Thursday, November 19, 2009

James McDonald: Energy in Meditation

(Wisdom Quarterly) Theravada Dhamma Society, Daly City, California

Bay Area Dharma discourse by James McDonald, Wednesday Nov. 18, 2009

The Five Balancing Factors:
  1. Concentration
  2. Energy
  3. Wisdom (Investigation)
  4. Faith
  5. Mindfulness

Successful meditation depends on balanced effort. What is there to balance? There are five factors to keep balanced. Mindfulness (sati) keeps the other four in equilibrium: Concentration is balanced by energy or effort. Faith (confidence) is balanced by investigation or knowing.

Image: Artist's rendition of speaker's immediate past life experience (mentioned in a subsequent clip) as a saddhu (Indian holy man): a guru giving balancing instructions to a chela. Below: photo of an actual Indian saddhu. Note large white mustache.

American meditators have a characteristic problem: "They go on a retreat, and they're going to succeed! They're going to work and work and work, harder and harder...until they're guaranteed that they will succeed. And that really guarantees that they will fail -- because their energy is much too high. That's partly because they're confused by the translation of the word viriya [which is the root of the English word virile] into 'energy.' They think it means like a football player or a policeman or some big, active, strong thing.

"But if you look at the word carefully, viriya's function and characteristic are both supporting. It supports. Its manifestation -- the way it appears to us, to a meditator -- is to not collapse. And the simile which illustrates viriya is that if an old building is falling down, if you put a log, a timber inside that building, it is something that supports. Viriya is strength. But it's a gentle strength. It's a supporting strength. It's a persistent, supporting, gentle strength. And when Americans have this anxious, rambunctious, chaotic thing they think is viriya, [they're really so messed up]. So they really should have less."

Thai lay Buddhist meditators characteristically have the opposite problems as Americans. They sit, smiling, happy, but lacking in viriya, gentle/persistent work, strength, energy. The Buddha did not praise grasping and clinging even to jhanas (absorptions in meditation), to the anapana nimitta (the countersign of the breath). Doing so is an expression of greed. Instead, when we meditate we should sit down and establish an intention. And then we should let our minds incline toward that objective, the way the Ganges inclines toward the sea. The river is not struggling and fighting and desperately trying to get to the sea. It's a river. That's all it has to do. And the banks carry it to the sea.

"In the same way, if we -- with an intention, a direction -- if we simply work constantly, persistently, and gently at the current task (sati = mindfully, dhamma-vicaya = keenly investigating of phenomena), something called the Law of Dharma (Dhamma-Niyama) will carry us to the next stage. It's automatic, as long as we have that intention. You can't just sit there and sit there. You have to have the intention. And then if you work gently, gently at what you're about, your practice will naturally progress. So that's a much better way to handle this than all that energy or rather than just sitting looking out a window."

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