Skillful Effort

ฐานิสสโร ภิกขุ

Skillful Effort

One of the Thai terms for meditating— tham khwaam phien—literally means “making an effort.” When I mention this to people here in the West, I often get some raised eyebrows. They’ve been taught that “efforting” is an enemy of meditation. And that’s because they’ve also been taught that there are only two ways of approaching the practice. The first way—the ignorant way—is to try very hard, exerting a strenuous effort, miserable and neurotic, with all your thoughts focused on a goal that keeps receding into the future. The more enlightened way is to relax into the present, into the Dhamma that’s already here.

Now, if those were the only two choices, relaxing would obviously be the wiser choice. It’s certainly the more inviting. Everyone likes the idea of relaxing. It’s built into American culture. I was reading a biography of William James recently, and it mentioned a movement during James’ time that he called the Gospel of Relaxation. The central tenet of this movement was that American culture is much too tense, and what everyone needs to do is to learn repose: the ability to systematically relax all the muscles in the body that you’re not using, and to maintain that sense of relaxation as you go throughout the day. That was the 19th Century, and things haven’t changed. People have been relaxing since the 19th Century and they’re still miserable.

Which suggests that there may actually be four choices: You can relax and be happy; you can relax and be miserable; you can make an effort and be miserable; or you can make an effort and be happy. The fourth alternative—how to find joy in effort—is the one that really deserves to be explored. As the Buddha himself says, the causes of suffering come in two kinds: those that will go away if you simply watch them with equanimity, and those that go away only when you exert a fabrication, or a sankhāra, against them. We may prefer the first approach, but for our practice to be complete, we need to master both.

That phrase “exerting a sankhāra” sounds strange, but it actually points to some very useful tools. In the Buddha’s analysis of the causes of suffering, sankhāra, or fabrication, comes right after ignorance. We tend to fabricate intentions out of ignorance, and that’s why we suffer. But if we learn how to fabricate those intentions with awareness, they can become tools in the path to the end of suffering.

So what exactly are these fabrication tools? Altogether there are three major types: bodily fabrication, verbal fabrication, and mental fabrication. Bodily fabrication is the breath, verbal fabrication is directed thought and evaluation, and mental fabrication is feeling and perception. These fabrications can cause suffering or they can be our tools for overcoming the causes of suffering. The question is whether we use them ignorantly or with knowledge.

The knowledge here is not simply book knowledge; it’s the kind of knowledge that comes from developing a skill. This is why it’s useful when you meditate to reflect back on the skills you’ve mastered in the past: the things you’ve enjoyed mastering, that you’ve enjoyed learning how to do well. Whether cooking or carpentry, or a sport, or music: If you’ve learned how to do it well, you’ve mastered many of the mental skills you’re going to need as a meditator.

One of these skills is how to deal with desire in a skillful way. We often hear that desire is the bad guy in the Buddha’s teachings. But when the Buddha talked about the causes of suffering, he mentioned only three kinds of desire: craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, and craving for non- becoming. Sensuality means your plans and obsessions about sensual pleasures. Craving for becoming means wanting to take on a particular identity. Craving for non-becoming means wanting to annihilate the identity you’ve got. These are the types of desire that cause suffering.

But there are other kinds of desire as well. In particular, the Buddha has you focus on the desire to be skillful. Instead of focusing on wanting to become an enlightened person or to become annihilated, he tells you to get yourself out of the picture for the time being and simply look at where there’s stress, where there’s a cause of stress, and what can be done to put an end to stress. The desires focused around these issues are skillful desires—especially when you focus on understanding the causes for the ending of stress.

If you focus your desires exclusively on what you want to gain out of the meditation, without paying attention to the causes, it’s like driving down a road toward a mountain. If you spend all your time looking at the mountain on the horizon and forget to look at the road, you’re going to drive off the road. You’re going to run into people. You’ll never get to the mountain. But if you focus on the road, and every now and then check your rear view mirror to make sure that the mountain isn’t receding away behind you, the road will lead you to where you want to go.

That’s how you use desire in the practice. You want the mountain, but you learn to want the road as well. Without that kind of desire, you’re never going to get anywhere. It’s the first iddhipada, or basis for success. The second iddhipada is persistence, the ability to stick with something over time. Then there’s intent, your ability to give total attention to what you’re doing and the results of what you’re doing. And finally there’s a quality called vimamsa, which translates as analysis, discrimination, the ability to notice what’s working and what’s not, and the ingenuity to come up with new ideas about what might work when you find yourself banging your head against a wall.

These are the qualities necessary for developing a skill, and you want to bring them to the practice—particularly the element of desire, as that’s what energizes the rest. And the best way to spark desire is to find a way of making the practice enjoyable. Ajahn Fuang often said, “When you meditate, play with it.” Now, by the word “play” he didn’t mean fooling around in a desultory way. He meant playing the way Michael Jordan would play basketball: You keep doing it, keep trying to figure out new ways of tackling problems, but at the same time enjoying what you’re doing. Make a game out of it.

This issue of playing relates particularly to that first kind of fabrication, the breath. You can use the breath in lots of ways to deal with the causes of suffering. If you know that breathing in ignorance leads to suffering, try to breathe with some awareness, some knowledge. Notice what you’re doing as you breathe. Where do you feel the sensation of the breath coming in? Where do you feel it going out? What kind of breathing feels good? What kind of breathing maintains a sense of good, gratifying energy in the body? What kind of breathing wastes away the energy in the body? Have you ever stopped to notice?

If you pay attention here, you begin to notice aspects of the breath that are hard to put into words, because the breath is such an immediate, visceral experience. But you’ll also begin to notice that when you breathe comfortably there can be a sense of ease in different parts of the body. Well, take those patches of ease and allow them to connect up. There can be a sense of fullness here or there. Allow that sense of fullness to connect up in the different parts of the body, so that when you breathe in, the whole body feels full, the whole body feels at ease. Experiment to see what works.

In this way you’re engaging all three kinds of fabrication in full awareness. You’re focusing on the breath, you’re directing your thought to the breath, you’re evaluating it, you’re maintaining that perception of breath, and you’re trying to induce a feeling of ease. You’re working with whatever feelings of blockage or discomfort there are, and then seeing what different ways of breathing will help. As this begins to capture your imagination, it’s fun.

When you’re fabricating in full awareness, you have some very useful tools to deal with uncomfortable or unskillful mind states. Say, for instance, that lust has arisen in the mind. The standard way of dealing with lust is to focus on the 32 parts of the body, but you can use the breath to deal with it as well. Ask yourself, “What do you lust for?” You lust for pleasure. So can you create a sense of pleasure in the body right now? When lust is filling the body, where do you feel tension? Some people feel it in the back of the hands, and then spreading from the back of the hands up the arms throughout the body. So how about relaxing the back of the hands? Breathe in a way that feels full and at ease in the back of the hands. This can give rise to a sense of immediate, visceral pleasure that helps take away some of your hunger, some of the charm and appeal of that lust. You realize, “Why would I bother with lust when I’ve got pleasure right now?” And sometimes the lust goes away. This doesn’t uproot the lust but it gives you some ammunition to weaken it.

The same with anger: When anger arises in the mind, you’ll feel it in the body as well. If you feel tension in the middle of the chest, breathe around that. Develop a sense of fullness and ease. And then ask yourself, “Do I really want to indulge in the anger? What kinds of pleasure do I get out of the anger? Maybe it’s better just to have a sense of ease right now.” This helps to take the edge off the anger, the part of the anger that says, “I’ve got this horrible feeling in my body and I have to get it out of my system right now.” Usually we get it out of our system by giving vent in our words or deeds, but that’s not very skillful. A more skillful way is to get the tension out of your system by breathing through the chest, out the hands, out the feet. When you’ve weakened the power of the anger in this way, you can look at it with a lot more equanimity. You can ask yourself, “What is actually wrong in the situation right now? What would be the skillful thing to do? What would be the skillful thing to say?” You’re in a much better position to decide whether you need to act right now or if it would be better to act later.

So what you’re doing is using this process of fabrication as an aid in overcoming the causes of suffering. These three things—breath, directed thought and evaluation, feeling and perception— are tools you can use in almost any situation, not only in creating a state of concentration in the mind, but also in counteracting anger, counteracting lust, whatever the unskillful mind state may be.

For instance, if you’re feeling lust you can ask yourself, “What perception are you holding in mind about that body that makes it attractive?” Learn to analyze that perception and you’ll see that it’s focusing on only certain details of the body. There are huge blank spots—in particular, everything inside the skin. So you might ask yourself, “What if I were to allow myself to hold on to some perceptions of what’s inside the body as well?”

Now, I know a number of people who say that the analysis of the body in this way creates a negative body image, but there are unhealthy negative body images and there are healthy ones. Unhealthy ones say, “My body is ugly and everyone else’s body is beautiful.” Healthy ones say, “Everybody’s body is ugly.” Even with Miss America: If you asked her to take out her liver, what would it look like? We’re all pretty much equal in that regard. If you lined people’s livers up on the stage to see who’s got the best looking liver, nobody would come to see. Nobody would even turn on the T.V. except for a few sickos. When you’ve been thinking in this way, you can ask yourself, “Is that what I really want?” Well, no. You’ve used the power of perception to help fight off the causes of suffering.

Or you can focus on how you perceive feelings of pain. Have you ever stopped to analyze the relation between feeling and perception? To start out, it’s good to develop as much ease in your concentration as you can around the pain, so that when you look into the pain you’re not looking with a sense of desperation or with the desire to make it go away right away. You’re looking from a position of strength. You’ve got most of the body at ease with the breath, but there’s still this section where there’s pain. When you’re not feeling threatened by the pain, you can look at it with the right purpose, which is to try to understand it. As the Buddha said, your duty with regard to suffering or stress is to try to comprehend it, not to make it go away.

So you might ask yourself, “What perceptions do you have around the pain?” This is an excellent way of seeing what’s going on in the mind. Some people object that the Buddha’s focus on suffering and pain shows an unduly negative outlook on life. Well, he’s not trying to give a total outlook on life. He’s trying to give you skills for overcoming the big problem in life, which is suffering. He’s like a doctor. When you go to the doctor and the doctor says, “Where does it hurt?” you don’t accuse the doctor of being negative. The doctor’s doing his or her job. In the same way, when you learn to look at pain in the body, it’s because lots of interesting things gather around the pain.

It’s like that image in A Still Forest Pool. As Ajahn Chah says, when you get the mind very still, it’s like a still pool of water, where all sorts of rare and wonderful animals come gathering around the pool. Well, actually, those rare and wonderful animals are all your crazy neuroses that have gathered around your pain. The pain is the watering hole where all your strange and weird ideas about pain and suffering come gathering. When you can stay with the pain, you get to watch them—and really to see them for the first time.

After all, when was your first experience of pain? It was right after you were born. Actually when you were still in the womb it was bad enough to begin with. And then suddenly you got pushed out through that narrow canal and found yourself surrounded by air, which attacked your skin. Someone pulled you out and spanked you. You had to deal with all that pain, with nobody to explain what was going on. For your first couple of years, before you could even learn how to speak intelligently, you had to deal with pain with no one to explain it. So you came up with a lot of preverbal attitudes toward pain, many of which are still hanging around in your mind.

So if you learn how to focus steadily on the pain and look at what’s coming around the watering hole, you see lots of strange perceptions and ideas. You can ask yourself, “Do you still believe in those ideas?” If you see that those ideas are adding unnecessary suffering on top of the pain, you learn how to drop them.

Take for instance the perception that you’re on the receiving end of the pain. You can switch that perception around. How about perceiving the pain as receding away from you? As soon as you perceive the pain, you’re seeing it going away, going away. You’re not on the receiving end. It’s like sitting in the back end of an old station wagon in a seat facing back, watching things go away, go away, go away behind you. What if you were to have that attitude toward the pain? You’d find that the mind would immediately feel a lot less stress around the pain, because you’re not on the receiving end.

Or you can ask yourself, “Where is the sharpest point of the pain right now?” As you watch it move around, you begin to realize that some of the variations in the pain are caused by physical causes, but some are caused by variations in the mind. You see that the sense of being oppressed by the pain will go away for a second, and then it’ll come back. Well, what else happened when it went away? What was the change in the perception, what was the change in the thought accompanying the pain? Sit there and watch. It’ll come back again, so you can watch it come and go, come and go.

After a while you begin to realize that there was a certain perception you held for a moment that made the physical pain a burden on the mind. When the perception stopped, the sense of burdensomeness stopped as well. What was that perception? The next time it comes up, can you drop it immediately?

Or say that there’s a sense of pain in your knee. How do you perceive that? Do you have a sense that the pain is eating up the knee, or has occupied your knee? That the whole knee is pain? There are actually lots of different sensations going on there. There are the body sensations, such as the breath and the other physical elements of warmth, coolness, and solidity. And then there’s the pain, which is a different type of sensation entirely. Can you separate them out?

What often happens is that the sense of solidity and the sense of pain get glommed together, which makes the pain seem a lot more permanent and lasting than it actually is. If you learn to apply the perception of earth to the solid sensations, and the perception of pain to the sense of sharp sensations around the earth, you see that that sense of sharpness flits around. It’s not nearly as solid and lasting as you might have thought. And it’s much more manageable that way.

So this is how you play with your perceptions. You’re playing like Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan plays to win. You begin to see the power of your perceptions. When you change a perception, you learn how it changes the amount of suffering you feel. This gives you an excellent tool to use against the causes of suffering.

So remember: As you’re working with the breath, you’ve got all these forms of fabrication working together. You’ve got the breath, you’ve got directed thought, evaluation, perception, and feeling. And as you develop concentration based on the breath, you’re learning how to use these things in a knowledgeable and helpful way rather than as part of the cause of suffering.

This is one of the reasons why there’s no clear distinction between concentration and discernment, or concentration and wisdom, in the teachings of the forest masters—or in the Buddha’s teachings, for that matter. The skills you develop in the course of concentration practice are precisely the skills you’re going to need to turn around and look at pain. Prior to your practice, these processes of fabrication were done in ignorance, which is why they contributed to pain. But when you learn how to use them with knowledge, and try to develop that attitude of finding joy in working on a skill and learning how to master it, they become part of the path.

The important point is that you learn how not to get discouraged by setbacks, that you learn to use your setbacks as an opportunity to gain new knowledge. I had a friend once who was learning to be a potter, and she had the opportunity to go to Japan and study with one of their living national treasures. At first she found the experience very discouraging. She would throw her pots, put on the glaze, get them into the kiln. The next morning she’d come back and they’d all be broken, or burnt, or destroyed in one way or another. Whereas the living national treasure would put his pots in, and the next morning they’d come out perfect every time. This had her discouraged, until one day they opened up the kiln and found that his pots were all burnt and destroyed. She noticed, though, that he didn’t get upset. He just went in and tried to figure out what had happened. And she realized: That’s how you become a living national treasure. You don’t beat yourself up over your failures. You use them as an opportunity to learn.

So you have to realize, as you’re approaching this problem of suffering in the mind, that some of the causes go away simply by watching them. Those are the ones where you can just relax and watch. They’ve been allowed to fester simply because you haven’t really looked at them. With others, though, you need to exert a fabrication—which doesn’t mean simply exerting brute strength. It means gaining finesse in learning how to master the tools you’ve got. As you master them through concentration, you begin to see their power.

Ultimately, of course, you’ll run into the limits of concentration. After all, what are you doing as you get the mind concentrated? You’re pushing against the three characteristics. You’re taking things that are inconstant and trying to make them constant. You want the mind to stay still. You take things that are stressful—this body here has lots of stress—but you’re learning how to make it pleasant by the way you breathe, by the way you relate to the energy flows in the body. You take things that are ultimately out of your control and you try to exert some control over them. And you find that you can do this to a certain extent.

And you have to do it. If you simply say, “Well, this concentration is inconstant, stressful, not self, so I’ll just give up my attachment to it,” you’ll never get anywhere on the path. The path is something you develop, not something you simply watch arising and passing away. You’ve got to push against the three characteristics. When they push back, notice where they push back. That’s where the skill comes in the practice. You don’t have to make fabrications absolutely constant, absolutely pleasant, absolutely, totally under your control. You want just enough control to give you the strength you need to let go.

True letting go is when you let go out of strength, not out of weakness. If you let go out of weakness, it’s because of desperation. There’s a sense of sour grapes around the whole thing. “I could never get my mind to settle down,” you say. “Well, that’s simply because the mind is totally out of control. So I let go.” Letting go like that, as Ajaan Lee said, is letting go like a pauper. A pauper doesn’t have anything to let go of to begin with, so his letting-go is all in his imagination.

But if you learn how to develop a sense of ease, a sense of well-being through your concentration, it may not be absolute, but it’s relatively strong enough and pleasant enough that when you begin to see the things that are totally out of your control, you let go not out of frustration, but out of a sense of contentment, a sense of balance.

So you try to use the processes of fabrication, even though they are stressful, inconstant, and not-self, to gain this sense of ease that can come from the concentration. And from that vantage point you can use your tools to uncover something that lies deeper still.

This relates to another common misconception around the issue of effort and relaxation. A book I once read said that there are two ways of approaching Awakening. One is trying to create the unconditioned through your practice, and the other is realizing that the unconditioned can’t be brought into being; it’s already there and all you need to do is relax. Well, this interpretation ignores the third possibility, which is that the unconditioned is already there, but it’s not attained simply by relaxing.

The image Ajaan Lee gives is of salt water. As he says, there’s fresh water in salt water, but if you simply take the salt water and let it sit there, you can come back a hundred years later and it’s still salt water. It doesn’t separate out on its own. You have to distill it. The effort we put into the practice is the distilling. Sometimes it’s simply the effort of watching with equanimity, and sometimes it’s the effort of exerting a fabrication: the breath, directed thought, evaluation, feelings, and perceptions. But if you learn how to take joy in the process of learning how to be skillful with these fabrications, you finally do realize there is something unfabricated here as well.

That’s where the practice gets really good. So when you think about the issue of effort, don’t think of that poor neurotic fool who’s trying, trying, trying and never going to get there because he’s so miserable and deluded in his effort. Think more of the person who has taken joy in learning how to master a skill. The skill takes effort, it takes time, but in this particular case there are results all along the way—and the ultimate results more than repay all the effort put in. With this thought in mind, you can make your effort with a sense of good-heartedness, a sense of good humor, and you’ll find that this path of fabrication really does lead to the unfabricated. That’s the Buddha’s promise, and he wasn’t the type of person to make promises in vain.

Adapted from a talk given by Ajahn Thanissaro at Abhayagiri Monastery in September 2007.