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Effort in meditation: in praise of doing and striving

I was practising in a very goal-focussed way for a while, aiming for kensho, which is the breakthrough experience of Zen, in which the illusion of the separate self is seen through, suffering ends, etc etc. I didn’t experience kensho, but what I did experience was a lot of people making annoying comments such as, “Ah, but isn’t that striving?" and, “But surely it won’t happen if you want it to happen”, etc etc.


This is a whole subgenre of spiritual thought that is, I think (with the proviso that I haven’t yet awakened and so don’t know what I’m talking about), potentially unhelpful and often ill-informed.


It goes like this: the awakened/enlightened state is one in which suffering ends or is dramatically reduced because craving/wanting ends. You stop wanting things to be different, and so, by definition, you stop minding the way they are, and so stop suffering. This is (by definition) a state in which you are not straining, striving, or even remotely trying to make anything happen, because it’s all fine just as it is. Therefore (goes the reasoning), straining, striving, and trying are antithetical to what this awakened state is all about, and are therefore to be discouraged on the path. And while I say that this view is often ill-informed, that is by no means always the case. Some very famous spiritual teachers have expressed it, perhaps most famously Krishnamurti, who said things like, “I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever”.


But this argument doesn’t make sense. Just because the awakened state is a certain way, that doesn’t mean that the path to the awakened state has to be the same. It is not a contradiction to say, “I work hard all week so I can rest easy at the weekend”, and anyone who replied, “Ah, but isn’t working hard the very antithesis of resting easy?” would rightly be dismissed as confused and annoying. So, while the awakened state involves letting go of wanting, straining, and the sense of there being a “me” who can want and strain, there is no logical problem in saying that wanting, straining, and the sense of “me” can help us get there.


In fact, conversely, it’s the “don’t strain” position that makes little sense. How on earth is anything going to change if you don’t do anything? And how are you going to persuade yourself to do anything if you don’t want a particular result? Scrolling on social media and eating crisps will not usually get you to enlightenment, whereas doing a lot of spiritual practice just might, and that practice will not get done without wanting, effort, and a sense of there being a “me” to do it.


Further, the “nowhere to go, nothing to do” position, while it does assuredly exist in the Buddhist and wider spiritual canon, is flatly contradicted by very large parts of that same canon. To take Buddhism (as it’s what I know about), the tradition is littered with exhortations to try very, very hard. The oldest body of texts, which are the closest thing we have to the words of the actual, historical Buddha, say nothing, anywhere, about non-doing or non-striving, but instead tell us to “strive mightily”, and to “practise as though [our] hair is on fire”. Even in Zen, which has given us much of the Buddhist talk of non-doing and non-striving, we find at least as much talk of doing and striving. In Korean Zen (called Son), monks who are serious about meditation devote themselves once a year to a “week of ferocious effort”, in which they stay awake meditating continuously for a week.


So, what on earth is going on? How can it be some teachers us tell us to strive mightily, and others tell us not to try at all? And why has the latter position become so popular in Western spirituality? And how hard, in the end, should you try? There are a few possible answers.


First, some awakened beings may be confused about how to awaken. Krishnamurti, for instance, seems to have awakened spontaneously, or to have always been awakened, from as early in his life as he or anyone else cared to check. So, he had no relevant experience on how to trigger awakening. Instead, resting in his exalted state of non-self, non-doing, and non-wanting, it seemed to him that doing, wanting, and being a self were incompatible with awakening, and so people should just…stop it. He couldn’t see how to transition from one state to the other, having never done so himself. Other teachers may have walked that path themselves, but, looking back after awakening, think that it was unnecessary. Though they might have striven mightily to awaken, once they get there, they see it Krishnamurti’s way.


Second, non-doing and non-striving are valid ways to awaken, but they’ve been taken out of context in their presentation to Westerners. Because in the Eastern, mostly monastic traditions from which they come, non-doing and non-striving often follow intense doing and striving.


In Soto Zen and some Tibetan Buddhist schools, you’ll find meditation practices where the aim is to do…nothing. Just sit and be aware, letting go of any activity of the mind, whether thinking, or focusing attention, or anything else. But these practices were traditionally done after intense meditative effort. Before relaxing the mind and letting it do nothing, Eastern monks would first spend weeks or months in meditation, focusing the mind on a fixed object (the breath, for example), until the mind becomes preternaturally still and quiet. First, they might meditate for 10 hours a day for several months, and then they let go of all effort. If you skip the preparatory concentration practice and move straight to doing nothing, you’ll just sit there thinking about what you read on social media.


There may, however, be some good sense in the way these practices have been presented in the West, and in the messaging around doing and striving. Because Westerners, or so the conventional wisdom goes, are doers, strivers, and self-despisers. Tell them to focus on the breath, and they turn that simple instruction into a headache-inducing occasion for excessive effort and, when they inevitably can’t do it, vicious self-loathing. Which is particularly unhelpful and pointless given that, being laypeople with busy lives, they are never going to be able to settle the mind properly outside of a long and intense retreat.


So, in the effort to give Westerners a practice that actually helps them with their lives, it may have made sense to draw upon the non-doing and non-striving messaging in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, rather than that of Ferocious Effort. This is especially evident in secular mindfulness, which sprang principally from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Kabat-Zinn had trained in Korean Zen and had done his share of painful striving (2-hour body scans in cross-legged postures, anyone?) but in his 8-week course the emphasis is on softening, allowing, and not trying too hard. And very beneficial it is too.


So, finally, how hard should you try? As so often in life, and especially in Buddhism, the answer is probably a Middle Way. There is a famous passage in one of the oldest texts where the Buddha finds one of his monks doing walking meditation with his feet bleeding. This, the Buddha says, is too much. This particular monk was a musician in lay life, so the Buddha asks him about the appropriate tension for the strings of a lute. Too loose or too tight sounds awful. Not too loose, not too tight, sounds just right. And so, the Buddha gives us probably the most useful formulation of this topic: balanced effort. Not too loose, not too tight. It’s not always an easy formula to apply, because it’s not always clear what degree of effort is called for in any given moment, but it can’t be avoided. As English Buddhist teacher Rob Burbea says, it’s a dilemma in practise that never goes away. Right up until final and complete enlightenment (if such a thing exists), you’ll always need to ask yourself, am I too loose, or am I too tight?


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