August 2014

The Importance of Resting

We live in a culture that places great emphasis on effort and achievement.  From an early age, we are encouraged to work hard at school, on the job, in a relationship, even at our hobbies and pastimes.  The hoped-for result of all of this great effort is we will get what we want, achieve our goals and perhaps even make the world a better place.  That is the promise anyway.

Also, in the Tibetan tradition there is often great value attached to working hard at meditation practice.  The Tibetan term for diligence is tsun dru and many traditional teachers teach extensively on this topic.  Again, the idea is that by working at Dharma practice, we will get the results we desire, even if we might be a bit vague about exactly what those results are supposed to be.

There is certainly some truth to this – nothing happens without some effort expended.  However, when it comes to the practice of meditation, it is not so simple.  I have found over many years of both practice and teaching that the proper application of effort in meditation practice is one of the more subtle topics of practice and instruction.

When we first begin to practice, we are almost immediately confronted with the mental chaos that almost all of us seem to have.  Many, myself included, are shocked to discover how much distracted thinking that continuously flows through the mind.  The first stages of practice are mostly about working with this distraction, slowly training the mind to remain on an intended meditation object, usually the breath.  The effort required here is direct, simple – every time distraction is recognized, return to the breath.  This indispensible ability is the basis of all subsequent development in practice.

However, once there is some degree of staying with the breath and the calm that ensues from that, the effort required in practice becomes a good deal more subtle.  Because our conditioning and cultural basis is so heavily weighted toward the notion that everything good comes from ever increased levels of effort, many practioners fail to understand the importance of making subtle adjustments in their practice.

As one becomes more proficient in staying with the breath (or any other intended object such as body sensations), it is important to start to emphasize the resting quality of practice.  When there is some degree of staying and calming in awareness, consciously let go of effort and just rest right there.  When coarse level distraction takes you out of that, gear up the effort a bit and come back and then rest again.  With correct practice, over time the balance starts to shift toward being able to rest more deeply.

At the advanced level of level of Dzog Chen practice – Maha Ati – there is only one meditation instruction – open to the natural awareness of the mind and completely relax into that.  At this point, there are no techniques, no strategies and any effort whatsoever is considered to be a fault of the practice.  Open and relax – that’s it.

It takes some time in daily practice plus significant retreat time to approach this level.  However, an important and in fact indispensible preparation is learning to relax into whatever practice we might be engaged in.  When working with the breath to develop attention, spend at least a part of every meditation session emphasizing relaxing into the breath.  If you are working with one of the insight questions such as “what experiences this,” ask the question, simply relax and see what happens.  When doing movement practices such as Qigong, make sure that your body and mind are relaxed as you go through the sequence of postures.

As mentioned, effort is important and has it place in anything we undertake, including meditation practice.  Most of us are very good at that part of it.  However, the deeper levels of spiritual development require other skills and knowing how to relax is one of the most important of those.

Other Items:

The dates Mercy Center retreats for 2015 are now posted on the Events Page.

We have enough interest in doing a practice-oriented retreat in January to move forward on that.  The retreat will be during the week toward the end of the month.  We are currently making arrangements with Mercy Center and will send out the details before the end of August.

There is another one-day retreat scheduled for Saturday, September 27th.  The topic will be “Gampopa’s Four Instructions.”  We will be sending out more information on this in a couple of days.