Sunday, January 31, 2010

Making an effortless effort

When I was a neophyte meditator, one of my teachers, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, used to say somewhat mysteriously, “Follow the wave, drive the wave.” But I never really knew what he meant until I started to surf. Now I understand! When I’m out there on the ocean floating on my board, alone with the wind and the sky, I’m excruciatingly aware of how small and insignificant I am in comparison to the awesome power of the water. It would be presumptuous of me to say that I surf the waves — in fact, the waves surf me! I know that I can’t possibly attempt to control the water in any way. Yet I do need to exert a certain effort: I need to concentrate on the swell, paddle at just the right time, and position my body in just the right way to catch the wave at its apex so that it can carry me to the shore. And I need to stay focused as I shift my weight ever so subtly from side to side in order to ride the wave as fully as I possibly can.
Well, meditation is like surfing. If you push too hard and try to control your mind, you’ll just end up feeling rigid and tight, and you’ll keep wiping out as the result of your effort. But if you hang back and exert no effort at all, you won’t have the focus or concentration necessary to hold your position as the waves of thought and emotion wash over you.
Like surfing — or skiing or any sport, for that matter — meditation requires a constantly shifting balance of yang and yin, driving and following, effort and effortlessness. As I mention in Chapter 1, concentration is the yang of meditation (focused, powerful, penetrating) and receptive awareness is the yin (open, expansive, welcoming). Although you may have to exert considerable effort at first just to develop your concentration, try not to become tense or obsessive about it. Let your effort be effortless, like a seasoned surfer’s. Eventually, your concentration will arise quite naturally and take only minimal effort to maintain, and you’ll be able to relax and open your awareness to whatever arises. Even the notions of yin and yang (awareness and concentration) will ultimately drop away, and you can just be, with effortless effort —which is the real point of meditation.
In addition to effortless effort, meditation poses a number of other paradoxes that the mind can’t quite comprehend but that the body and heart find easy to grasp. To practice meditation, it helps to be
  • Serious yet lighthearted: After all, meditation is about lightening up —yet, if you’re not serious enough, you won’t make any progress.
  • Alert yet relaxed: Learn to balance these two qualities in your meditation. If you become too relaxed, you risk falling asleep, but if you’re too alert (that is, wired), you could become tense.
  • Spontaneous yet restrained: You can be totally “in the moment” and open to whatever arises in your awareness without becoming impulsive or indulging every fantasy or whim.
  • Engaged yet dispassionate: While being focused and attentive, you can avoid getting caught up in the compelling and emotionally charged stories your mind spins out.

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