When it comes to developing the fifth parami of viriya—the perfection of effort or energy—the instructions seem simple: the Buddha said to “abandon the unwholesome” and to “develop the wholesome” (Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, 150). This sounds easy enough, but to truly know what is wholesome and then to act upon it can take lifetimes. With regard to the effort and energy required for mindfulness practice, there is a great deal of room for interpretation. It is easy to wonder whether we have become too lazy and sleepy in our practice, or whether we’re trying too hard and forcing ourselves to suffer unnecessarily. It seems that this has been happening since the Buddha’s time, as the Sona Sutta shows us:
One day Sona, a disciple of the Buddha, had been practicing energetically in solitude and hadn’t found any freedom in his practice. He was thinking of going back to his wealthy family when the Buddha became aware of this and said,
“Tell me, Sona, in the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute?”
“What do you think, Sona? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”
“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”
“But, Sona, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”
“So too, Sona, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Sona, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, 933)
Taking the time to learn how to differentiate between being too tight in one’s practice (repressive, harsh, forceful) or too loose (drowsy, confused, bored) is an essential part of mindfulness practice and the path of the Dharma laid out by the Buddha. But it takes time to learn how a well-tuned practice feels. And, like a stringed instrument, mindfulness practice does not stay permanently “in tune,” although over time it becomes easier to re-tune it when it goes out.
The first indication that my practice has become too tight is that my body becomes too tight, with tension in the shoulders or belly, shallow breathing, or contraction in general. When my practice is too loose my physical energy tends to be dispersed, as if looking in one direction but moving in another, or I tend to slouch. Fortunately, physical re-alignment helps to bring the mind back into alignment, as when a string resonates sympathetically when another similarly tuned string is plucked.
I’ve also found that there are “symptoms” that manifest when I’m being too tight or too loose in my practice, as well as in my life. If a lot of fearful, angry, and judgmental thoughts arise, then I’m usually being too tight. If I find myself continually making poor choices regarding food, sleep, and exercise, then I’m usually being too loose. The symptoms will be different for most people and they aren’t nearly as important in themselves as learning to read them and to adjust accordingly. As with a stringed instrument, environmental factors also determine what makes the strings go out of tune and the best way to bring them back. And finding balance in mindfulness practice and life is very different while on vacation than while moving house or getting a divorce, or after the loss of a loved one. In fact, even the expectation of being in balance (in tune) at some points in life is being too tight.
Lately, I’ve noticed that I have a lot of thoughts along the lines of “this is never going to work out.” I’ve learned that believing in these thoughts serves no useful purpose, and that I basically never need to listen to them. However, sometimes my inner voice becomes too controlling and tries to force such thoughts away, which means things are too tight. Then it’s time to simply notice, “Hopelessness is present,” and do my best to accept it. The same goes for anger, frustration, grief, and fear. But I’ve also learned that negative emotions can coexist with positive emotions. To redress the balance, I ask myself, “Is it possible to connect to joy right now?” This can be something as simple as looking at the leaves of a tree and opening up to a see if I can touch delight, even if only for a few seconds. If genuine gladness doesn’t arise, I stick to noticing and accepting. But no matter how awful I feel, most of the time there is space for a little joy precisely because I don’t force myself to ignore the pain and just pretend to be happy. This fine-tuning has taken a while to master, but it’s been well worth the effort.
There is no universally applicable set of rules in this practice of viriya. There is no way to know one’s personal boundaries until they’ve been thoroughly investigated. This is an invitation to play with the practice in order to cultivate an awareness of which practice is skillful at which times. It is useful to learn your own symptoms of sloth and repression and how to act skillfully, really getting to know too tight, too loose, and just right. You’ll know when you’re in tune by how it feels. Spiritual teachers and friends can point you in the right direction, but ultimately you have to find it for yourself.
Taking the time to learn this is part of the practice. If it takes ten years, great—you can’t get there without those ten years. Most people exaggerate their imbalances. Practitioners who are prone to striving often think they’re not trying hard enough, while those who are prone to laziness often think that they need to rest. This is why a good teacher will offer teachings that at times seem contradictory. Different people in different situations require different directions to get them to the same place.
So, investigate your practice. Do you know the signs that you are too tight or too loose? Do you know how it feels when your mind is in tune? Just like a lute, mindfulness practice can’t do anything for us until we pick it up and play with it.
Bhikkhu Bodhi. 2012. The Anguttara Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.