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Three Questions

Capacity: do you have the resources?

“I can see in the dark,” boasted Nasrudin one day in the tea-house.

“If that is so, why do I sometimes see you carrying a light through the streets?”

“Only to prevent other people from colliding with me.”

From time to time, meditation practice just doesn’t make any sense. You sit there, ostensibly resting in experience, but in reality, alternating between watching all kinds of thoughts and sensations come and go and being completely carried away by one thought or another. Only gradually do you find the ability to rest in the chaos. You are building a capacity in attention.

From time to time, you will struggle to know something that you simply don’t have the capacity to experience directly. Attention is too unstable or it doesn’t have enough juice. Without realizing you are doing so, you compensate, striving to know emptiness, compassion, or non-self by merely understanding it. Instead of building capacity, you put your energy into refining your intellectual understanding. This is a bit like a person trying to negotiate an overhang by studying a book on technique — instead of building strength in his or her arms, legs, and torso.

You build capacity in two ways, by repetition and by increasing the challenge, just as you do in building physical strength and stamina. You build capacity by returning again and again to the practice, to attention, or to natural awareness, on and off the cushion. And you build capacity by exercising awareness in more and more challenging experiences. In loving kindness, for instance, you start with people who are close to you, and then gradually extend to people you are not close to and eventually to people you definitely dislike.

Summing up

When you encounter difficulty in your practice, consider these three questions:

  • Do I want to be present in this experience?

  • Do I know how to be present in this experience?

  • Do I have the capacity to be present in this experience?

Willingness will be there when you know why you are practicing. Know-how comes through your struggles to practice. Capacity develops as you increase your efforts. You need all three. Observe where your weaknesses are and put your energy into developing what you are missing. Don’t use one to compensate for a lack in another: unbalanced efforts produce unbalanced results. Lack of capacity is one of the most common weakness. Like Nasrudin, many people just don’t want to put in the time and energy. And that, I suppose, brings us back to willingness.

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