June 3, 2013
Last week we began the exploration of Viriya, Energy. Effort, perseverance, persistence, determination, courage, and striving all describe the various expressions of this kind of energy related to both meditation practice and our daily lives. Working with our energy and efforts with practice over time, we find what is skillful and leads to wholesome states, and what is unskillful, leading to unwholesome states.
The Buddha taught that Greed, Hatred and Delusion, (Craving, Aversion, and Ignorance) are the three unwholesome roots, (also known as The Three Poisons) out of which all afflictive mind states and harmful actions arise. This profound and powerful teaching is a mandate to consider how our energy and efforts condition our actions, how our actions create consequences, and what the outcome of these consequences may be. Do they cause harm and create suffering, or do they contribute to goodness, nurture well-being, and decrease suffering? In her book Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake, Sylvia Boorstein writes:
“I feel an invigorating consolidation of my Energy – a striving to be here now – each time I realize that now is the only time anything happens and that every now, disappearing just as rapidly as it arrives, has been shaped and created by a habit and – in its fleeting existence – is shaping and creating habits. I know that my experience of a peaceful, happy mind depends on developing the habits that support it. Since habits are, by definition, deeply ingrained patterns, and all moments are immediately lost, I need to enlist every moment to teach me about suffering and the end of suffering. Knowing that I haven’t a moment to lose keeps my Energy level high.”
This is not to say that we need to live in a frantic state of mind. More, that we need to know when to push, when to pull back, when to go for it, and when to let go, while keeping in mind that we only have so many nows. Gentle persistence is my favorite way of thinking about this kind of effort. Sometimes in my meditation practice when I feel my energy waning or my attention drifting, I think to myself, “gentle persistence, hang in there, feel the breath, gentle persistence.” It helps buoy up the energy and strengthen my resolve.
A friend recently told me about his experience of watching an osprey struggle and fight to catch a very large very strong fish as he watched from his kayak. After quite a battle and a lot of splashing about, the fish had outdone the osprey. As the raptor ascended and flew off in defeat, it shook off like a wet dog with a great and dramatic spray of water. My friend said it was an extraordinary display of the struggle between intense grasping and deliberate letting go.
So how do we practice with engaged energy, effort and awareness? Working with the following four reflections can keep us keenly aware and present in our lives. While they may seem dire and urgent, they light a fire, and keep us on our toes, breathing life, momentum and motivation into our practice.
1. The rarity and preciousness of human life. We may not think that human life is rare given that there are seven billion humans on our planet, but compared to the number of all living things, germs, animals, plants, everything alive, human life really is relatively rare. How precious it is that we are here, practicing, living a life.
2. The inevitability of death. We all know we will die, we just don’t know when. And, we tend to not think about the raw stark reality that we will all be separated from everything and everyone we love.
3. The awesome and indelible power of our actions. This is karma; everything we do makes a difference, everything we do matters. Ripple effects are real; all actions have consequences.
4. The inescapability of suffering. Life is challenging, period. Sometimes easier and sometimes harder, but accepting that life includes suffering, and knowing that things will change, can help us move through the difficult times with greater ease and more wisdom.
In wrapping up the discussion of the awakening factor of Energy, we can take a look at how these first three factors unfold. Pay attention, be curious, develop and discover your innate wisdom, harness your energy and direct it well.
The Buddha gets the last word:
“Doing no evil
Engaging in what is skillful,
And purifying the mind:
This is the teaching of the buddhas.”
 The Four Reflections adapted from Training in Compassion; Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Norman Fischer, 2012.
 The Dhammapada, translation Gil Fronsdal, 2005.