In our practice we need to learn what right effort is in contrast to just will power.
In Thailand the attitude is always to sleep little, speak little, eat little. This has quite a strong influence on one’s mind. It sets in motion the idea of pushing and striving. But it also tends to create a kind of mental state that is very suppressive. One isn’t really aware of what one is doing. A lot of people get so tired and exhausted their reflective capacities don’t operate any more. In a group there’s a lot of pressure to conform and to keep up. People don’t always notice and observe these things.
I once gave a very strict retreat: getting up at three in the morning, dismissing at eleven at night and so forth. The results of that retreat were not very good actually. Some of the people were very diligent at doing all that, but others just couldn’t keep up with it.
So then I contemplated: “What are we in this for anyway? What is the purpose of what we’re doing?” A lot of illness comes from that suppressive tendency just to hold everything down and to drive oneself. Or perhaps trying to keep up with the very strong and healthy type of people.
One might consider it a weakness, but in England I have found it much more helpful not to emphasize trying to become a super diligent kind of monk. Or to think that strictness somehow is the way that everything should be. The mind tends to be very much impressed by things like asceticism and the use of will power.
But I remember in my early years when I was a samanera (novice), the most insight I had was when I had enough rest and my mind and body were relaxed. I then had some powerful insights. I wasn’t just pushing and striving against sleepiness or trying to keep up with others.
This reflection by Ajahn Sumedho is from the book, “Nothing Is More Joyless Than Selfishness,” (pdf) pp. 43-44.