If you have ever listened to one of Shinzen Young’s talks (which I would encourage anyone to do), you may have heard him describe what he considers something like the “great dialectical forces” of Expansion and Contraction…
Very roughly speaking:
Expansion is the principle of increase: growing more intense, larger, faster, wider, scattering, pushing out, an inhalation of Nature, etc. etc.
Contraction is the principle of decrease: growing less intense, smaller, slower, narrower, gathering, pulling in, and exhalation of Nature, etc. etc.
Taken together at a deeper level, these two complementarities (disguised as opposites) are what he has described as, “Space dancing in space”… that which preceded, pervades, and follows all sensory experience.
I mention this idea because the topic of this and the next post will deal with what could be considered examples of Expansion and Contraction: laziness and excess (or, in other words, too much and too little effort or wanting).
“Laziness” (as I am using it here) can mean something like an “under-efforting” or “under-wanting” — not caring, trying, or reaching for. Having a lack of motivation can be a very serious problem: when feeling little to no motivation to try, why even try to try (to try…)???
A reasonable question, really…
Preliminaries: Moving Toward Balanced Effort (Expansion)
Although the main purpose of this article is to point toward how an experience of laziness can actually point toward (or fully be) “The Way“, it could also help to be able to mold something like too little effort into something active and productive.
I (admittedly) have not found the key to change “under-wanting” into appropriate effort — it can be a very difficult issue. There are, however, some good places to start…
By “Recollection“, I mean something like to re-member (as in “rebuild) and re-collect (as in gather together again) — in addition to “bringing to mind” or “avoiding forgetting“. What we are recollecting is our intention. More specifically, our “Great Intention” to live a life of Good: the deep and instinctive hope to make better and to limit distress for ourselves and for those around us.
I believe that some version of this “Great Intention” ultimately undergirds all human activity. This is debatable, of course; but, at the very least, it does seem evident that when individuals are treated as though they possess the deep intention to live a life of Good, they seem to be subtlety (or not-so-subtlety) healed in some incremental way. To treat someone this way is to validate them, and to live this way is to validate oneself.
How does an individual recollect their “Great Intention“? One thing that can help is to bring to mind one or more of the following ideas to contemplate:
- The wonder and fulfilling satisfaction of a life well-lived
- The distress and afflictive suffering of a life lived unskillfully
- The impermanence of life (can be scary, but can also contextualize our procrastinations)
- The fact that we are always practicing something: all that we do, say, and think influences how we act, speak, and think in the future (or, as Richard Rohr has said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything”)
Let the Tail Wag the Dog
This is another quotable “Shinzen-ism“. He uses this phrase to describe (in part) the mechanism of change related to the Nurture Positive family of meditative focus exercises within the context of Unified Mindfulness. It is another way of saying “fake it until you make it”. If contemplating all the encouraging reminders listed above does not help, reverse-engineering appropriate effort/wanting (motivation) might do the “trick”: make a list of things that would be productive (even if only theoretically productive), and, when you feel motivation start to shrink and laziness start to grow, just get up and do the first thing on that list.
Check your level of motivation after you complete the task — scale it from 0-7 (none to a lot). If it is not where you think it should be, do the second thing on that list… you see where this is going.
Eventually, you’ve either “tricked” your mind and body into feeling motivated, or you’ve “tricked” your mind and body into being productive.
The “just get up…” part is the tough portion… What you might do to prepare for that moment of depleted intention is to mentally practice through visualization: sit in a comfortable posture; bring to mind a productive task on the list; deeply invest your attention in imagining yourself carrying out the task in as much vivid detail as possible; do this for a pre-determined amount of time (use a timer), and you may try to do this several times soon after making the list.
A Deeper View: Under-Efforting as “The Way” (Contraction)
So, I’ve mentioned the ideas of Expansion and Contraction…
Another way of treating laziness is kind of a deep dive, but it can be very interesting to work with.
Taking the attitude that all of life is practice is one sure-fire way to deepen and improve your life. Turning our routine, average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill experiences into sacred objects of contemplative focus does something special: as Shinzen puts is, it “monastasizes life“.
There are those who decide to make their entire lives about contemplative practice — these are monastics who would live in monasteries who we would typically call monks and nuns. One might say that their “job” is to see that everything is holy (as Thomas Merton might say). To us who live and work in the world of family, jobs, schedules, etc., there have to be alternative ways to bring some experience of the “monastery” within reach.
There are natural swings from day to day (or week to week; month to month; etc.) — during these oscillations, each of us may feel a rising and falling of motivation, effort, or caring (do you hear echoes of Expansive/Contractive change?…)
There are some practical ways to attempt to bolster a sense of motivational charge when necessary (a couple are listed above), but there may also be some utility in meeting laziness with a different attitude…
We have to get stuff done. So, being stuck in laziness is not recommended. However, it is interesting to discover that much of what gives laziness its “stickiness” is very often our resistance toward it. Opening up to the experience of a sinking effort is the way to affirm the contractive force of life through to completion.
Quickly and deeply saying “YES” to the sensory experience of laziness (how laziness looks, sounds, and feels) is, on one hand, an active way to reframe the problem of laziness to be understood as exactly one half of the natural pull and push of daily experience. On the other hand, when treated experientially (when moved-into first hand), it is the way to cut through the “problem-ness” of motivational settling as an experience; of under-effort as an experience; of not-caring as an experience. It is from this position of fully taking in what is in front of you that the lowering tide of motivation can continue to recede until the expansive gravity of life fills us up again with momentum toward productive goals.
This is something to experiment with…
And, in the meantime, you can just recollect your efforts, go down your list, and love laziness to death (but without hating laziness or yourself for merely allowing Nature’s breath to be gently exhaled).