This month our Paramita, or practice on the path to happiness, is virya, which is translated as exertion, diligence or joyful effort. Many of us, especially if we live full and busy lives, might respond to the very notion with a sigh, a feeling of overwhelm, or the sense that, once again, we have not done, been, or accomplished Enough. Now even the Buddhists are scolding us, “Try harder!”
No. That’s not what it means.
In truth, effort is required for us to do anything, to live our lives, whether simple or complex. We often make things harder than they need to be by judging ourselves and our supposed shortcomings. We feel insufficient, therefore it must be true. We tell ourselves we are never good enough, and with repetition we have believed it. What if it’s not true? What if we are good enough people doing a good enough job? What if, with a little effort in the appropriate direction, we could free up some of our energy by refusing to slide down that easy path of self-negation. What if we tried, just a little harder, to be kind to ourselves instead?
Diligence is not about keeping our noses to the grindstone. It is not grim, nor solid, nor exhausting. When we exert ourselves, it is the effort of returning, more than anything else. I tell my meditation students yes, we are focused on the breath, but the practice of meditation is not plopping ourselves onto the cushion and not moving our minds an inch. It is the practice of noticing when we have strayed from our intended activity – in this case, staying present with the breath – and bringing ourselves back to it. We do this with kindness, without judgment. We come back swiftly, without hesitation. We return to what we said we were doing without commentary, without making a fuss. We just notice and come back. Meditation is the practice of returning, so that is what we do.
We call it joyful effort because we make this effort believing some good will come of it. We practice compassion because it will help us and those we come into contact with. We focus our minds on our projects because we are trying to do something worthwhile. We tend our gardens because we enjoy the vegetables and flowers that result from our efforts, and we do it with gladness because we can.
Practice: Try doing something you must do, but with joyful effort in place of resistance, grumpiness, avoidance or habitual attitudes. Getting out of bed is a good place to practice, if you don’t want to get up but must do so to start your day and get to work (or wherever) on time. Brushing your teeth, scrubbing the toilet, doing the dishes, driving in traffic – the opportunities for practice are myriad! You see, it’s not extra effort that is being suggested here, it is the joyful effort of mindful diligence. It is doing what we are doing, with attention and intent.
Another practice: apply virya to something you want to be doing but aren’t.
- Set aside some time. Any amount. Without effort, we can easily distract ourselves away from what we’d really rather be doing. The time to do something we want to do usually does exist, if we don’t fill it with distractions or excuses.
- Identify what you’d like to be doing (this includes long range things you can break down into smaller bits, and also not doing anything).
- Identify what gets in the way, how you distract yourself or otherwise justify not doing it.
- Notice the frustration and negative internal talk and any other consequences of not doing the thing you want to do.
- Generate some loving kindness for yourself and all others who have this same difficulty. If you have trouble with this, think of yourself or your closest friend as a small child having the negative consequences of not doing the thing, such as feeling grouchy around others if you don’t take time for yourself, or feeling tired if you don’t go to bed on time or feeling sad if you aren’t expressing yourself, or…
Now (yes, now) take a step into doing the thing. Any step, as long as it is actually into the thing and not away from the thing into a distraction. You know the difference. It is the difference between sitting at the computer to write your novel and sitting at the computer and playing games or cruising Facebook until you run out of juice.
I have a friend who is working on writing a play. She can spend hours, days, months doing character sketches and research and warm ups and free writing and very little time actually writing the play. She gets frustrated, exhausted, and wants to give up, but when she gets around to actually writing the play – putting in a little effort – she feels happy. Of course the research needs to be done. But when my friend substitutes the preparation for the writing, it does not satisfy her, and in fact she increases her own suffering. We can prepare for something all our lives, but if we don’t ever get around to living it, where has our precious life gone?
It can be hard to remember how gratifying it is to work directly on something we want to do, without distraction, avoidance or laziness. We can so easily do anything else. For months I wanted to draw pictures of our chickens. They are so interestingly shaped, and so fun to hang out with! But it seemed like such a Big Deal. I am not a particularly adept artist, and drawing does not come naturally to me. But I sometimes get the urge. I used to feel frustrated that I never got around to drawing the chickens. I noticed other people’s chicken art and felt inferior and told myself, “Why bother?” I would watch the chickens and think about how I wished I had drawn them, how another day and opportunity to capture their qualities had slipped past me (probably while I was on Facebook). Then one day I just did it. I drew my chickens. Just like that.
The turning point came when I stopped berating myself for not doing it and gave myself permission to do it poorly, and briefly, and with a ballpoint pen instead of some fancy art supplies. I made a few little sketches, taking only about ten minutes. Nothing spectacular, but a step directly into what I wanted to be doing. And I feel so happy that I did it. Maybe I will do some more someday, with a little diligence, giving it another try. It really didn’t take that much. What took real effort was stopping myself from making it impossible to move forward, by my habitual self-pressuring and perfectionism. A little restraint from such activities goes a long way toward freeing up energy for what we truly want. Now when I look at my chickens I think about how I will draw them again, some other time, and instead of the frozen feeling of habitual self-defeat I feel the joy of my well-applied effort.
© Copyright 2011 by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.