For many of us, the main problem is not that we don’t know what the important things of life are and how, ideally, we should be living. Many of us have been to enough dharma teachings, read enough books, and had enough religious training to be clear on how the spiritual quest must take precedence over worldly activities if we are to avoiding wasting the precious opportunity this short human life affords us.
So why aren’t we doing what we know to be the most essential things with our lives? Why are we continually side-tracked by activities we know to be at best of secondary significance and at worst a complete waste of time?
These are not new questions for spiritual seekers. Saint Paul complains, in the seventh chapter of the “Book of Romans,” “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.. . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
The same sentiment is repeated in that religious classic of ancient India, the “Bhagavad Gita,” when Arjuna asks Krishna, “What makes a person do wrong things, Krishna – even when they don’t want to, as if compelled by force?” (3.36)
In Buddhism, the link between what we know to be right and the actual doing of those things is the fourth of the six perfections guiding the life of a bodhisattva, virya or “joyful effort.” Virya motivates us not only to move from just thinking about doing the appropriate spiritual things with our lives to really doing them; it is also suffused with the happiness and joy that comes from doing what we know we should be doing. With virya we can justifiably be happy because we realize that we are doing the very things that will bring us more happiness and less suffering.
So the question then is repositioned: What are the obstacles to obtaining the virya that would motivate us to (happily) be doing the most important things with our lives?
Master Shantideva, in his “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” lists three such obstacles.
The first of these is laziness (alasya in Sanskrit, or lelo in Tibetan), which often comes in the form of idleness or endless procrastination. “I’ll get to those ACI courses – or daily meditation practice, or keeping a six-times-a-day book, or volunteering my time to ACI-LA so the dharma can reach more people – later. Right now, I think I need to relax more, to go to more movies, to go out to another trendy restraurant or on another vacation or hang out more, laughing and talking with my friends.”
Pema Chodren calls this “the comfort-orientation brand of laziness” which “is characterized by a profound ignoring. We look for oblivion: a life that doesn’t hurt, a refuge from difficulty or self-doubt or edginess. We want a break from being ourselves, a break from the life that happens to be ours. So through laziness we look for spaciousness and relief; but finding what we seek is like drinking salt water, because our thirst for comfort and ease is never satisfied.”
Basically, what this form of laziness comes down to is this: “I just don’t feel like doing it.” This first kind of laziness is best overcome by getting very, very clear about the impermanent and suffering nature of this kind of life. The recommended method for doing so is through the daily contemplation of the three main parts of the death awareness meditation – the certainty of your death, the uncertainty of the time of your death, and the fact that nothing except for your spiritual cultivation will be of any use whatsoever at that time. Death is inexorably drawing closer and closer, and we have no guarantees that it won’t be very soon. Don’t waste any more time procrastinating! Do now what you know is crucial; don’t wait until it’s too late.
The second obstacle is called attachment to trivial or improper activities, which is actually another sort of laziness. We keep ourselves so busy with things of lesser (or no real) importance that we don’t have time to do what (at some level) we know to be the more important things. As Geshe Sonam Rinchen points out, in his published commentary entitled “The Six Perfections,” “It’s easy to be both extremely busy and lazy at the same time.”
And what are keeping ourselves so busy doing? In the “Guide,” Master Shantideva targets as “trivial” or “improper activities” anything done out of motivation for worldly respect or reward. That would seem to cover pretty much all of those supposedly “very important” activities we use as excuses for not making the time to do our spiritual practices. This kind of obstacle, this form of laziness, derives from just not making the right choices when it comes to the priorities in life.
The best antidote for the second main hindrance to joyfully exerting ourselves in our spiritual activities is to remember what the texts call “leisure and fortune,” the fact that the kind of lives we all are leading (and mostly taking for granted) are extraordinarily rare and hard to obtain again. We are presently free from hindrances that totally prevent many, many other beings from spiritual practice, and are blessed with advantages (economic, religious, social, political, etc.) that others can’t even imagine. So what are we doing with these miraculous lives? Are we being diverted by our professions, our shopping, our families, social lives, hobbies and entertainment, and thereby wasting this precious (and extremely short-lived and hard to acquire again) opportunity?
As it says in the “Guide”:
You must make use of this boat,
The human life you have, to cross over
The great river of suffering.
The boat is hard to find again later;
Do not sit then, ignorant one,
At this moment there asleep.
You give up the highest kind of pleasure,
The holy Dharma, infinite numbers
Of causes that bring you pleasure.
Why is it you are attracted so much
To being distracted by causes for pain,
To busyness and the like? (8.14-15)
The third principal impediment to our practice is discouragement, loss of heart, and low self-esteem. We maybe try for a bit to reorient our priorities and make strong efforts with our spiritual cultivation, but then get discouraged when things seem not to change or to become even more difficult – when results are not instantly forthcoming. Indeed, some teachers point out that the main reason for this obstacle is that the practitioner has not yet started, or has not persevered long enough, to taste the sweet fruits of his or her efforts in the spiritual life. We give up on our practice, and ourselves, thinking, “Maybe others can make progress, but I’m different. I’m unable to do it.”
The antidote to this blockage is the development of a kind of justifiable pride (mana) in oneself, where we remember that we all, if we try, have the capacity to achieve the highest goals.
Never allow yourself the feeling
Of being discouraged, of having the thought
"How could I ever become enlightened?"
About this Those Who have Gone Thus,
The Ones who speak the truth, have spoken
The following words of truth:
Those beings who are flies and gnats,
Or bees, and even those
Who live as worms as well
Can reach unmatched enlightenment,
So difficult to reach,
If they develop the force of effort. (Guide, 8.17-18)
If those who were once insects or worms have, through their own efforts, become Buddhas, how much easier it will be for beings like us who have so much going for us?
Master Shantideva also recommends that when we become discouraged and self-pitying, we remember that we owe it others, to those suffering beings who are depending on us to do something to help them, to work hard (and, always, happily) toward our own perfection – even and especially when we feel lazy, diverted, or dispirited.
Cultivate your virya assiduously. Identify what is blocking you from doing what you know are the most important things to do with this short, precious life and then exercise the antidotes.
We don’t have time to waste. The clock is ticking on us all. Do what you know you should do, and do it now.
With all good wishes,