October 27, 2014

“The most serious obstacle to your ability to progress in meditation practice.” ~ Frank Berliner

Frank Berliner

We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis


Chapter 15.

Inviting the Breeze of Delight

One of the double binds of your experience of the cocoon is the back and forth play of your longing to meditate and your resistance to doing it. The role of effort in mindfulness practice is another double bind because the practice of meditation requires effort on your part, and does not simply happen to you. But, on the other hand, you must have the right understanding of effort or your practice will miss the mark in very fundamental ways.

If practice does not simply happen to you, do you make it happen? If so, how do you go about making it happen? These are important questions. We could talk about this effort on two levels. First, we could understand it as a technique in meditation. Then, and beyond that, we could appreciate it as an overall attitude—not only toward meditation but toward your life as a whole.

The Decisive Moment

The technique of right effort in shamatha practice is to return from your involvement with thoughts and fantasies back to mindfulness of the body, of breathing, and of the simple reality of the present moment. This moment of returning happens over and over again. It is the decisive moment in practice, in which you actualize your intention to tame the wandering mind, here and now. You return because you recognize that there is no other place and no other time available to you other than now. It is a moment of truth, like the saying, “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not me, who?”

The key to cultivating right effort here is connected with how you bring the wandering attention back to the present moment. To take advantage of the mind’s natural instinct to bring itself back from distraction, how you do it is with a sense of innocence and simplicity. You go along with the flow of that instinct. You allow it to happen to you. As my teacher instructed, the actual experience of this in your practice is that there is a sudden shift in the tone. Without any warning, you are back. You don’t need to prepare yourself to come back, or give yourself a pep talk or even a mandate. You don’t need to argue with yourself about how one side thinks it would be a good idea to come back, but the other whines like a naughty child asking permission from an authority figure, “Couldn’t I just hang out with this fantasy a little longer?” At that point, you are already back. So there is no warm-up, no prelude, for coming back.

Once you are back, you continue the effort’s innocence and simplicity by resisting the urge to nurse the experience. You don’t use it as an occasion to make a little monument to yourself. You don’t congratulate yourself for having returned because you have an underlying assumption that coming back more frequently reflects how good you are at meditation. There is no patting your own back, no postgame celebration.

All of this—both preceding and following your return—is the internal dialogue of your ego, the incessant talking to yourself that keeps the illusion of the reality and permanence of that ego alive. My teacher called this process of over-complication “entertaining the messenger.” When a messenger arrives to give you a message, you read it, but it is unnecessary and inappropriate to invite him in for dinner as well. In the same way, instead of entertaining the messenger and being regaled with stories of the journey, you relate to the content of the message. In this case, the message is telling you to rest in mindfulness and awareness.

As you observe yourself returning to the present moment, the breath, and the posture, you may begin to wonder who is having this sudden experience of coming back? This is an excellent question, one that could eventually bring you to the deeper truth of what the Buddha called egolessness.

But for now, to the extent that we give it a label of any kind, we can call this observing consciousness the naked witness. My teacher called it the abstract watcher. These labels point to a simple, un-self-conscious flash of the mind that is aware, on the most basic level, of coming back to itself. You are just back, once again, and this naked witness is just the flash of being back. This simplicity is the very heart of the mindfulness of effort.

Deflating the Drama

From here, you continue to practice patiently with posture, breath, and thoughts just as you were instructed. Sometimes, especially when you have been caught up in a particularly juicy and compelling fantasy, it is helpful in the moment you recognize your distraction, to label it “Thinking” silently to yourself. This deflates the drama of your involvement with the fantasy. Do notice that the label is an afterthought, whereas the moment of recognition that you were distracted happens before you think at all. This is a profound point, and we will return to its implications later. 

Right Effort and Wrong Effort

Effort can also be an overall attitude that creates the environment in which your practice—and indeed your whole life—happens. If there is a sense of allowing the flash of mindfulness to happen without manipulating it too much, the emphasis on effort as an overall attitude becomes more proactive.

It is unavoidable: you will bring to your relationship with meditation the same kinds of attitudes you bring to all the other activities you’re involved in. If you tend to be ambitious and set on accomplishing great things, you will bring this ambition to meditation. If you tend to be solemn and pious, regarding your pursuits as deserving great weight and import, you will bring this dutifulness to meditation. But neither of these attitudes will provide you with the inspiration to fuel your effort over the long haul, so to speak. Each of them eventually collapses from their own weight.

Overcoming Laziness

After a discussion about effort, it might be useful to say a few things about laziness. Traditionally, laziness is regarded as the most serious obstacle to your ability to progress in meditation practice. If you can’t get to the cushion in the first place, you have no starting point for the path. You have no way even to work with the other obstacles that will challenge you once you’re sitting.

These other obstacles, which we will explore later, present themselves precisely because you’ve actually begun working with your habitual patterns, or what the Buddha called your “karmic obscurations.” You’ve actually begun to make a direct relationship with them at last, because you’re really doing the practice. The fact that such obstacles are coming up is good news—fantastically good news from the point of view of learning how to be a warrior. At last, you have met the “enemy,” can see its face, begin gently to engage it, and become stronger, softer, and more fearless in the process. You are not lazy on the most basic level because you are engaging the work.

Laziness is the most dangerous obstacle because it stands right at the gate into the field of engagement and blocks it. If you don’t enter, you have no opportunity even to experience the field where all the warriorship training actually takes place.

There’s a saying that “Fifty percent of life is just showing up.” Here we might say, “Fifty percent of practice is just getting to the cushion.” The gift of returning spontaneously to the present moment again and again— the fruit of mindful effort—is granted only when you have first set the stage for it by regularly and patiently showing up for practice.

Three Kinds of Laziness

In the Shambhala tradition there are three kinds of laziness.

The first is lethargy, or procrastination. You don’t want to make the effort or deal with any of the challenge or inconvenience such an effort might entail—even when you know it’s a good thing to do. Even when you know the benefits, like cultivating a sane and joyful approach to your life rather than staying within your dark cocoon, you continually find reasons why now is not a good time to practice. You find endless excuses not to go to the cushion. Sometimes you convince yourself the excuse is valid. Sometimes you see right through it, and the queasiness of confronting that self-deception is enough to push you to the cushion. But more often—it is not enough.

The second kind of laziness is having too many activities, a neurotic approach of cocooning in workaholic tendencies.

It’s a high-energy style, where the wrong kind of effort— the roadrunner style of having so much to do and so many places to go all the time—has become a deliberate strategy of avoidance. It has become a way of not taking the time to face your state of being directly. As long as you can keep moving, you will not have to feel the immense underlying anxiety that is fueling your whole enterprise.

The third is being disheartened and is the result of habitual reliance on the first two kinds of laziness. You have lost hope, or faith, in yourself. It’s a kind of depression, in which you fixate on the belief that you are an unworthy or unworkable person who cannot accomplish the practice, who is not capable of rising to the challenge of facing your mind. At the root of this is a loss of any sense of joy or delight in your existence. More than all the others, this form of laziness is deeply embedded in the suffocating heaviness of the cocoon, an almost physical sense of being weighed down by your experience of yourself.

The strategies of avoidance that laziness provides are woven into your cocoon, at the deepest level. Laziness is a powerful obstacle, and the many forms it takes in your daily life may not immediately be obvious.

What antidote can you apply to this formidable obstacle to spiritual development? The antidote lies in applying right effort—not just as a meditation technique—but as an overall attitude toward your life in general.

The Breeze of Delight

According to masters of meditation, you need to fall in love with wakefulness. Wakefulness has the qualities of simplicity and innocence, and even—sooner or later—it takes on a quality of joy. At a certain point, your longing for wakefulness becomes more powerful than your resistance, and you don’t go back. The essence of this love is your tremendous appreciation for the unique value you receive through the discipline of becoming a warrior. Only love of this kind provides the energy necessary to sustain your ongoing exertion. Only love of this kind can eventually bring you to a state in which your life is unimaginable to you without this discipline.

Do not confuse this love with the idea that your practice should always be pleasurable or rewarding, or that you should always enjoy it because you are getting so much out of it. This would just be another form of self-deception. For it is not the experiences you have when you practice, but the wakefulness itself, that you fall in love with.

The Shambhala teachings describe this joy, and the sense of appreciation it brings, as the breeze of delight. It is the felt experience of sudden wakefulness, and the vividness of the way it contrasts with the feeling of being locked in your cocoon. It is as if you had opened all the doors and windows of a room that had been sealed for years with no ventilation, and let fresh air enter for the first time in a long time.

Wakefulness is an experience of unconditional goodness. More and more, as you practice meditation, you begin to recognize this experience and to appreciate its incomparable value. Accessing it may be as simple as seeing a golden patch of sunlight on the wall of your bedroom when you wake up in the morning.

So the attitude of right effort in meditation and in life ultimately depends upon appreciation and joy. This cannot be manufactured, but it can be cultivated. You need only to make yourself available—again and again—so that the breeze of delight can come to you. All you have to do is return to the present moment and thereby open the window of your mind.

When you do so, the disarming directness and power of meditation begins to become more apparent to you—and your longing for it grows and grows.

Photo: Rachel Nussbaum



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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Frank Berliner

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