by Tim Burnett, October 2023
In October 2023, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett led a weekend retreat at the Samish Island Retreat Center focussed on the ways that the exploration of mindfulness, and thus the exploration of a life, can be seen as a deep immersion in balancing effort and ease.
We offer three weekend residential retreats each year. See the Multi-Day Retreats section of our Programs.
Talk: Effort and Ease
Good morning again, I’m grateful we’re here together.
We’re not always to aware of it but we always bring a kind of attitude to everything we do. A habitual approach. I thought it’d be interesting to explore a little how we might play with this during meditation and from there in this wonderful retreat environment letting the exploration of attitude & approach spill out into the rest of our weekend together.
I’m going to borrow the words of a few colleagues to explore this, some I’ve met, some I haven’t.
Here’s a meditation teacher named Bob Sharples:
Bob Sharples – Meditation: Calming the Mind
Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.
And here’s another teacher named Dan Nussbaum
Dan Nussbaum – In Meditation You Have Permission
You have permission to do the meditation practice of your choice, or, not do it.
You have permission to do the meditation practice you’ve been doing all along. You have permission to believe in it or question it or enjoy it or let it take you where it takes you. You have permission to be bored. How else will you ever get to the bottom of boredom? You have permission to try something else.
You have permission to think. You have permission to worry. You have permission to wonder if you’re doing it right.
You have permission to wonder what doing it right means. You have permission to see yourself wondering. Did you start meditation to become a good meditator? You have permission to do it wrong. But if you have permission to do it wrong, how can you do it wrong? You have permission to be bad.
You have permission to remember what it was like to be carefree. You have permission to doubt those memories. You have permission to get back to those memories whether you made them up or not. You have permission to know how you make up memories.
You have permission to go over German verbs. You have permission to think about the different grades of motor oil. You have permission to wonder, How is this meditation? You have permission to note body sensations. You have permission to do something else with body sensations. Love them. Be suspicious of them. Forbid them. Give them meaning. Question that meaning.
You have permission to have feelings. You have permission to need someone, to worry out of habit, to fear vaguely, to feel disgust, to insist on getting things your way. You have permission to let things go on. You have permission to find yourself in unexpected mind states.
You have permission to get lost. You have permission to be curious and interested. You have permission to get transfixed. You have permission to feel calm. You have permission to feel sleepy. You have permission to sleep. How else will you know about waking up if you don’t have permission to be asleep?
You have permission to know yourself in meditation. You have permission. You have permission. You have permission.
Enough men already, here’s the American-born Tibetan nun Pema Chodron, with a little more backstory on meditation and a few Buddhist roots.
The sage Shantideva, in the Bodhicaryavatara, in talking about the subject of suffering, offered a famous analogy for how we try to alleviate our suffering. He’s said that if you walk on the earth and it’s hurting your feet, you might want to cover all the earth with hides of leather, so that you’d never have to suffer from the pain of the ground. But where could such an amount of leather be found? Rather, you could simply wrap a bit of leather around your feet, and then it’s as if the whole world is covered with leather and you’re always protected.
In other words, you could endlessly try to have suffering cease by dealing with outer circumstances—and that’s usually what all of us do. It is the usual approach; you just try to solve the outer problem again and again and again. But the Buddha said something quite revolutionary, which most of us don’t really buy: if you work with your mind, you will alleviate all the suffering that seems to come from the outside. When something is bothering you—a person is bugging you, a situation is irritating you, or physical pain is troubling you—you must work with your mind, and that is done through meditation. Working with our minds is the only means through which we’ll actually begin to feel happy and contented within the world that we live in.
There’s an important distinction that needs to be made about the word “suffering.” When the Buddha said, “The only thing I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering,” he used the word dukkha for suffering. Dukkha is different than pain. Pain is an inevitable part of human life, as is pleasure. Pain and pleasure alternate, and they’re just part and parcel of anybody who has a body and a mind and is born into this world.
The Buddha didn’t say that, “I teach only one thing: pain and the cessation of pain.” He said pain is—you have to grow up to the fact, mature to the fact, relax to the fact that there will be pain in your life. You’re not going to reach the point where, if someone you love dies, you won’t feel grief. You’re not going to reach the point where if you fall down a flight of stairs you’re not bruised. As you age, your back might hurt and your knees might ache. These things and many others could happen.
Even the most advanced meditator has moods. The quality of energy moving through people—the heavier, more oppressive energies that we call depression, or fear, or anxiety—these kinds of mood energies run through all beings, just as the weather changes from day to day. Our internal weather is shifting and changing all the time, whether we’re fully enlightened or not. The question then becomes, how do we work with these shifting energies? Do we need to completely identify with them and get carried away and dragged down by them?
We do not meditate in order to be comfortable. In other words, we don’t meditate in order to always, all the time, feel good. I imagine shockwaves are passing through you as you read this, because so many people come to meditation to simply “feel better.” However, the purpose of meditation is not to feel bad, you’ll be glad to know. Rather, meditation gives us the opportunity to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. The meditative space is like the big sky—spacious, vast enough to accommodate anything that arises.
In meditation, our thoughts and emotions can become like clouds that dwell and pass away. Good and comfortable, pleasing and difficult and painful—all of this comes and goes. So the essence of meditation is training in something that is quite radical and definitely not the habitual pattern of the species: And that is to stay with ourselves no matter what is happening, without putting labels of good and bad, right and wrong, pure and impure, on top of our experience.
If meditation was just about feeling good (and I think all of us secretly hope that is what it’s about), we would often feel like we must be doing it wrong. Because at times, meditation can be such a difficult experience. A very common experience of the meditator, in a typical day or on a typical retreat, is the experience of boredom, restlessness, a hurting back, pain in the knees—even the mind might be hurting—so many “not feeling good” experiences. Instead, meditation is about a compassionate openness and the ability to be with oneself and one’s situation through all kinds of experiences. In meditation, you’re open to whatever life presents you with. It’s about touching the earth and coming back to being right here. While some kinds of meditation are more about achieving special states and somehow transcending or rising above the difficulties of life, the kind of meditation that I’ve trained in and that I am teaching here is about awakening fully to our life. It’s about opening the heart and mind to the difficulties and the joys of life—just as it is. And the fruits of this kind of meditation are boundless.
- From How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, Pema Chodron
And she goes on to suggest that there are five key attributes we’re developing, or maybe allowing to emerge: 1) Steadfastness 2) Clear Seeing (awareness) 3) Courage (to be present in and with suffering) 4) “the ability to be awake to our lives” (being present and open to each new moment of our lives, seeing that it’s not the same old same old ever, willing to be surprised…) mindful presence 5) “no big deal” – “not as a cynical statement, but as a statement of humor and flexibility. You’ve seen it all, and seeing it all allows you to love it all.” – warm acceptance I might call this quality.
A deep balance here between effort and ease. The first shorter quotes on the importance of meditation and non-striving, allowing things to be as they are, giving permission, letting go, seeing it all as a deep act of kindness.
And yet there needs to be some effort. Some showing up. We aren’t just sitting around when we practice. But what kind of effort? We have ALL kinds of habits around effort and productivity and getting stuff done and figuring it all out.
And her Pema giving us a beautiful description of where to direct that effort. That’s a wise list of qualities to cultivate [re-read them].
I myself think the important thing here is just to be yourself. But that might not be how we usually are actually, oddly. So often we’re trying to be something else: we’re performing for others, we’re performing for the expectations we’ve internalized. Or maybe we’re rebelling against them which kind of amounts to the same thing: no being ourselves.
One of the greats in my Zen Buddhist lineage, Shunryu Suzuki roshi, said “When you are you, Zen is Zen”.
It’s like that so it’s not like we don’t already have steadiness, clarity, courage, awakeness, and warm acceptance in us. We do. It’s our birth right. But your steadiness won’t look or feel like mine or like how you think you’re supposed to be steady.
Another important point is to cultivate something like steadiness also means to study unsteadiness. To dip into your shakiness and fear. So be vulnerable and uncertain and not know which end is up. True steadiness actually includes a loving relationship with unsteadiness. It’s not drawing a line in the sand can stubbornly planting yourself on the steadiness side of the ine.
Same with clear awareness – it includes confusion, distraction, refusing to see.
Same with courage it includes fear and avoidance and really feeling into how those difficult states feel in our hearts.
Same with mindful presence – it includes opening to how often we’re checked out jamming ourselves into a habituated rut.
And the same with warm acceptance – no big deal – seeing how tight we get, how upset when things aren’t going our way or the way they should go (according to us, and even if we are in some way actually “right”) – the way we make a very big deal out of minor things and get stuck.