This week, Payton guided our Sangha on the wide topic of Exhaustion.
What is it to be exhausted? I think we all know the feeling. Physical exhaustion is a fairly gross sensation, where the body just doesn’t quite operate the way we want it to, and we may find it actively seeking rest. Exhaustion of the mind or the heart can at times be more subtle, and when it manifests we may become more easily confused, slow, frustrated, angry, or needy. I find it interesting that these manifestations are all aspects of the Three Poisons of Greed, Aversion, and Delusion. When we are exhausted, we have fewer and fewer “spoons” (to use Spoon Theory, coined by Christine Miserandino) and the result is that the Three Poisons flourish more freely, covering over our true nature.
I don’t think we need to spend much time on the “why” of being exhausted. I imagine that every one of us can come up with a personalized list of what exhausts us in our daily lives. What I find surprising is that, for me, I can become exhausted in so many varied situations. When the quarantine began I thought, “oh, this will be annoying; I’ll be bored, but I suppose that’s not a big deal”. I never expected that the lack of social contact, the lack of variation in my schedule, and in my physical location would make me more mentally exhausted, but so it has. Just doing simple things like preparing food or cleaning laundry seem to grow in scale every day. And of course this isn’t limited to pandemic times, it’s just that, like a retreat, the sudden shift of my conditions has made these mental patterns more apparent.
So we are tired, we are exhausted, we work so hard to do the things we have to do. Does Buddhism offer any suggestions, any relief from this state? Fortunately, the parallels between exhausted states and the origins of the Three Poisons gives us a place to start looking.
Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches that the goal of Buddhist practice is not a strong focus and many hours of formal meditation, although those might be tools that are appropriate in some situations. Among the reasons he gives for avoiding such practices is that they themselves can be exhausting. If our spiritual practice is exhausting we’re not very likely to pursue it when our minds are already tired.
Rather, he teaches that a continuous gentle awareness and an accepting mind is all that is required. Just being aware of our body or of what is going on in the mind is the action of a split second; it requires very little effort. As one of my teachers said when I first learned formal meditation: when we become aware that our mind has wandered, congratulations! We’re already back! We need not think hard about our experience or try to create an outcome; that is the action of craving. The mind will naturally reach conclusions based on the evidence it gathers through awareness, but only if the awareness is continuous enough, kind enough, and wise enough, to gather that data. Somehow, meditation practice can itself be an antidote to exhaustion! But how, exactly?
Some quotes from Dhamma everywhere, by Ashin Tejaniya, which you can find here.
What kind of effort do we need when we are meditating? Right now many people know of only one type of effort, which is energetic, forcing effort. However, it is wrong effort when it is motivated by defilements like craving, aversion, or delusion. This kind of effort will only feed more defilements in the process.
Isn’t this what it feels like to be exhausted? We feel the suffering of too much effort, and the defilements arise.
How then, do we meditate? We use the wholesome effort and the right effort of patience and perseverance in our practice.
Insights don’t have an opportunity to arise when we are very intent on one object without exploring or investigating what is happening
In mindfulness meditation, we don’t need to cultivate or work on objects or what we observe. We can and will need to develop how we observe. We do this first by noticing or acknowledging how the mind is already observing. Is it agitated or calm? Is there some kind of wisdom present? You don’t need to try to change how the mind is observing. You do want to take note of how it is observing and the corresponding effects of observing in this way. Over time, you will notice different causes and effects. When you have repeatedly observed and seen different scenarios, you will begin to better understand the relationship of how the state of the mind and the thoughts in the mind affect the way you feel about the object or what you are observing.
Start with an awareness of any object. As you maintain awareness, keep checking the mind. What is the mind aware of? When it is aware, is the mind at ease or not? Is it relaxed? When it is, what is the attitude in the mind? Keep checking. Be mindful that you are not just intent on objects!
How much effort do you need to know seeing, hearing, heat, cold, touching, or tiredness? Do you need to focus to know any of these? Is that tiring or difficult? See how easy observing is?
You need to pay attention to the observing mind if you want to understand the truth. Regularly check on how you are practicing. Can wisdom arise in the presence of craving, aversion, or delusion in the observing mind? What attitude is the mind practicing with? Check your attitude regularly.
Understanding that something is not beneficial is very different from thinking or judging that something is “not good”. If the mind labels something as “good”, there is craving already. With any object that arises, delusion is already on the scene. Delusion conceals an object’s natural characteristics (but not the object itself) and labels it as “good” or “bad”.
As such, we also don’t try to remove aversion when it arises. We are not trying to get rid of aversion. As soon as we try to push aversion away, there is more aversion. Aversion is always negative, having the quality of pushing something away. We are observing aversion because we want to know its true nature. This is what it means to meditate.
Most people think they have to bring awareness back to some object with the idea, “Oh, my awareness is gone, I must have awareness again.” That’s a tiring way to practice. I will give you a simpler, more relaxed way: Remind yourself. When you try to get awareness, you may be focusing on an object. The mind that is already thinking wrong thoughts now tries to be aware of an object. That requires focusing energy. When you remind yourself, the mind thinks about the mind and body and awareness is automatically there.
How do you understand Viriya? Viriya is the spiritual faculty of patience and perseverance. I understand viriya as persistence, not exertion or force! Please don’t wear out your mind or body by striving forcefully when you meditate. Understanding can’t develop when your mind or body is tired. Can you learn something thoroughly if you start and stop the process many times? You will miss the storyline in a TV series if you catch a few episodes and miss a few episodes. Similarly, only if awareness is continuous, where you see the beginning, middle and end, will you then understand the true nature… Be cool and calm about it. Be interested. There should be consistent effort but not exertion. … We don’t interfere with what is happening. We don’t make something unwanted to disappear or stop, nor do we need to try to create preferred experiences. The mind is doing its own work through recognizing, being aware, knowing, thinking about the practice, and being interested
What kind of effort do we use in our daily lives? We have automatically used some kind of force primarily motivated by craving, aversion, or delusion. It has become a habit. Viriya with wisdom, however, knows that mindfulness practice is beneficial, so we persevere and we know our motivation
Have you ever been angry? When you are angry and you think, “I am getting angry,” what will happen? The anger grows. Anger grows when you take possession of the anger with, “This is my anger.” When people are sad and they say, “I’m depressed, I’m feeling down,” then they really get depressed. Why is that? It’s because their attitude and ideas have assumed the sadness as their sadness. If you consider sadness as just one aspect of the nature of mind, then you’d feel much better. It’s the mind that is sad, not my mind that’s sad. It’s not, “I want, I’m not satisfied.” It’s the mind that is angry or wanting. It’s harder for defilements to grow stronger in the presence of this right view in the mind.
Excerpts from The spectrum of low energy, by Annie Nugent
0:00 Taking vacation seriously
2:15 examining the spectrum of low energy
3:20 retreat might cause exhaustion to show up
4:15 if we notice tiredness, it may not be sloth and torpor, but just exhaustion from “should” syndrome
6:25 we might notice that our body wants downtime, but then we do a retreat, and we might drive ourselves in our practice
8:00 we might be uncomfortable being alone with ourselves
8:45 another article: how racism is bad for our bodies
11:15 behind the sense of stress, exhaustion can appear as it disperses
12:28 we might not be able to change our conditions, but we can come to understand our predicament and weave in small things to create more ease and balance