The Aspirational Virtue of Perseverance
One of the Buddhist teachings I return to frequently to deepen my own understanding and practice of engaged mindfulness is what are called The Six Paramitas: Generosity, Ethics/Integrity, Patience, Perseverance, Concentration/Attentiveness, and Wisdom. Several years ago I taught a class on The Six Paramitas, and after going through my course notes the other day I decided to offer the core elements from each class in this blog.
"Paramita" is a Sanskrit word that translates into "perfection"; however, chasing the toxic and impossible to attain goal of perfectionism quickly results in highly neurotic behaviors and beating ourselves up on a regular basis – so “virtue” is perhaps a more healthy way to approach these teachings. As I discuss often, choosing to be impeccable instead of trying to be perfect is a much more honorable – and do-able - aspiration. Impeccability frames the life of anyone who chooses to live and lead with intentionally conscious awareness, wherever they find themselves.
Aspirational Virtue: The Paramita of Perseverance
In order to enhance and reflect the paramitas/virtues of mindful generosity, ethics/integrity, and patience, it is also important to spend time sowing the seeds of the paramita of mindful courage and joyful perseverance: the evolved qualities of brave endurance, commitment, passion and persistent, good-humored effort.
With these skills, including our personal energy untainted by indulgence in destructive, unethical shadow behaviors, plus the power of sustained, purposeful intention and action, we can live with greater equipoise in every moment without distraction. Without these qualities as constant allies in our practice, we can become disillusioned, disheartened and even lazy – and let go of our focus, or just give up when we come up against formidable circumstances.
When we cultivate fear-less diligence and steadfastness we also grow a strong and healthy mind and heart, as well as gain more confidence and healthy self-reliance. With the paramita of mindful courage and perseverance, we can choose to see what may appear to be failure as simply another step in the journey toward ultimate success, any potential jeopardy or peril as an inspiration for courage, and all mistakes we may make as opportunities to practice humility, self-forgiveness, compassion and a renewed sense of purpose.
"It's not up to you what you learn, but only whether you learn through joy or through pain." - A Course in Miracles
Sitting with ourselves each day in meditative and self-reflective practices takes both courage and perseverance to witness the sometimes challenging emotions, feelings and memories that can arise – and to keep coming back to our practices each day … day by day developing and strengthening the calm discipline to observe everything without instant reactivity, with acceptance and without dismissive judgment … and to then kindly yet fear-lessly tend to our inner landscape. Sometimes we come face-to-face with aspects of ourselves we'd rather not look at – but suddenly, there they are. And instead of avoiding, or pushing it away, by moving forward and opening our mind and heart into our experience and just observing, we can learn so much about ourselves that can ultimately loosen the chains and the ties that bind us to our own suffering. Doing this simple yet profound practice, with a steady commitment each and every day, we can become stronger, centered and more courageous when we are going about the rest of our lives.
We can choose to persevere by gritting our teeth and tightening ourselves with forceful striving, or we can choose to reconnect with our childhood sense of curiosity and wonder, and embrace the spirit of a adventurous explorer in what I often playfully refer to as an "internal archeological dig." We can look clearly at the ancient ruins of our past human mistakes and heartbreaks and let them go with self-compassion and self-forgiveness, and to then allow this reflective process to help us thrive as we build new internal constructs and pathways in our mind, brain, and body. If we bring an attitude of curiosity and discovery into the mix - and also a healthy sense of humor - our perseverance can indeed be framed by joy. Even the muck and the gunk we encounter within can be released: not with self-criticism, but with gratitude that we are perhaps seeing it clearly for the first time, and that it serves both ourselves and everyone our lives come into contact to fully let it go.
"The Three Lazinesses"
In traditional interpretations of the fourth paramita/virtue of courage and joyful perseverance, there is discussion of working with what are called "the three lazinesses" that are unproductive, unconscious awareness traps we all can get snared by. To generate and maintain enthusiastic perseverance as we travel along the road, it is necessary to know about and consciously choose to avoid its opponents. Therefore, they must be recognized and acknowledged with kindness and self-compassion, and the skillful methods to avoid them purposefully and deliberately applied.
The Laziness Arising from Putting Off Practice
First is the laziness of putting off a daily formal meditation or self-reflection practice by getting caught up in the busyness of life, thinking that there will still be time to "do it later." There are often days when one "doesn't feel like" doing formal practice. We may feel we can put it off until manana, and then manana can turn into next week, and so on. To gain the greatest benefits of mindfulness, making a commitment to practice formally and informally every day, and following through, is the obvious antidote to this. There are many demonstrated advantages to consistency of practice, as well as simply the benefit of cultivating self-discipline. Of course there will be days when we simply are not able to meditate for 20 minutes or longer, yet even a few minutes is better than nothing at all.
And as I've said in other talks, we practice mindfulness not just to personally feel better, or to improve our performance at work or at school. We practice because we honestly and humbly own the impact our thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors has upon every person who crosses our path, and the opportunity we are given to lead by intentionally conscious example in our own sphere of influence. So on those mornings when you just "don't feel like meditating" or you don't think you have time, remember that it's not just about you – and allow that awareness to be part of your discipline and incentive to practice.
The Laziness Arising from Attachment
This is the laziness arising from an attachment to the various diversions and distractions that can pull us into mind-less awareness. We all can be vulnerable to attention-draining vortexes and the strong influence others have upon us, through things like social media, group thinking and the desire to belong, as well as escaping and avoiding reality and people and tasks in front if us. Yet these are all under own volition – nobody is holding a gun to our heads to indulge in distractions – so the degree they can pull us in a mind-less loop shows how attached we can be to these diversions.
Now, this can be in obvious destructive forms like abusing drugs and alcohol, or overeating or over spending, and it can also be getting hooked into malicious gossip and drama, and all sorts of other compulsive behavioral habits which subsequently "own us" when we become deeply hooked into them. These attachments don't provide us a positive long-term benefit; they are temporary band-aids to dealing with internal and external stressors. And in many cases, they wind up creating more suffering, in terms of our health, family, relationships, work, etc.
The remedy for this is truly understanding that an attachment to indulgences and addictions can cause innumerable meaningless sufferings to arise. It is then about exercising our ability to choose – between the stimulus of an impulse or an urge to indulge – and our intentionally conscious response to it. Mindful awareness gives us the power and freedom to be the one that chooses where we place our attention and energy – and to break through mind-less attachments that are not serving our highest needs.
This does not by any means imply we must be pious or not have any fun. It is about cultivating the clarity to see the impact our thoughts, choices actions and behaviors have upon us and the people are lives come into contact with, and making increasingly wiser, more consciously aware choices. This in turn fortifies our personal courage and perseverance, and to assertively say "no" when we used to quickly, compulsively or impulsively succumb – which in turn empowers us, and grants us greater personal freedom.
The Laziness of Discouragement
We might have discouraging thoughts and feelings arise, such as, "If following the path of a conscious awareness in everyday life means the elimination of every single human imperfection I have, and embodying every possible principle there is to learn, well, I am not capable of doing that. It is too difficult for me to receive each realization and to correct every mistake. I'm no saint. How can someone like me possibly live up to this?"
Instead of feeling discouraged when we consider the paramita practices, such as practicing generosity, cultivating ethics and patience, it's helpful to consider as the following:
First, as I've stressed since the beginning of this series, it's not about chasing after trying to be perfect. This is impossible, and of course one would want to abandon such a toxic quest. Any bump in the road can cause one to lose heart and give up.
Second, when you reflect upon what you have gained thus far on your journey into increased conscious awareness, you will see that your perseverance in practicing both formally and informally has paid off in both small and big ways. You may not be "perfectly" mindful in all areas of life, and that's OK.
Whatever growth you have gained is an increase in that area, and the energy you put forth into the world because of it. You may not be 100% compassionate, yet the odds are that you are more compassionate that you once were. More patient, more sincerely generous, more ethical, more kind. So stop for a moment and feel grateful for what your own work has given to you, what you've earned by your perseverance, even it wasn't always necessarily easy or comfortable.
Take this on as a lifelong adventure of self awareness and discovery. Don't lose heart. if your attitude is open, curious, interested and humble, there is no reason to feel discouraged. Even when you stumble, what matters is getting back up. In every moment you can begin again.
Self-Reflection/Self-Inquiry/Affirmative Actions Exercise
Sitting up straight, bring your breathing into a calm and easy rhythm.
Open your awareness to the present moment, breathing in … and breathing out … feeling strength in your backbone and abdomen, holding your head high … honoring your self-dignity and courage ... by doing this you are training the mind, brain and body to approach every outer life situation with fear-less perseverance. Living in this manner grants you the fortitude to honorably, assertively and transparently lead - and serve - your fellow human beings by positive example, amongst all whom your life comes into contact with …
Visualize or imagine yourself going about your normal day, in all your interactions and the situations you find yourself in, personally and professionally .... living and leading with equipoise in every situation where courage and perseverance are paramount. Now let yourself deeply understand there is no situation where these qualities are not of the utmost importance.
Bring in with the in-breath a sense of what mindful courage and perseverance feels like, and with the exhale, let go of the opposite feelings of frustration, stress … or uneasiness of any sort.
Now, allow yourself to see that perseverance is not about striving to become perfect ... yet also that being lazy about doing what is essential to support your growth in conscious awareness will keep you stuck in an old, ingrained status-quo internal operating system.
Open your mind and heart with compassionate self-honesty, yourself and look at where the three lazinesses may be showing up in your own life. Do this with kindness, interest and an the intention of knowing yourself even better that you do now, and with increased self-awareness be able to consciously choose how to respond to the stimulus of urges to indulge in any of them.
Take in the understanding that the times you don't feel like practicing meditation or self-reflection practices are normal, yet you can choose to practice anyway, even for a few minutes. Take in the understanding that at times you will be tempted to get pulled into distractions and attachments that ultimately don't serve your highest self, and can choose to say "no" to them. Take in the understanding there may be times you will feel discouraged, and can choose to reflect upon the gains you've attained. Acknowledge that sometimes it can be difficult to do the "inner archeological dig" work necessary to grow and evolve ... and also that you have done this before and made it to the other side ... and you can do it again.
Take a calm inhale, and bring in with the in-breath a sense of what mindful courage and perseverance feels like ... and with the exhale, let go of the opposite feelings of frustration, stress … or uneasiness of any sort. Allow yourself to see that approaching the sometimes tough work of inner transformation and change with courageous, joyful perseverance is a form of service to your fellow human beings, as the intentionally conscious energy you fear-lessly extend into every interaction and situation can be positively contagious, and can empower those around you to do the same.
Take another calm inhale, and then a slow exhalation, and give yourself permission to be constantly re-minded to consciously choose to come from a place of mindful courage and joyful perseverance, as best as you can, from this moment forward.
This post was adapted from Lesson Four of Suzanne's "The Six Paramitas" training created in 2014.