Do not be erratic.
The effort we apply when practicing Dharma should be steady and consistent. A short term effort that later slackens will not produce results. We need continuous effort until we accomplish our final goal of full enlightenment.
First, we need a clear understanding of what effort is. Effort in a Dharma context is not the same as effort in an ordinary context. In an ordinary context, effort means to work hard. In a Dharma context, effort means “to take delight in engaging in virtue.” It is a special mind that enjoys engaging in virtue. Nothing is enjoyable or unenjoyable from its own side. Things become enjoyable when we relate to them with a mind of enjoyment. Things become unbearable when we relate to them with a mind of impatience. If we work very hard at our Dharma practice, meditating every day, working endlessly for the center, going to all of the teachings, etc., but we do so with a heavy mind of guilt and obligation, then we actually have no effort. Without effort, we will have no results. If instead we do very little formal practice, but we go about our day enjoying the opportunity to train our mind to respond with wisdom and compassion to whatever arises, then we have great effort and results will flow naturally.
How do we develop a mind that “enjoys” engaging in virtue. First, we must recognize that at present our mind enjoys engaging in non-virtue and dreads having to engage in virtue. Shantideva says we are drawn like moths to a flame to that which is harmful to us, and we flee that which is good for us. Why is this? The reason is we are completely confused about what is the cause of happiness and what is the cause of suffering. We enjoy eating ice cream, we would not enjoy eating ice cream we know is laced with poison. Why the difference? Because we know one thing is very bad for us and the other is not. So we need to take the time to consider what is actually good for us. The things of samsara can at most help us in this one life, but Dharma can help us in all our future lives. In reality, any good thing in samsara comes from past virtuous karma. Where did that good karma come from? Our past practice of virtue. Even from the perspective of this life alone, when our mind is under the influence of delusion, we are unhappy; whereas if our mind if peaceful, wise and full of love, we are very happy. Further, the so-called pleasures of samsara actually just serve to ensare us further into the deceptive lies of samsara, and cause us to waste countless hours of our precious human life doing things in a meaningless way. Would someone derive much enjoyment spending all of the money in their retirement on a fancy vacation, knowing that they are squandering all that they have saved up and that they will have to spend their retirement in abject poverty? It is the same with samsara’s pleasures. When we harvest them, we are causing our virtuous seeds to ripen, and once exhausted we will have no karmic provisions left for the long road ahead of our countless future lives.
Second, we need to completely let go of attachment to results from our practice. The fastest and most effective way to kill the joy in our practice is to become attached to experiencing results. The definition of pure Dharma practice is practice that is engaged in free from the 8 worldly concerns, one of which is wanting to experience pleasure and pleasant feelings. Many people do meditation hoping that it will make them feel “blissed out” or at least help them “calm down.” They may have had some experiences in the past where they were blown away by some deep spiritual insight, and they grasp at trying to get the next spiritual breakthrough. Sometimes people quickly become frustrated when they become distracted quickly and fail to find their object of meditation in any meaningful way. Or perhaps some people have been practicing for many years but they feel like they are just as deluded as they always were. Practicing with these sorts of attachment to results in our mind leads to all sorts of frustrations, tensions, discouragements and disappointments with our spiritual practice. Attachment to results drains the joy from our practice in the same way unplugging a barrel will eventually drain its contents. Once the joy is gone, we may continue to practice driven by guilt or some feeling of obligation, but this can’t last long. Eventually we abandon everything or become a neurotic mess.
In contrast, when we completely let go of attachment to results in our practice, everything becomes naturally joyful. What does it mean to practice without attachment to results? It means, quite simply, we derive our enjoyment from planting good seeds, not harvesting their results. We should be like the squirrel who spends the Fall collecting nuts and storing them away so that when winter comes he has enough provisions to last him. The other animals may seem to be having fun, but come winter time they regret their shortsightedness. We should be like the hard-working medical student that stays in school for many long years after all of their friends have left school and gone off to work, making money, going on vacations, etc. They do this because they know they are working for a higher goal. We should be like the investor who saves as much money as they can, little by little, adding to their investment capital which will one day enable them to live effortlessly without ever having to work again as they live off of the dividends of their prior investments. We should be like the farmer plans ahead, preparing the soil, planting seeds, irrigating the fields and ensuring there is enough sunlight. The farmer does not expect the crops to ripen before the seeds are planted, but instead knows such seeds must be patiently nurtured and cared for in order to have a bountiful harvest come the Fall.
Ghandi famously said, “full effort is full victory.” His meaning was when we apply ourselves fully to effort and completely forget about results, such effort itself is full victory itself. When such effort is attained, the final results are a foregone conclusion, as we go from joy to joy travelling along the path.
We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do what we want. So the whole trick of Dharma is to change what we want from what is harmful to us to what is beneficial to us. Our wanting to enjoy ourselves is not a problem, our problem is we are confused about what is enjoyable. Licking honey off of a razor blade is not enjoyable, building for a better future is. When we enjoy engaging in virtue more than we enjoy indulging in samsara’s deceptive pleasures, then we will naturally engage in virtue for the simple reason of we want to. Once we are like this, there is no danger of us being erratic or our effort waning, we simply do what we enjoy all the way to enlightenment.