In practice, we are always dealing with the tone and depth of our awareness. First, of course, is the question: are we aware of what’s going on at all? In the beginning, this requires quite a bit of effort to bring the mind to the present. We need to have reminders everywhere and different types of techniques, to keep our mindfulness on target, which is Now!
Our ordinary minds are quite wild. They are:
1. Distractable with thoughts, emotions and sensory distractions
2. Discontinuous, jumping around, not continuously present
3. Reactive – reacting through the screen of our like and dislikes which elaborate into attachment (grasping) and aversion (hating)
In the beginning it requires quite a bit of focus to corral our wandering-in-circles mind. But even within that effort there is a balance. Our Practice needs a balanced tone of not-too-tight and not-too-loose. Practicing with this balance, has you working on the edge of your capabilities. This is the expression of Right Effort.
We can use a metaphor of a rocket ship taking off to describe learning to concentrate the mind. In the beginning, to get the space craft off the ground and out of gravity there has to be a tremendous effort and energy expended. They even have auxiliary boosters that happen at different times in the ascent to sustain the effort against gravity. The “gravity” in meditation is the very strong habituated mind that keeps on proliferating. On and On. In order to interrupt this strong flow of mind habit, we have to make a great effort to interrupt it and bring the attention back to the object of meditation. Over and over.
However, once the ship is out of the gravitational pull of earth, you can’t use the same force. If you do, who knows where you’ll end up in the universe? There’s no force pulling against you. When you are out of the pull of gravity and you want to dock the ship into the space station, for example, you would use very subtle, very slight beeps of energy to make the slightest adjustment in positioning. This is very similar to the adjustments made in the subtle levels of concentration.
At some point as your concentration practice develops, you need to ease off and relax into concentration. If you continue with “trying and efforting”, you are actually reinforcing the “I” that you want to see released. So, Right Effort at this point, becomes non-effort. Letting go or relaxing into what is, with no preferences at all. Our longing for something other than what is, produces our suffering.
You can experiment with this letting go of control (especially in meditation) by investigating the phrase, “Don’t produce or suppress”. If you don’t try to make something happen or suppress something from happening, you end up being able to stay, simply and clearly with what is.
But if you relax too much, all of a sudden - no concentration. The mind is just roaming around as usual, flooded with thought. Right Effort in our practice, in all our practice whether on the cushion or in activity, is investigating each situation to determine the amount of energy required. Am I too loose or too tight? Should I ease up or intensify my effort?
This subtle modulation of effort continues throughout our day and our life. Through this practice we build an awareness that has a vivid, sustainable tone. This tone of awareness, neither too tight or too loose, can ride us through the waves of our life. As Reb Anderson once said, “Practice is learning how to surf.” To learn to surf you need to know when to let go and when to hold on.