Overcoming Laziness through Diligence
Purelands Retreat, 2012
I’m going to talk about how to overcome some of the difficulties we encounter when we engage with practice; how to increase one’s joyful perseverance. So guess what this is about: it’s about laziness! It’s about how to engage with practice and not succumb to obstacles such as laziness. There are said to be three types of laziness. Not that you would know anything about that I’m very sure!
Diligence, diligence is the key. Diligence is joyful perseverance, one of the six perfections that is so important for everything we do. It is said to be the engine for all the other five perfections, the engine that makes everything work. It is compared to wind actually; without wind, nothing moves. Without wind nothing moves. We talk about internal winds, and if those winds are not moving we have all types of physical difficulties. All sorts of physical imbalances happen when your internal winds are not moving.
When we talk about internal winds, we talk about the mind rising on the wind. So if the winds are not balanced our mind will be wobbly, our mind will be unsteady. So having the wind in a balanced way is very, very important to accomplish things, to make things happen. And it’s like that with diligence and with joyful perseverance and with engagement. Without that wind, that energy, that surge, that engine that gets things going, we won’t accomplish very much. So it’s much more than just that dreary word diligence. It’s much more than just, oh yes we have to work hard, we have a hard slog. Without diligence, nothing positive will be achieved.
When we engage in practice we are trying to develop positive qualities in terms of the two accumulations of merit and wisdom, and to overcome negative aspects. This is how diligence works: it gives us power; it gives us that engine. It’s totally necessary for us to achieve anything, like a focused state of mind that really engages.
Joyful perseverance or diligence is not a physical thing, it’s a state of mind. It is a state of mind that takes joy in virtue; a state of mind that really happily engages in positive activity – that is diligence. It’s a state of mind that happily engages in the positive activity of the other five perfections such as generosity, patience, right conduct, meditation, wisdom. Diligence is the engine that makes them move forward. It’s the wind that makes them grow.
The state of mind that takes joy in virtue is not an indifferent state. The way it’s described in terms of the perfections, in Buddhist terms is as a state of mind that engages in virtue and delights in virtue, not a state of mind that delights in non-virtue. That’s why it’s called joyful perseverance: a sense of delight, and of persevering with delight.That is diligence. So this attitude of mind is what we need to develop in relation to our practice and to everything on our spiritual path.
When we look at the things that stop diligence from happening, the opposite of diligence – this is laziness. Laziness is the general term for it! I don’t think there is a better word than that, anything that can sound more positive than that. It is laziness. There are three types of laziness and four favourable conditions for diligence.
First we need to be able to recognise the conditions that stop us from doing what it is we are trying to do. Why is it that we aren’t diligent and practising joyfully 24 hours a day in all our waking hours when that is what we really want to do? We totally agree with that whole idea but somehow it seems as if something is holding us back – and that’s those three types of laziness. They are described as the laziness of idleness; the laziness of a tendency towards unwholesome activity or negative habits; and the laziness of defeatism, putting oneself down.
Let’s look first at the antidote to the laziness of idleness. We all need time to relax, to put our feet up and unwind because everybody has very busy lives. If you feel that you are not able to have some time out you won’t be able to recharge your batteries and do what your responsibilities demand of you. But the laziness of idleness is more than just relaxing. The laziness of idleness is when we are constantly putting things off, and we know we are putting things off. That manyana attitude: I will do it but not now, maybe later, maybe next week, maybe next year, or when I retire from my job, or when the children are grown up. Whatever our excuses we always have some reason to put things off. And the antidote for the laziness of idleness is to reflect on impermanence, to remember that we don’t know how long we will be around. We keep planning activities that we feel are so important now but we have to leave them all when the time comes for us to leave our body. There is nothing that we can take with us, not a single thing. Whatever we establish, whatever we feel is so important now, all the material things, friendships, the connections we have with people, all of this is impermanent. So remember that no matter how much these things seem important to us, we need to be aware that neglecting our spiritual practice is a big cost because when death comes we will not be prepared, we will not be ready.
An image we should reflect on is the ambushed traveller. In the mountains in Tibet you had lots of robbers and you only have a tiny narrow path that you can travel through and if that path is blocked you have nowhere to go. You are confronted by these highway robbers who kill the travellers. So we recognise that in the same way our own path is blocked at the end by the Lord of Death. There is no escape at that point, we are all going to have to face that, so we need to make the most of our time. Contemplating and waking up to that fact is meant to help us overcome the constant tendency to put things off.
The antidote to the laziness of unwholesome tendencies or negative activity is that we should recognise that the Dharma is a source of joy, a real source of joy. It is said that hearing the Dharma, brings faith and inspiration. Reflecting on the Dharma helps us to overcome all our obstacles and to dispel the distractions and wandering thoughts that give rise to negative emotions. And meditating on the Dharma causes understanding to arise. So if we think about these benefits then we will be pulled toward positive activity rather than the kind of activity that gives rise to negative results. We will gradually be fired up by the fact that the Dharma is a true source of joy and our old habits actually are a cause of suffering.
Next is the antidote to defeatism. Defeatism is the attitude where we think: I am not really able to do it, I don’t have the strength, my habits are too strong; it’s due to my childhood, due to all the different sufferings I have experienced. We have lots of reasons to give in to a sense of defeatism, but really this is a form of laziness, because we are not facing up to our situation. Instead we are feeling sorry for ourselves. We should think that everybody’s capable. If we really believe in the Buddhist teachings, the Buddha said that everybody has Buddha Nature – the tiniest animal, the smallest insect has Buddha Nature, has this potential. So we all are capable. If we apply ourselves in the right way we can achieve whatever we put our mind to.
As well as the three antidotes, there are also four forces that create the right conditions for diligence. We have to deal with the negative habit of laziness and then we need to establish positive conditions for diligence to grow. The four forces are aspiration, self confidence, joyfulness, and relinquishment.
Aspiration is real interest in something: when learning about the Dharma and recognising the benefits of the Dharma, we feel so inspired and interested that we want to learn more, to do more. It’s like great sportsmen in the Olympics, or people who want to climb a mountain. They are so fired up, they want to be the best at something; they don’t mind what they put themselves through because they have this great push or aspiration to achieve something and to take great delight in it.
If you have a strong interest in the Dharma then you will become a really good practitioner. But if you have only an average interest in the Dharma, then you will become an average practitioner. And if you have minimal interest in the Dharma then you will become a lesser practitioner simply because this force of aspiration is missing. It’s aspiration that expresses itself in action. It’s a hugely important thing in anything we do. It’s always important to have interest in Dharma, to have interest in your practice. If you force yourself and it becomes more and more dreary and you become more and more fed up with your practice, if you have to beat yourself like an old beaten horse to go and sit on your cushion, that’s maybe not the right attitude because you become more put off and discouraged. So instead, fuel this aspiration, this interest you have. Try and make it like putting more fuel on the fire so your aspiration and interest will grow.
The force of self confidence or steadfastness is a kind of courage, a kind of determination that we need to bring something to completion. When we start doing something, it’s no use if we give it up half way. If we are starting positive activities and drop them half way we won’t get the result. It’s like the example of climbing a mountain. If you drop it halfway because you think you can’t do it, then you won’t do it. We need to really develop self confidence. This laziness of defeatism creates a habit. When we start thinking like that and we give in to it, then we do it again and again. We create a tendency to fail: we become more discouraged, we feel worse about ourselves.
We should cultivate this self confidence in three areas: self confidence in terms of the action; self confidence in terms of our ability; and self confidence in terms of dealing with the obstacles or the negative emotions that arise. So when we put our minds on something we need to decide that we are going to do this. We need to tell ourselves that we won’t give up, and we won’t give in to negative emotions; we can change, we can give up negativity, we can change for the better.
An example of self-confidence in terms of the action or task would be if you say I am going to practice meditation regularly every day for an hour or do one retreat day a week or one retreat day a month, the kind of courage and determination that we need is the courage of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva, like the sun, doesn’t get discouraged. If mountains cast their shadows or there are certain places where the sun can’t shine – the sun is not discouraged. It simply shines on whatever is in front of it. The attitude of the bodhisattva is similar to that of the sun: a bodhisattva’s activity is non-judgemental, impartial, relating to whoever is able to benefit. If there is no benefit to others, than that bodhisattva is not actually discouraged by that. The attitude of a bodhisattva is: I will become a great friend of all beings; and although they may place their hopes in me, I do not place my hopes in them. The bodhisattva has no expectations of anything in return from anybody. That is an example of the courage and determination that is needed whenever we try to accomplish something. We should not hope for great results or something in return. We should simply do what we know is right and bring it to completion. All our practice in terms of the spiritual path is about benefiting ourselves so that we can also be of benefit to others, so it very much has to do with the attitude of a bodhisattva. We need to just apply it on smaller scales and gradually increase to bigger and bigger as much as we can. You may not have the total confidence of a bodhisattva on a big scale but we need to recognise the courage that is needed if we want to achieve something on any level.
In terms of self confidence regarding our own abilities: if we have very low self confidence or self worth then our antidotes are not very strong. Whenever unexpected things arise, and we are challenged in some way, then if we have low self worth we will be very weak. We are vulnerable and small things affect us; we are super sensitive, just a little word from somebody or a look from somebody can get us depressed and down. This is because our self confidence in terms of our own abilities is weak. We become discouraged very easily. We give up at that moment. The more we learn to practice the quicker we will come back and apply our efforts. If we don’t have this self confidence it means that we easily give in to negative emotions and drop our efforts and so again we don’t have a result, we don’t stand our ground, so we easily get defeated.
So we are encouraged to cultivate a sense of Vajra pride: not ordinary pride, thinking I am so great, but this confidence in our basic nature and in our basic ability. We all have that ability. That’s why we are practicing: we do have that ability, we do have that potential, we do have that basic Buddha Nature, that basic potential for change. So a healthy Vajra pride is what we are encouraged to maintain and to cultivate: belief in our own ability to change; belief in our own potential; a healthy sense of self worth. That’s very different from ordinary pride and arrogance: a healthy sense of self confidence.
In terms of self confidence relating to the negative emotions this means that when we are in challenging situations that’s where the emotions are likely to pop up their heads. Wherever there is a lot of stimulation, things happen fast; then it’s easier for us to stumble and get lost. These negativities arise due to lack of mindfulness and lack of awareness. So we cultivate this antidote: we should be like a lion that can’t be harmed by a fox. A lion is a very powerful animal, the king of the jungle, and a fox would be no match for him. We should try to develop and cultivate this confidence so that our mind can cope when we are in those situations where we are especially challenged. The middle of the jungle could be your work place or your family - wherever you tend to get challenged the most. You will find that this is the most difficult place for you to be mindful, the most difficult place for you to stay calm, to stay on top of things. That’s where you need to especially remember this self confidence regarding your own ability to deal with the emotions.
So you have to cultivate this self confidence with lots of intensity and strength so that you become like this lion. Your mind becomes so strong that it can protect itself from any danger. And the danger here of course is the negative emotions. The danger is not external, it’s internal. It’s like in the example of the jungle there would be danger from behind, danger from in front, danger from above, danger from below, snakes here, scorpions there – all sorts of danger. Now if you are in your workplace and you think the dangers are all out there – these people or those people – they are just the stimulus. The danger is actually internal and if we forget that then our mindfulness gets lost and we are looking outside. Actually we should be looking internally. We should maintain that sense of strength and courage internally. Then we are much more prepared, we are much more ready. We should recognise that the enemies are inside – they are never outside.
So this self confidence is a form of determination. We make this really strong determination and pledge not to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the enemy of the kleshas. We are not going to be bowing and scraping to that enemy again and again; not the enemy out there, the enemy in here – our own enemy. We can’t change the whole world; we can’t change everybody else. And if you are not in one workplace then you are in another workplace. And if there is not this person to challenge you there is somebody else to challenge you. Of course there are certain situations that are more favourable and if we can make external changes to improve the situation, we should do that. But we should still recognise that until we have tamed our own inner jungle those wild animals are bound to raise their heads again and again. This self confidence is developed by creating a strong determination and making a pledge to yourself that you will be strong. You will and you are capable of that strength. This self confidence is about believing in your own strength and your own ability. It’s not a matter of whether you have that ability or not, because it’s a mindset, so of course you have that ability. Of course you do – it’s the mind.
The force of joy relates to how we should take pleasure in what we are doing: be joyful, be in the moment with what you are doing without expecting a reward. In terms of our practice and our spiritual path try not to have great expectations and then great disappointments; we should be steady and simply be joyful that we are practicing and we are engaging on the spiritual path. So just like the bodhisattvas, don’t expect any reward just try to develop the attitude of joyfully engaging on the path in the best way we can without great expectations but with appreciation and joy. This force will help us to cultivate our path. Its like an aspect of diligence, like an aspect of this wind that makes things move for us. We’re trying to stir up this wind so that we can get the fire glowing and we can get some action, some result. That’s what diligence does. So that’s how the force of joy works: we take pleasure and joy in what we do for others. Sometimes people think we are not allowed to rejoice and feel joy when we do something positive: I think that’s actually wrong. You can be joyous, you should rejoice in your positive activity. People mistake it for pride; they think “oh I’m not allowed to think positively about myself or my own actions”. You should rejoice and be happy that you are able to engage in positive activity – whether it’s actual actions, practice, meditation or any of the different things you do in formal sessions or outside formal sessions.
The last force is the force of relinquishment: learn to let go when it is the right time to let go. For example if we are very ill, or we have some sort of big obstacle, maybe sometimes we do need to put things aside for a period of time. Then we can always make the determination that we will continue at a later stage. We won’t completely give up but we are recognising that in the current situation it is better to resume at a later time. We don’t need to be obsessive! We should be balanced. Relinquishment is also an attitude of never feeling we have done enough; if we are managing to accomplish something, then we should not think: “Okay we have done it! Now we can rest on our laurels and take it easy”. That is the laziness of idleness. Instead we should think, “Well, we’ve done that and that’s wonderful, but of course we need to do more because what we are doing is just so little.” We should have the enthusiasm to move on and do even better than before. That is relinquishing – not getting attached to the results of your previous actions.
So I hope this is useful to you. We all have times where we are not really feeling inspired, not really feeling enthusiastic. This is how you need to fan your fire, fan your enthusiasm. That’s how you become more diligent. That’s how you can help yourself in terms of your practice, rather than just beating yourself up, or simply giving in and doing nothing. That’s how we can make progress in everything we do both in our worldly life and on the spiritual path.