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Singing the Song of Being

Beginning a mindfulness meditation practice is difficult.

You worry whether you’re doing it right.  You want to know what you’re getting into, but it’s hard to know what the benefits will be.  It is hard to know whether it’s worth the effort.  It often isn’t as relaxing as you imagined.  It’s hard to know how your path through the practice will be similar to anyone else’s.  It is perhaps because of these difficulties that many of the classical Buddhist teachings are in the form of similes, stories, and metaphors.  We can’t tell you exactly what will work for you or how to go about it, but we can hint at it.

One arm of the Eightfold Path that is particularly difficult to describe clearly is the one about Right Effort.  How much and what kind of effort is “right?” (I tend to prefer the terms “skillful” or “appropriate” rather than "right.")  The answer to this depends partly on your intended goal and the path you want to take to achieve it.  The classic story about skillful effort is from the Sona Sutta, about a monk named Sona who was trying too hard to achieve enlightenment.

According to the story, Sona had been practicing walking meditation so hard that his feet were bleeding and he became despondent and considered giving up his life as a monk.  To paraphrase, the Buddha knew that Sona had been a skilled vina player prior to being a monk (a vina or veena is an ancient Indian stringed instrument that is played by plucking it).  Buddha asked him, “when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune and playable?" to which Sona answered, “No.”  Buddha then asked him, “When the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune and playable?" to which Sona answered again, “No.”  Buddha concluded by saying that in the same way, when we hold our minds too tightly we become restless, and when we hold them too loosely we become lazy.

Although this part of the story is fairly well known, the sutra continues at some length.  Apparently this instruction was beneficial for Sona, because he figured out the right amount of effort and achieved enlightenment.  From this point on, however, the sutra gets weird (my opinion only).

Sona seeks out the Buddha apparently to show off how enlightened he is and seems to brag about his achieving liberation and his dedication to only six things: “renunciation, seclusion, non-afflictiveness, the ending of craving, the ending of clinging/sustenance, and non-deludedness.” He continues by saying that having achieved this imperturbability, when his experience includes powerful forms, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and ideas, “his mind is neither overpowered nor even engaged” [emphasis added].

What strikes me as odd is that I doubt that these are the goals most modern American Buddhists have.  Some of them sound great – I’m all for ending ignorance/confusion, not being afflicted, and not being driven by cravings.  I even like the idea of being imperturbable when things get nutty.  Nonetheless, I don’t really want to be secluded from others or disengaged from my life and the powerful experiences that occur. I want to be deeply involved and moved by my experiences, without being controlled by them.

Perhaps this sutra is designed to be a model for those entering the priesthood and not for householders.  Perhaps it has lost (or gained) something in the translation.  Perhaps I am simply misunderstanding its deeper meaning, but maybe there’s another way to consider this story without it seeming so stark.


Instead of simply asking the question about what allows the string to be in tune and playable, what if we asked the question about how we can make music?  Even once the string is tuned properly there is no music.  If we simply hold the string we get no music.  If we space out and pay attention to something else we get no music.  It is only by a process of placing and releasing our fingers on the strings that they make a sound, and we must return constantly to the strings to play the next notes of the melody.  In a like manner, if we try to hold our minds or our breath too steadily, we are not allowing ourselves to breathe and feel naturally – to sing the song of our being.  If we space out and chase our thoughts, we similarly are not fully engaged in our lives.  It is only by constantly lightly touching our experience with awareness and returning it to mindfulness that we feel and sing the living song of our being.



Picture sources: Here and here.

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