Striving and Discouragement on the Path

On our path, we strive for abiding happiness. The irony is that to abide in happiness is to be free from striving for it. It's a peculiar irony since even though striving can never reach non-striving, it is necessary to strive nonetheless. Our path is an inspired striving which arises through an awakening of faith that such happiness is possible. This inspiration illumines the fact that abiding happiness is not available through worldly attainments and ambitions. Whether we have been frustrated in all our attempts to achieve our worldly goals, or we have achieved our goals and discovered that we remain unfulfilled, it is in not finding that our search has been narrowed, and our path illumined. By showing us where happiness is not to be found, the spiritual path becomes our opening and a deepening into the field in which happiness is to be found.

It is an impossible journey, however, since the happiness we intuit is actually our very nature, and thereby is present prior to any seeking that may take place. As we discover ultimately, it is seeking that veils this happiness from us. The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi tells us in this regard to "Make no effort...your effort is the bondage...All that is required to realize the Self is to Be Still." Nevertheless, because of our false identity as seeker, we have no choice but to seek. In striving to be still, we find our very effort is a continuation of the seeking. In this regard, Ramana's call to stillness is a teaching that comes to life when we are ready to hear it. So, as we discover, seeking is a necessary part of our path, since it cannot be avoided. It is in reference to this point that the Sufi, Hafiz, tells us: "Although Union with the Beloved is never given as a reward for one's efforts, strive, O heart, as much as you are able."

This paradox calls out for us to clearly and continually recognize the value of seeking, while remaining aware, just as Hafiz tells us, that final union with the beloved is never given as a reward for it. So, instead of trying to get away from seeking, we remain aware of its nuances, responsive rather than reactive. It is through enhanced awareness that our scattered seeking becomes more unified and clarified into our path to Truth. This process unfolds within deepening attention, well supported through practices of meditation, precepts, and contemplation. It is through this enhanced awareness of the self-centered movements of seeking that we begin to lose our fascination with attainments and begin to experience a deepening appreciation for what is already Here.

The more we see this, the more we discover the mechanisms of distraction. As we abide in non-grasping, we see how fascination and self-centered striving close our heart. It is like a dark cloud moving in on a sunny day. In a moment of seeing this unfold, without becoming caught in the desire to cling to a pleasant state, we may be astounded to discover that it is the desire to hold onto happiness that obstructs it. We see first-hand how striving and expectation veil the joy that we are! Seeing this is a great revelation, but transformation of these deeply conditioned habits usually requires repeated practice and observation. We may feel perplexed as we discover that despite our clear seeing, our self-grasping and striving continue to arise, and may even appear to increase. However this goes, the call to practice is simply to return attention to, and to abide within, what is arising just now.

Forgetting this may lead us to a point of profound discouragement and even irritation with practice. Of course, even these feelings of discouragement are calling for deepened attention. If we can remain aware of the mood, this energy of discouragement is harnessed and our awareness heightened. The clarity that ensues directs attention towards recognizing the endless nature of the suffering of self-grasping, and to sincerely grasping the impossibility of a self ever becoming enlightened. This deepened humility brings insights and surrender into all facets of our habits of self-centered grasping. With greater humility, we discover greater concern for the suffering of other beings. We now have enough clarity to realize the all-encompassing nature of suffering and delusion, and compassion deepens within us. Charity and empathy naturally seek expression.

If, however, we are unable to infuse our feelings of discouragement with a it may well be that we need to go back deepened attention, and examine our motivation for practice. If we discover that our practice is all about self-centered attainment or release from our own suffering, we would do well to examine what we have seen in our own practice regarding self-striving. It would be of great value to recollect how such striving is destined to fail.

There are many practices that can serve to open our heart, such as practices of charity, practices of sending and taking or loving kindness, practices of devotion, and practices surrounding the mystery of death, to name but a few. In Zen Buddhism we find much reference to the Bodhisattva vow as a means for cutting through the habituation of self-striving in practice. This is a vow that may be recited in conjunction with other practices. Here, the practitioner relinquishes expectations of attainment from practices while proclaiming that he or she does these practices to free all sentient beings from the suffering of samsara. One version of this vow goes like this: "May all the sentient beings as vast as the sky possess happiness and be free of suffering. So that they may attain complete and perfect enlightenment, I will practice this profound path of meditation."

Though the vow may be of great help initially, a formal recitation may not be needed for long. Once we have reached genuine conviction that there is nowhere left to go on a path of attainment for an imaginary self, we may discover an organic shift of the heart. This exhaustion of self-centered striving may spontaneously give way to an underlying intention for the benefit of all. This is the nature of selfless love and compassion, which arises organically as our seeking exhausts itself. It is the power of Love and compassion that transforms all of our delusions. As children we often have the opportunity to experience the frustration and impossibility of striving to be loved. It is through such experience that we discover that Love is only available through loving. And so, on our path, striving for self-centered attainment is transformed into a striving to Love—to express that which we already are.

This becomes selfless practice. In fact, as we practice in this way, we discover that there is nothing to attain, that striving for self-attainment is clearly the veil to the Love that we manifest. Yet still, emotional conditioning may arise from time to time giving rise to a 'me' that appears to suffer. Through self-less practices and daily vigilance, such grasping can be recognized as radiant, energetic displays rather than "my discouragement."

If states of grasping continue to arise, despite clear seeing, we can recognize this wanting, itself, as a suffering being. In recognizing it in this way, rather than striving to resolve it, compassion embraces it fully, allowing attention to infuse it and to rest within it—allowing it to be freed. This gesture is not some subtle self-centered expectation that it change or resolve, but an appreciation for it as it is, and an allowing of it to express itself just as it is. When we no longer struggle against it, we no longer embellish it and give it a reality that it does not have, and it is freed. Here, we effortlessly discover the abiding happiness that has always eluded us in striving. We discover that there is no distinction between Love and this long-sought abiding happiness. It is not an attainment, but rather what is already here when we cease to struggle.

-Todd, Winter 2011
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