, thinking of ourselves as having heroic qualities may be a stretch, and for women especially, heroism may feel like an alien quality when the vast majority of role models and images of the heroic are men, as in the photo above. Even the word “viriya” literally translates as “the state of a strong man.” The root “vir” comes from the Pali and Sanskrit word for warrior, and the same root is found in the English word “virile.” (If you’re familiar with yoga practice, you might also recognise it in the Sanskrit name for warrior pose, Virabhadrasana.) On retreat though, we can experiment with and explore aspects of ourselves that may be lying dormant, and if we can free this quality of heroic energy from its gendered trappings, it can be a powerful motivating force that helps us to meet the difficult aspects of our lives.
This process of cultivating viriya can begin even before the actual retreat starts. In my own practice, I’ve often noticed that just having signed up for a retreat seems to kick-start an inner process where qualities such as determination, dedication, commitment, effort, and trust begin to deepen.
And for many people, getting to a retreat in the first place means working with a whole range of obstacles: financial challenges, health issues, work commitments, childcare responsibilities, etc. But remembering “If it’s in the way, it IS the way,” even these become part of our pre-retreat practice. We can set an intention and then begin to cultivate this quality of viriya: persistence; energy; vigour; courageous effort; heroic exertion … The obstacles may not dissolve overnight. It may take six weeks, six months, six years before we eventually manage to get to the retreat. But when we do finally get there, the time spent cultivating viriya will be a powerful support for our meditation practice, and we might understand directly why it is one of the seven factors of awakening.