Paramita of the Month: Exertion

What comes to mind when you think of “Diligence?” For many of us our first thought is probably not “Oh, how wonderful!” More likely we think of duty and obligation — we set our objectives and move toward their completion. It’s a kind of business mentality. When we bring that mentality to the path of Dharma sooner or later we become disillusioned and maybe even feel cheated, “I’ve worked so hard and yet my goals seem no closer to being realized…” Why do you think this is?

I think that in part this dilemma arises from some confusion we have about who’s at the helm of this vessel en route to joy. The source of the confusion can be traced to a single letter… “I”. This “I” tends always to place itself at the center — “I want”, “I need”, “I am” and so on. I’m always in the center. This is the way we live our lives – it seems natural and universal, and we get the job done. But there’s a glitch. The path of Dharma is about letting go, especially of fixed ideas and this idea “I” is pretty fixed 😉 As a result we often miss the opportunity for joy.

You can experiment by becoming curious about your experience; first noting how it feels when “I” am at the center, and then how that changes when you release into mindful gap. Whenever we let go there is a moment of freedom. Then we try to extend that, “I want more!” If we become curious about our experience: our impulses and habits; our disappointments; our ecstasy, it takes “I” out of the center and we can appreciate it as just another aspect of the landscape. This is where joy starts to emerge. When we put curiosity together with energy we start to experience joyful diligence. The following poem by Mary Oliver exploits this possibility.

Mindful by Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.

It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

The poet says “…It was what I was born for
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy…”

What I like so much about these words is that they describe a lack of struggle. Whatever presents itself to our experience becomes an opportunity: “Nor am I talking about the exceptional…” She lets go of control and preconceived notions of beauty. This is also our journey as fledgling bodhisattvas. We cannot all at once let go of our deep habit of holding on, putting ourselves, our “I”, in the center of everything. We can begin to be curious. Then we discover joy – little flashes of possibility – and this energizes our path. Joyful diligence starts small and builds. Then, without our even noticing it, transformation unfolds; the conflict we have with ourselves begins to unravel, and we become genuinely useful to others.

— Mark Power, October 2013

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