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Try Hard, Not Too Hard

Practice of the Week
Try Hard, Not Too Hard

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion, "Don't Be a Phony," and "Don't Be Tricky," and Judith Lief, "Change Your Attitude, but Remain Natural," and "Don't Act with a Twist."

Click the picture for a video that
humorously illustrates the egoism
of trying too hard.

Try hard, not too hard. In other words, don't make too many rules for yourself, don't take yourself or your practice too seriously, and be attentive to ways that the ego hijacks the spiritual project.

A commitment to spiritual training often, at first, makes a person very kind but maybe a little stiff, a little too deliberate about everything one does, very mindful about everything If you go to a monastery, you'll notice that the newer monastics are like this: very careful with the forms, very precise, very polite, perfect, and stiff. They are clearly trying hard, which is appropriate. It takes time to learn how to try hard without trying too hard.

One way trying too hard may manifest is having lots of rules for yourself. If you're going to revolutionize your life, please do. But don't impose a rigid, artificial regimen on yourself. Don't be a phony. In fact, as you go on, you begin to see that the spiritual process is exactly the opposite of this: that you've been imposing a regimen on yourself all of your life, you took it to be yourself-and now finally you can stop, you can relax, you don't have to impress anyone, especially yourself.

So when you notice you're imposing something on yourself and your efforts to be good feel like a straitjacket, then try this slogan: "Lighten up, relax, maybe go to a movie, have a glass of wine, don't try so hard, maybe there's something good on TV."

Trying too hard also manifests as an exaggerated sense of the seriousness and importance of ourselves and our practice. Most of us have the attitude that we are more important than others. This is our default position, and deeply ingrained, although it’s embarrassing and we don’t like to admit it. Mind training is all about changing that fundamental stance. It takes effort to radically shift our attitude so that our concern for the welfare of others pops up first, rather than a distant second.

This kind of attitude adjustment seems like a pretty big deal, but it is important not to get caught up in the big-dealness. Spiritual practice has an odd way of combining radical challenges with the encouragement to just relax. Taking your spiritual growth seriously might prompt exhibitionism or spiritual posturing. Don’t let that happen! Get over yourself and just relax. Meet the challenge humbly -- through small but consistent moves in the direction of awareness and loving kindness.

Trying too hard results from ulterior motives sneaking in. We try hard to cultivate altruism deeply and seriously -- not for ulterior purposes such as to win friends and influence people (though it is wonderful to have friends, and if we can influence people for the good, this is worthwhile). Rather, spiritual practice comes from a conviction, based on long reflection, that the cultivation of altruism is simply the best, truest, and most satisfying way to live. Yet egoistic motives are not easily eradicated. Look closely at yourself and see whether, in fact, in some subtle way you are trying to gain all sorts of advantages and points by being a nice person others will admire. Probably you do have this motivation, at least in part. We all do.

Others may think it's wonderful and admirable to seriously take up a spiritual path. They may express the wish they had the time and the discipline to do it, people who will admire you if you meditate, do yoga, if you are wise and healthy and a vegetarian. So in certain circles we can be quite proud of our spiritual efforts, and we can get a lot of credit for them (though many other people view meditation and spiritual practice as a bunch of hooey, the province of the pious or naïve).

We may seek to develop compassion – but maybe we are only doing so as a tool for our own benefit. We keep track of our acts of kindness and our moments of awareness as demonstrations of how we ourselves are progressing. Instead of genuinely opening our heart, we go through the motions. Then we look around to make sure that our benevolence is properly noticed and admired. Other people are props for our self-development project.

When we peek through our self-satisfaction and self-deception and notice the pride we have been generating in ourselves for our fine spiritual efforts, we should simply admit it, and be able to laugh at, and forgive, ourselves. Selfish motivation is perfectly normal, and we will always be dealing with it. Notice this and be real about it. There’s no need to be bothered by it. Don’t be fooled by it either.

Trying hard means that when egoistic motives arise in your heart, take an honest and lighthearted look at yourself and be ready to forgive yourself for your natural foibles. Trying too hard, however, can give rise to regret and self-blame for having those natural egoistic motives.

When we aren't trying too hard, we do not "act with a twist" -- the "twist" being the egoism behind our efforts to appear to have compassion, kindness, wisdom, and spiritual insight. When we aren't trying too hard, our words and actions are not "sticky." They are straightforward, with no hidden schemes attached. When we practice meditation or otherwise develop compassion, we have no thought that we’re getting anything out of it. Instead, moment by moment, as each new situation arises, we work with it as best we can and then we let it go.

Ironically, moving from selfishness to concern for others starts with being honestly selfish. When such selfishness is hidden, that underground force colors everything you do, and you can’t help but "act with a twist." But each time you expose it, you are diminishing its power. Letting go of those selfish motives, we can stop trying too hard and relax.


Notice how often what you do is based on “What’s in it for me?” Rather than try to hide that, bring it into the open.

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