Over the many years I have been training and teaching I have regularly observed a phenomenon that I would probably call “being a try-hard” if it were still the mid-90s. But it’s 2018 so it’s probably more prudent to call it something like over-trying. It is the act of pressuring one’s self to produce results that we are not yet capable of, which in an ironic twist actually prevents them from appearing. It is a kind of psychic desperation that brings along an incredible tension. You can see how this would not work so well when you are doing practices that are designed to relieve tension and inhibition rather than building on them.
Being myself a chronic victim of over-trying, I had to find a way to untangle this knot so as not to spend too many (more) years spinning my wheels. I also teach other people and part of that job is to find a way to present the teachings that doesn’t tangle the student up in that desperation but does keep them moving ahead to the next step. It is a puzzling task because on one hand if there is no effort at all there is no movement to the next stage, and on the other if there is too much effort it will knot everything up and bring about stagnation in practice. For a teacher this means knowing when and what to cue and when to leave it knowing that adding anything else will just confuse the student further. But the student has a role to play here too. I suspect solving this conundrum itself will be one of the stages that almost everyone has to progress through at some point in their practice so I thought that sharing some of my current insights into this koan may prove useful.
What has worked quite well for me and my students is a concept that I call opening the potential. It is an attitude we bring to our practice where instead of making an effort to make the change happen, we instead make an effort to create the potential for it to happen. It’s a small but important change in how we orient ourselves.
Allow me to beat a metaphor to death to explain the idea in more depth. Imagine you are interested in seeing the greatest performer of all time on stage, but you don’t know where the performer is or how to contact them or even who they are or what they can do. You devise a plan to create your own stage in the hopes it will attract the performer. Every day you set your stage up in the best way that your resources will allow you, and you put a little sign out front encouraging people to bring their greatest performances. The beginning is slow, but eventually a passing hobo sees the stage with the sign you have put up and jumps up to perform. It’s not that great but it’s a start. You continue setting your stage each day. Some days no one comes by. Slowly but surely the word gets out, and as you get better at setting your stage you attract more interesting performers.
You begin to notice which things the interesting performers prefer to have on stage and which things are no good. You change your stage, alter it here and there. Better and better performers appear. You still have your quiet days where no one comes along but you set the stage up anyway just in case. Sometimes these quiet days run back to back. Where are all the performers? You have no clue but you keep at it anyway. After some years your experience of how to set the stage has grown considerably, it is slowly becoming quite a remarkable stage. At one point a performer arrives and delivers a performance the likes of which you have never seen! Was that it?!? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
You continue setting the stage, never quite sure if the next performer will be even more impressive and interesting than the last, all the while progressively making the stage more and more suitable for the most amazing performances. As the years pass the performers that grace the stage are far beyond the first dazzling performance that you originally thought was the best. You also still get your fair share of hobos and quiet days, but you set the stage anyways just because you enjoy setting it up and seeing what comes of it.
I hope this little story paints some kind of picture of what I mean. To open the potential means to set the stage (which is your practice) in the best way you know how and then not being too concerned with who appears or doesn’t appear (the results of the practice). It’s an attitude of using the practice as a means of keeping the aperture of potential open and progressively widening it rather than worrying about making the potential manifest or how it will. To stop practice would mean to reduce the potential to almost nil. To use the practice to force the potential to manifest is also an uphill battle at best (and an extreme waste of energy that results in nothing at worst).
The effort is more usefully directed at maintaining and improving the potential with whatever resources you happen to have available on that day. In my Daoist tradition we say that we must balance the technical corrections with a playful approach of just doing the practice without correction. To go back to my metaphor, to me this means that we spend a bit of time each day setting our stage but at some point we have to accept that it’s about as set as it’s going to get on that day and allow whichever acts some space to actually do their thing (or not). Too much time in the technical adjustments brings about a kind of neuroticism. Too little effort and very little will happen. It’s a fine line to walk!
Of course it’s useful to understand how to set the stage and which things work and why. It is here that a teacher and tradition can be invaluable. They are the guides who draw on vast experience to help you along your way, guide you towards other possibilities and stop you from going down dead ends. A good teacher and tradition will also allow room for and even encourage your individuality and the possibility of you bringing something new that was not previously known.
This way of approaching a practice hints at a practical expression of the emptiness and mystery talked about in many spiritual traditions too. When you leave the potential open like this you leave room for the possibility of things not yet known to appear, or for things that you thought would happen in one way to happen in another. If you do this for long enough something may occur that might just blow your mind wide open. Or it may not. That’s the quality of mystery – you really never know and never can know. What you can be sure of is that if you try to force the results every day that you might get that result or you might not, but it’s very unlikely that anything else will come about. To put the final nail in the coffin of my metaphor, it’s something like assuming you know what the performance will be like before it happens and then only booking your stage out to the one performer you saw that kind of looked like your assumption. This is a sure way to stifle the potential of the unknown.
What we end up with when we keep our efforts on the potential rather than the manifestations is a practice that is both very relaxed and always growing. Every day presents an opportunity to do our practice in a way that’s a little more informed by experience than the last, and a little closer to an ideal that can never be reached – after all, how do you prepare for that which you do not know is coming? Even so, we can still relax in the feeling of knowing that we did what we could in the best way we knew how on any given day. Whether the mysterious and wondrous results of the practice show up that day is not at all up to us. And who knows, maybe the hobo is hiding something quite magnificent under the mundane outward appearance after all and you just had to watch him for the 300th time to catch it!