Howell Retreat
June 27, 2000

Aaron: Good evening and my love to you all. I am Aaron.

We have come to the middle of the retreat. Many of you are making a very strong, dedicated effort. What I'd like to speak to you about tonight is effort and balance.

There was a man in the time of the Buddha who had lived a very luxurious life as a layman. So luxuriously did he live, it was said, that he had hair on the soles of his feet! You can imagine how little effort he expended. Then he became a monk. He put all this luxury aside. He was determined to come to full realization in this lifetime, to become an arahant. He pushed and he pushed but he could not do it. All around him people under the Buddha's guidance were becoming fully realized. He couldn't do it. So he gave it up and he went back to lay life.

The Buddha knew that he had played the lute and so he came to him and he asked him, 'When you play the lute, how do you adjust the strings? Do you make them all very tight?"


'Well then, do you make them very slack, very loose?"


'Well, what do you do?"

'I make them just right so they're in tune."

'Ah. And that is what you must do in your practice. Just right, so it's in tune."

There are many different strings to tune. It can get very complicated if you want to let it get so complicated. But there are five different kinds of energy which when brought into balance are sufficient for tuning. These are called the five spiritual faculties. Faith, which is balanced with wisdom. Effort, energy, balanced with concentration, and mindfulness which contains the whole thing.

This monk's effort was out of balance. He was straining. When he brought it into balance, he came to the realization which he sought. Now, it's not as easy as that. Everything has got to be just right. But what you're doing here is the equivalent of building a building with four corner supports and a center support. You have a pile of bricks. You lay the bricks in the faith corner. Opposite the faith corner you lay the bricks in the wisdom corner. If you get carried away a bit in the faith corner and you build it way up, the rest of the building is going to be out of alignment. You bring wisdom into alignment, concentration, energy, with mindfulness in the center. When they are all at the right level, together in a balanced way, when it's balanced, the building will have a stable foundation. You don't have a whole building, yet you've got the foundation. It's still necessary to build the building.

The wonderful thing here is you are not building anything. It's more as if you had-what I think of here is a toy that this instrument's (Barbara's) children used to have. There would be a black page and a little scraper. Slowly they'd scrape away the black surface and a picture would reveal itself. The picture was always there. You couldn't see it because it was covered with ink.

This realized mind, this enlightened mind, is here within you. This is why we don't like to talk about attainment so much as realization. There's nothing to attain. Get yourself a little scraper and start scraping off the black ink.

Another metaphor would be that of caring for a seed. The seed has been planted. Within that seed is the potential mature plant. Everything internal needed for the giant redwood is right there, within the seed. The sprout comes up. What you are called to do is care for the sprout, ensure it has adequate nourishment, water, sunshine. It will develop on its own. There's no way you can rush the process, and yet you can deter the process if you ignore this seed. Pay attention to this wonderful seedling of already realized mind until it takes full flower.

Everything needs to be in balance. One of the places you find most difficult to balance is effort. One piece of the Eightfold Path is right effort. This doesn't imply right effort is contrasted with wrong effort, but a certain kind of steady effort. In modern times, very few of you have ever lit a fire by twirling a stick. Even in my final lifetime I rarely had to do that because some source of fire usually was available. But it's still a useful skill.

It's not so hard. You take one stick and insert it into a hole so there's friction. Put a little tinder underneath, and then you twirl it back and forth between your hands. The friction gives off small sparks which light the tinder and then you have a fire. Sometimes people who are learning to do this gather up the supplies and they sit down. With a great burst of energy they start rubbing so hard. Of course, in a few minutes they're exhausted so they stop. Then they start rubbing hard again. They're exhausted so they stop. Three times, ten times, 100 times. They come to you and they say, 'I've been trying to do this all day and I can't get a spark." 'Well of course not, you keep stopping." 'But I can't keep going. I'm exhausted." 'You're trying too hard. Relax."

So then they relax. They pick up the stick and they look at it and think, 'Well, I'll just do it at this speed." (Motions a slow speed.) The end of the day, they're still going at that speed. No fire. 'Now what am I doing wrong, Aaron?" 'You're not trying hard enough. Not enough effort." If you want to start the fire, your effort must not be intermittent but constant. It must be at a level that you can sustain without exhaustion but not so slack that nothing happens. If you do it that way, you're guaranteed to get a spark, a fire. And this is the fire of awareness, the radiant light of the realized mind.

Now, think about this as part of the metaphor. When you rub two sticks together, you're not adding gasoline or any flammable material, there are just these two sticks. So we could say that the fire is inherent in the two sticks, plus effort. You don't need anything else. You take a knife and it cuts some little slivers off the sticks; that's your kindling. So all you have are these two sticks. And yet that is sufficient to get a fire, when effort is applied in a correct way. In just the same way, there is nothing outside yourself that you need to light this fire of realization, just bringing all the elements into balance.

Let us look a bit at right effort. In the scriptures there's a very precise definition. I'm not quoting here but summarizing. The effort to keep from arising unwholesome mind states that have not yet arisen. The effort to cause to dissolve unwholesome mind states already arisen. The effort to cause to arise and nurture wholesome mind states that have not yet arisen. The effort to support and continue to nurture wholesome mind states that have already arisen. As with most things in human experience, ahh, if only it were so simple. We have this guideline. Now what are you going to do with it?

Let us begin with preventing from arising unwholesome mind states that have not yet arisen. Unless you understand the conditions from whence they arise, how are you going to prevent them from arising? If the unwholesome mind states arise, they are results. If you attack the results, it has nothing to do with the conditions.

Let's go back to our fire. We've finally gotten a fire started. And then a big wind picks it up and it starts spreading across a field. It's going toward your house. Some sparks catch on your house. You put the fire out on your house but the conditions are still there, the field is aflame, the wind is blowing. If you don't want your house to burn down you've got to stop the fire at its source. The difficulty most of you get into is you work with the results and not the conditions. You say, 'No, I won't be angry. I won't be afraid. I won't be greedy." But these results arose because conditions were there.

To cause to dissolve unwholesome mind states already arisen is the same thing. You attend to the conditions. How are you going to attend to them? If you say that greed is conditioned by fear, fear that your needs won't be met, you can't just stomp on that fear. 'I won't be afraid. If I'm not afraid, greed won't arise. So I won't be afraid." How long can you convince yourself, hypnotize yourself that you're not afraid? To understand the roots of fear, you've got to look deeper. Predominant is the concept and experience of separate self. There's a lot of old mind conditioning based on that delusion of separate self. So our practice is to look into the delusions, that things are permanent and that they're separate. We start to understand very clearly how our fear has arisen, that it's conditioned by experience and from the very beginning perhaps had no ultimate reality to it, yet it might have had a relative reality.

If you were mauled by a dog as a small child, when you see a dog, fear may arise. We can't say that has no reality to it; it's based on an actual happening in which you were terribly hurt. But you're not that child and this is not the same dog.

Right there is the opportunity for freedom. Right there is the clarity of how mind states develop. As this instrument described in detail in this morning's instruction period, how mental formations arise resultant from contact and consciousness, how the unpleasant feeling conditions fear.

At that point, you logically understand the root of the fear, but you may still be afraid. You cannot then say, 'Well, I understand that this is just based on conditions, that this is a different dog so I shouldn't be afraid." Here's part of the balance. Wisdom knows why fear is present. And yet, fear is still present. To bring aversion to the fear is simply to nurture an unwholesome mind state, to give it energy. To bring kindness to the fear is to nurture wholesome mind states. Whatever appears, bring kindness to it, spaciousness, gentleness, and clarity. This is how you nurture the wholesome mind states. Even in the moment of utmost fear there can be spaciousness.

A friend recently told us a very beautiful story. I know I would have her permission to share it with you. It happened many years ago. She and a friend were hiking, at least a day away from any civilization. There was a big rock and they decided to climb up on it. Her friend was up on top and suddenly he screamed and said, 'Look out!" She turned around and there was a big bear there. It attacked her. It literally had her head in its jaws. She's got scars on her head.

At first she was terrified. She was sure she was going to die. There was no way she could physically overcome this bear. Locked in his grip, she made the decision, 'If I am going to die, I am not going to die with fear." I don't do her story justice. She tells it far more eloquently. But at the moment she relaxed and let go, she had a very deep insight into the Unconditioned. All sense of fear dissolved. Just compassion for herself and the bear. Clarity. Then the bear simply dropped her and left. I suppose with her relaxation of tension and loss of fear, she stopped being a threat, being prey.

I offer this to you as a story about the fruit of right effort. When something is terrifying, you may not be able to make the decision she made, but you can make a decision, 'What is my purpose here? Is it useful to hold onto this terror or rage or whatever may be there? If not, may I nurture those states which serve to lessen fear and rage?" I have personally known many beings who were attacked in a violent way and who, at the moment of death, made the conscious decision not to hold onto their anger, but to offer metta to all, and to forgive the one who had hurt them. One friend tells a story of her teacher who was attacked by a man who broke into her home and began to choke her. She made the same decision: I will not die with fear and rage. She relaxed as she became unconscious, and this saved her life since her neck muscles were relaxed and the neck did not break.

I am not asking you to be heroes. Most of you are never going to be attacked by a bear or a murderer. What you are attacked by is the constant stresses of your daily life. In what way can you respond in a more centered, wholesome way? When you practice fear, greed, anger, you simply perpetuate them. When you practice the illusion of separation you perpetuate it.

This has everything to do with your spiritual practice. What do you do in the office when your boss comes in and says in an abusive way that he doesn't like the work you just finished, when the driver behind you honks madly at you a second after the light turns green, when someone barges in line in front of you in the market, when somebody gets the last piece of eggplant parmesan, leaving you with an empty plate? Right here is where you practice. Your practice is on the cushion but it's also in these incidents of daily life.

It's very helpful to watch how your energy field contracts, to know that the contraction is a natural result of conditions. If you walk out here on the grass and step on a thorn, is your energy field going to contract from that pain? There's not one of you who can say no to that question. Of course it will. The contraction is result, the fire already burning. Are you reacting to the result, or turning to attend to conditions?

There is a conditioned tendency in most of you when you contract to perpetuate that contraction by attacking it. 'Oh, I shouldn't contract." This just adds insult to injury, as the saying goes. A well-known dharma teacher is quoted as saying that vipassana meditation is one insult after another. You sit on the cushion while all the stories-greed, anger and so forth-appear. Right here, sitting here, seeing certain mind states arise, you have the opportunity to practice spaciousness with arising, and the opportunity to investigate the habitual patterns in relationship to certain kinds of arising. Where there is anger, offer the intention very gently and slowly to bring in more kindness. You don't condemn the anger, you simply look for the kindness that's also there and allow it to come forth. Where there is greed, look for generosity. Watch when greed comes up, 'Oh, it's the last chocolate covered strawberry and it's mine!" You see the person sitting across the table from you eyeing it. Watch how it feels. If it brings up pain and sadness, 'My needs are not met," that's something useful to look at, where this story came from, 'My needs are not met." Maybe it's true. Maybe you need to learn to ask in a clearer way for what is needed.

It's okay to split the strawberry. It's even okay to take it. But watch greed. Generosity balances greed. Metta balances anger. Patience balances impatience. Compassion balances blindness and not seeing. There's always a balance. You've got to ask yourself, what is my highest priority here? Is it to get everything or is it to learn more generosity? Is it to be first or to learn patience? Is it to be right or to learn kindness?

But never shame yourself when the negative mind states arise. This is not right effort. To allow to dissolve unwholesome mind states already arisen means not to get snared by them as me and mine but to look right there in that unwholesome state for its balance. You can feel when it's balanced. It's what I call tensionless tension. Very spacious.

There is an exercise that we've often taught. It's a very simple exercise and I'll ask John and Barbara to demonstrate it. John is going to push Barbara. When he pushes, she may respond to that push is various ways. She can move away and refuse to recognize it; she can push back reactively; finally, she can do what I call 'dancing" with it, that is, to recognize it and respond to the energy without getting caught as a somebody being pushed.

We will try this just briefly. Find yourself a partner, just somebody sitting next to you. Not too much movement.

Designate yourselves Person 1 and Person 2. Person 1, close your eyes. Person 2, do what John just did with Barbara. Just a push. Not too hard, you don't want to knock the person over. But firmly. Person 1, feel the contraction. There will be a contraction. Note it as, 'contracted, contracted." Person 2, do it again. Contracted, contracted. The contraction is the sense consciousness of that moment. First there was a push, that was contact, then conscious of being pushed, and then resultant from that pushing and consciousness of it came the mental awarenesses, 'being pushed, discomfort, unpleasant," and a contraction. How are you going to relate to that contraction? Person 2, push again.

Noting contraction, can there be the ability not to spin off into stories, just to be there and experience contraction? Not a big deal. Contraction. The contraction is a fairly natural response to being pushed. Contraction. Just let it go, back to the breath. If mind is taking it personally, know that. Here this person is pushing you because I'm telling them to. If somebody else were sitting here, they'd be pushing somebody else. Person 2, do it again.

Contraction. In contraction can there just be contraction? Let's shift now. Person 1 gets to push. Person 1, please push Person 2. Person 2, close your eyes. Feel the contraction. And again. In contraction, just contraction. If mind creates stories, know the stories. Shame, guilt, fear. Again.

Has everybody participated? If anybody has not, please raise your hand and let somebody push you. (Laughter.)

You might also examine how it feels to be the one who pushes. There's a contraction there too. If it's useful to you to repeat this exercise, find a partner. No talking. Just watch the contractions that arise as you push, as you receive the push. Watch how stories come out of the contractions. Can there just be a contraction without its going anywhere?

Life is always pushing you. This is one example of right effort. You are bringing awareness to the whole process of contraction and the stories that come out. As with the house burning down I spoke of earlier, you're touching it at its root, working with the conditions that lead to the stories, not just trying to put out the burning house.

During my next talk we'll take this further, looking more at habitual tendencies.

I'd like you all to stop and take a few deep breaths back to center. This pushing and being pushed brought up a lot of energy in you. Release it. Excitement, pleasant, unpleasant. Do mind and body feel stimulated? Come back into balance. Relax. Centered. Breathing in and breathing out. Breathing in and inviting the body to be calm and at peace. Breathing out and inviting the body to be calm and at peace. Breathing in and inviting the mind to be calm and at peace. Breathing out and inviting the mind to be calm and at peace. Resting in spaciousness and in the open heart.

I thank you for your attention, and if we have time left, I would be very happy to hear your questions.

Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Brodsky