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Staying Power

Ayya Medhanandi

The determination, or adhitthana, to take up spiritual practice, stay with it, and see it through to its fruition depends upon a special quality of perseverance. First we have to make our intention very clear and firm. Appreciating our limits, we gird ourselves to press beyond them and face conditions that might be difficult. We align our will with what we mean to accomplish – whatever the obstacle.

When what we set out to do is hard, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, we may become bored, impatient, or distracted – losing faith in what we have undertaken. Disheartened, we may even give up. Just as in a marriage, when the realities of life set in – you hunt for a way out.

In today’s culture of dilute commitment, divorce has become commonplace. Many now opt for informal partnerships to ensure an easy exit. Have we lost this quality of adhitthana? Do greed and self-interest make us intolerant? Can we determine to fulfil our commitment and - if the relationship sours - do all we can to salvage it?

Apart from situations of wrong sacrifice that are better abandoned, the best allies of steadfastness in our commitment to each other – as well as to our own spiritual journey – are the qualities of renunciation and forbearance. In the face of grisly conditions, we try to bail out. But first we search for every possible means of reconciliation - braving rebuff, disappointment, humiliation, or hurt. Ironically, it is through wrestling with our frailties that we begin to gauge the true dimension of our strengths.

In the practice of meditation, determination fuelled by willpower alone will not sustain us beyond the initial stages. Here, too, we rely on restraint and patience, stilling our hearts to develop the calm and concentration necessary for clear seeing. Otherwise, our interest in investigating our experience will flag.

To persevere in the longer term, we must also have the stamina and willingness to bear with physical discomfort or emotional turbulence. Defying unhealthy attachment and addiction, we adopt an attitude of enduring forgiveness. Only then can we open to the lessons of life’s unremitting challenges and attain inner peace.

With tenacious resolve, we temper our worldly pursuits to devote ourselves to liberation, Nibbana. We cannot serve both. Overindulging in the delights of the world compromises our ability to wake up to Truth. We must decide our course, then give ourselves to it fully. This giving is a determined surrender.

In studying the subtle workings of the mind, ask: "What is the quality of my attention? Can I sacrifice pleasurable thoughts and withstand what is disagreeable for a moment of clarity? What are the roots of my unhappiness?"

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by greed – besieged by craving for sensory delights. We succumb to angry thoughts, or memories of terrible things we’ve lived through. We may feel obsessed, discouraged, distracted, or anxious – too stressed to be with our experience let alone concentrate on the breath. Whether in daily life or in practising mindfulness of breathing, pause and consider: "What am I doing? How am I living my life?"

When it is impossible to approach the mind’s furies head on, tack like a sailor guiding his vessel. Leave the breath for a moment to draw gently near a sensation of pain in the heart or care for the place of greatest distress. Attend to that point of tension, then come back to the breath, investing every ounce of energy to being fully aware and present, moment by moment – be it painful, disorientating, or unbearable. Stay with it. Steady yourself. Slowly recoup strength and confidence, trusting the compass of mindfulness.

We might not want to look at pain but we don’t always have a choice. A pain in the knee – lovingly tended to – can also nurture our practice. We might wonder, "What does an aching knee have to do with freeing ourselves from suffering?" Our instinct is to run in the opposite direction from what we dislike. But every irritation is an integral part of the journey. We study our suffering and recognize its origin. Even as we continue to wrestle with confusion or resistance, a sense of being lost, helpless, or beyond redemption, we coax ourselves and steer towards safe harbour.

Through repeatedly examining our experience with enough curiosity and perspective, we come to see the blessings of acting as pure witness and accepting life’s many contours unequivocally. As we distil a history of denying or coping with neuroses and brokenness into a gradual process of self-healing, we discover how this both helps us to mature discernment and open our hearts.

Moral discipline adds another benefit to this dynamic. Moral restraint means giving up indiscriminate freedom - we make sacrifices for what we value – faithfully observing precepts and inviolable ethical boundaries for our own well-being and for the greater welfare of all. We commit to harmless living by following a path of choices based on integrity and wisdom. Rather than blame others for our pain or unhappiness, we take responsibility for our speech and actions. It is not a casual route but one that is clearly defined – and held sacrosanct.

It is this quality of one-pointed discipline that we rely on to purify our mental habits. Without sharp and steady focus, we will be unable to concentrate on the object. Our attention will wander. While this may not be morally harmful, it tends to destabilize the mind and weaken our immunity to the attractions and distractions of the world.

And so, meditation becomes an invisible yet exalted form of internal generosity – beginning with ourselves and ultimately reaching out to others. The quality of our attention and our ability to be present for what is arising in consciousness profoundly influence what we say and do. How well we direct the mind naturally impacts the very tenor of our life - how we choose to spend our time and how much kindness we extend. Even a transient knowing of the heart’s movements can significantly shape our interactions.

So striking is the connection between moral commitment in daily life and peace of mind that when we fail to discipline our speech and conduct, we invite harm internally - to ourselves - or externally, into our relationships. Either way, we cannot be peaceful. Inner agitation and disturbance lead to coarse thoughts and deeds which, in turn, render impossible pure attention and understanding of our experience. We may be able to pacify the mind to some extent but eventually we come to a point beyond which we cannot deepen or progress – without further purification.

How can joy settle in a heart that is on fire? How do we restore balance and reflect our innate goodness when we are agitated or hostile? In the midst of all our suffering, we know instinctively that we have to tame the heart – because when we live skilfully, in harmony with each other, practising kindness, compassion, and harmlessness, we are blessed. We realize that whatever we do on the inside reflects outwardly. And whatever we do on the outside reflects inwardly.

Endurance develops with each sacrifice we make. Believing that our happiness depends on getting what we want, it is hard for us to recognize that selfish desire alienates us from the true source of that happiness. We can scarcely renounce desire unless we see that what we should want is the ending of desire. It may be the hardest thing to achieve but it is essential for our spiritual work.

To go beyond the cycle of self-concern, we empty the mind of thought again and again. This emptying delivers us to the safety and purity of the present moment. When I stand for alms and people come to offer food into my bowl, how can I properly reciprocate if my attention drifts or my thoughts are tainted by what I hope to receive? My bowl is already crammed with expectation.

Once I stood downtown during a cold windy morning. After an hour, no one had put anything into my bowl. My precept is not to eat after 12 o’clock. With only minutes before the hour, shivering and weary, I became caught up with anxiety. "I’m hungry, I need to be fed. Will anyone put food in my bowl?" I was no longer meditating.

There I stood. I looked like an alms mendicant. I had the bowl, the robe, and the shaved head, but my mind was full of desire. Seeing the empty bowl in my arms, I reproached myself, "Can my mind be as empty as this bowl?" I then poured all my effort into reflecting that emptiness. "Okay," I thought. "It doesn’t matter."

Even if I were to go hungry, I felt grateful that I could still walk for alms just as the Buddha and his disciples had nearly three thousand years ago. Suddenly I looked down to see a man bowing to me on the pavement. When he stood up, he offered me a meat pie.

A vegetarian before I became a nun, my first thought – an ungracious ‘oh dear’ – when I recognised the smell of the beige wrapping paper, quickly evaporated. As soon as the beauty of that moment sank in, I was awash with gratitude. "A stranger just bowed on the street and put food in my bowl!"

No longer hankering for fruit or other food, I received his gift with a blessing chant – grateful for meat pie. "Never mind, I can nibble the crust." It was not what I wanted. I may not choose what I’m offered but I choose the vulnerability of a samana and this simple life. Should people give us what we don’t want, we can notice if our automatic response is benign – or critical. Even when those inner complaints grow shrill, we keep coming back to our true aspiration, remembering, "I chose this."

How much am I willing to give up for what I value? Am I able to calm my mind and heart enough to bring peace to the situation? Can I be kind?

Determination is saying, "I will," when the way feels impossible. We take a deep breath and open to the gift disguised in that impossible moment. We touch the blessing in what seems to defeat us. Resisting craving so that we can uphold what is noble, we empty the mind of everything that is impure and reveal its natural radiance.

To understand the mind’s true nature, we have to die to our desire for pleasant experience; we have to be empty enough to love the moment exactly as it is. You will have seen in your own lives the alchemy of patient endurance, determination, and renunciation working in unison. Whenever we exert ourselves to serve and manifest what we deeply value, the blessings seem to flow.

Then we leave the meditation hall to resume our daily routine brimming with new resolve. Now how do we respond when things fall apart? How do we safeguard our new-found conviction in the swift pace of life? In the midst of our duties and practical dealings at home and in our professional environments, the constant impingements of the world may be wearying. Adding spiritual practice to this weariness could further isolate us and make us feel out-of-step with everyone. Nevertheless, we train – knowing that we must relinquish for the sake of our highest goal.

Above all, it is through unfaltering moral discipline and a commitment to virtue and kindness that we follow the path of holiness. Seeing the danger of selfish desire and lack of awareness, we understand how seemingly innocuous currents of thought and behaviour undermine us; how our wish to look good influences our decisions, how complacency compromises our principles, how laziness saps our energy and dulls our worthier aspirations.

The false security of these negative inclinations blinds us to their potential harm. In letting them go, we are free to turn towards the mind’s native brightness, releasing the priceless strength and energy that empower us to live benevolently - with joy and ease rather than tension, with loving wisdom instead of aggression. We stay the course.


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last updated: 06-12-2006