Fruitless Labor

Forming bad habits is hard work.

Gaylon Ferguson

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“Training” has many meanings—and our experience with training has a much longer history in our lives than we might realize. We can get physical training at a gym or yoga studio, professional training in a school, and training of the mind at a meditation center. But in a wider sense, we have also been training our body and mind just by living our life. When we were first taught to say “good morning” and “good night,” when we went to a childhood friend’s birthday party and someone suggested we take along a gift, when we went to our grandmother’s funeral and first experienced human grief—all these experiences were shaping our heart, our mind, our life. Since we were not born speaking a particular language or knowing the customs of our culture, these things are acquired knowledge, abilities we gain through learning and training. I still have vivid memories from my childhood of my mother’s and aunts’ wails of grief after my uncle was killed suddenly in a head-on automobile collision. It left a strong impression: this is how we mourn our dead.

In this wider sense, our entire life has been training. The question is: training in what? This question means: training in which direction? If we train ourselves to reach for a snack or pick up the phone to text-message whenever we feel frightened or bored, this is definitely training. The next time we feel uncomfortable we will also tend to reach for some comfort outside ourselves, eventually establishing a deeply ingrained habit, another brick in the wall of our mental prison. Are we training in how to distract ourselves from inner discomfort or anxiety? Are we training in numbing ourselves in the face of fear, or training in waking up? Training in opening the heart, or training in shutting down?

When we first sit down to meditate— and later when we return to the cushion—we can immediately recognize that we are not starting with a clean slate. If we’ve fallen in love, then the glow of passion and romance will deliciously perfume our meditation experience. If we’ve had a particularly stressful week at work, then our Saturday morning meditation session may have some of the irritating flavor of recent conflicts and disagreements. We may find ourselves replaying difficult conversations repeatedly—in a tape loop of irritation. A friend who worked as an accountant once told me that his discursive thoughts in meditation during tax season were often exclamations in numbers: “534! 63,000! 10, 10, 10!” Whatever the previous day, week, month, year, decade have brought—it is immediately clear that our minds are already in motion, already have movement and momentum in a particular direction before we sit down. Our experience when we sit down to meditate—whether we’ve been sitting for 30 minutes or 30 years—will often reflect our previous physical and mental “training.”

In other words, the wildness of mind that we experience when we sit quietly noticing our body and breathing for five minutes is the result of everything we’ve been doing before those five minutes. Frequently we discover that our minds do not rest in radiant contentment for the entire meditation session. Why not? Because we have been training for years in desiring, reaching, grasping, getting, and then wanting more, and then, of course, more—all reinforcing the underlying feeling that this moment is not enough. This pervasive feeling of something lacking, something missing (“not enough, not enough, when can I get something else, something different, something better?”) is itself a powerfully motivating force. This is what we notice when we simply sit quietly with ourselves for even a few moments: we experience the accumulated momentum of mental noise, booming and buzzing. We notice how strongly we are trained to want something different from what is happening. We notice that our minds are very well trained in dissatisfaction and distraction. Almost always our focus is on something else—not this. We seek another moment of greater happiness— not this moment. Contentment seems always elsewhere—never here. ▼

From Natural Wakefulness, © 2009 by Gaylon Ferguson. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications,

Image © Michael S. Wertz

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sschroll's picture

Dear Mr Ferguson,

Thank you for this home run !Aha! moment!.
After reading all the comments I wonder if we all read the same article, and that was another !Aha! moment

I had lived the last months in a search mode, needing to find something and not certain what (I'm talking about a spiritual struggle, I have been practicing with great sincerity for 14 years) Somehow I knew I would recognize it when I found gave it to me.
I was asked to give a Dharma talk last March, and this search started when I asked myself: If I'm asked again, what can I offer that I have lived and experienced, that made the difference in my life, that allowed the transformation..........everything you say here was a perfect path that allowed me to put it together.

It is very clear now what I need to work on.

Thank you!!!

sharmila2's picture

i think it is a wonderful point to bring up - the "joylessness" that can creep in as we get sooo serious about ourselves - i realised that in fact i was building up my ego as a great "meditator on the path", instead of letting go i had let my ego hijack my practice, and the joy flew out the window with it. I suggest gently explore what underlying emotions and attachments are present; for me personally i always find a craving to be "someone" at the root of these issues.

Alonzo Parker's picture

When I play sports, the practice is both enjoyable and exhausting. At times my body performs in such a manner I judge as success. Within this sports framework, my body's inability to perform challenges my perception of success or the environment prevents my body from accomplishing. Within the framework of the game, I experience defeat, not accomplishing what I set out to accomplish. I experience failure. The coach or rules of the game create the framework within which I perform. It is easy to lose sight of "I have chosen to be in the game." Wisdom is making the choice to choose what I have chosen to be, a sports person; wisdom is not allowing the experience of "perceived victory or defeat" to force an unwise choice of "placing great value on victory or defeat." My experience has taught me "not to hold on" to victory and defeat, it has taught me non-grasping. Life is a process, a way of being. The exhaustion or suffering and failure is but a moment. The high of victory is likewise impermanent. Success is "being" in the game, it is not the high of victory or agony of defeat. The wise response to these imposters is acceptance or "Is that so."

Please consider the importance of "your wisdom in accepting the rules of the game and the wisdom in the selection of the coach."

Kipling expresses in the poem "If"
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

... Then you will be a man my son...

Thanks for allowing me to connect with you.

Misha's picture

I'm not an authority on anything at all, but I understand your feeling, Jshanson. I think it has a lot to do with what tradition you're in and maybe even the specific sangha that you're with. I had been around a lot of Goenke style Vipassana meditators and thought, gads, this stuff makes you pretty serious. Not all the people I met there were so serious, but it was moreso in some centers than at others, and moreso with older meditators. The emphasis was to eliminate reaction to positive sensation, and it seemed like it was zapping a certain enjoyment of life. Then I went to a retreat for more mainstream, which is more traditional really, Vipassana meditation (IMS in Barre, Mass.) and realized how happy they all were. I mean, in retreat you are silent so we weren't giggling with each other till it was over and we could talk to each other, but you could hear the teachers all laughing uproariously behind closed doors in their meetings. And they really infused us with an understanding in the dharma talks, how important it is to incorporate metta into your wisdom practice, and not to take yourself too seriously, and to approach each moment with wonder, wonder at life unfolding before you. They really had a balanced sense of how to enjoy life along the path. That we will feel good things and bad things, and the goal is NOT to not feel, but to see them mindfully, and to react mindfully. My practice has been very joyful since that retreat. Also the zen tradition, I'm attending a sangha near me under a disciple of Thich Nhat Hahn, and his teachings are very joyful. I know Suzuki Roshi was also very sweet and joyful. I think the zen tradition is playful, not always serious. So it's possible that it's just your local community, or your tradition, I don't know. Maybe you should try other sanghas. Blessings to you on your path, and do listen to your instincts. I'm sure you will find a sangha that works for you.

yogaisthetao's picture

In response to the previous comment, I agree with you! Perhaps a way of looking at things is that if one is feeling "heavy" or "joyless", then maybe the approach itself is heavy and joyless. Approaching Buddhism as the Dalai Lama does, with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye, maybe this is something to remember when we ourselves aren't feeling lighthearted. I like how Mr. Ferguson said in his opening video part of the retreat last week, that "we're in no hurry, we'll take our time, there isn't any rush"'s a comforting thought. I do believe that the practice itself, meditating, studying, living what we learn, does bring lightness and joy to life.

jshanson's picture

I mean this sincerely Mr. Ferguson - why is Buddhism so heavy handed? Especially with westerners? Especially in the Boulder area and Shambhala community? That has been my experience. Where is the lightness? The joy and the humor? The not taking Buddhism itself too seriously if we are not to take ourselves too seriously. If its a path of lifetimes than why push so hard in this short one?

jshanson's picture

And when the training becomes exhausting and possibly joyless? When you've been pushed farther and faster than maybe your capable of being pushed? Does Buddhism have an answer to that or do you just take a retreat, not in the Buddhist sense, for awhile? I know quite a few people who've said they had to step away for awhile to rejuvenate themselves.

johnstrydom's picture

Yes, it seems to me I have been thoroughly brainwashed into believing that discomfort and anxiety are not OK and are attributable to either something I'm doing wrong or that is wrong with the world, and therefore the task to fix myself and/or the world begins, and never ends. What a mug's game! Thank heaven for the great gift that we are given to have been put on the path that undoes the brainwashing.

cjflem01's picture

Thank you, Gaylon. This is a great lesson for newcomers of Buddhism such as myself to remain patient with myself and my efforts. I have built up a mountain full of bad habits during my life and they're most definitely not going to crumble to the ground overnight. Patience, persistence, and understanding :-)

~ Chris