Right Effort and Conditioning

I was convinced at an early age that I was lazy. I heard it often enough from my mother. And then I heard it from my teachers when I couldn’t be bothered with homework or studying. I bought it. I embraced it.

When my sixth grade teacher told me that despite my over the top standardized test scores he wouldn’t put me in the special program that would allow me to skip eighth grade because I didn’t ever do any work, I had to at least concede that I could see his point. I had long before established my what was then called “underachiever” status.

Cost me a !@#$ing extra year of school, but you know, I had to be me!

But in fact I always did stuff. Even as an underachieving smart-assed kid and teenager. I just did what interested me. While getting mostly B’s and C’s in high school (the only math A I got was in geometry when a substitute teacher challenged me by pointing out geometry was about THINKING! So I actually did the homework and looked forward to the tests!) I took the subway after school to NYU to sit in on a university art history course. I would read Shakespeare and go see Shakespeare in the park in Central Park (it was free!). I haunted the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was learning ancient Egyptian. I painted and drew.

But to this day I tend to be on the look out. Am I slacking? Were they right? If I stop, if I relax my guard, will I revert to that “lazy kid,” like a once productive cultivated field being reclaimed by weeds?

For that matter, would that be all bad?

Do I honestly think it would all come apart? That the Buddhist “right effort” requires some concept of achieving?

Well, Nyogen Roshi quotes Maezumi Roshi as saying the effort of no effort is the hardest effort you will ever make.


I bring all of this up because I was going to write about very positive experiences I have been having peeling back some of the layers of my medical conditioning. How I am, even now, this late in my game, becoming a bit of a better doctor, a little bit better healer, teacher of doctors and mentor. And I give credit to my practice. And to right effort. I will get into that in another post, but for now I want to note that rather than staying positive, the way I framed it in my mind, the way I was going to introduce it here, was that I discovered that I was intellectually lazy.


I mean, REALLY?

Conditioning. It seeps in very deep.

Mental friggin’ fracking.

Psychic pollution.

Nyogen Roshi says Buddhism is one loud cry of affirmation. Perhaps the first affirmation is to stop calling yourself names.

2 thoughts on “Right Effort and Conditioning

  1. Wow. Thank you for sharing this with the world. We have two little classic underachievers in our household (and if I include my big guy, that makes three :-)). Almost every week we have discussions with their teachers, hoping they will acknowledge the boys’ potential and kick their asses in order to make them work! I often think of Roshi’s words, who told me that my kids have their own karma and that I shouldn’t worry about them. And he is right, I shouldn’t.
    Your story helps though. Stay positive and trust that they will turn whatever interests them into their niche. (Believe it or not, in an hour I’m off to school again for the umpteenth meeting… and this is a perfect reminder to keep my cool!)

    • Ben Ming: I am not an exemplar of always keeping Zen cool, but I do think it is usually a good way to go. As an underachiever who has gotten the bad habit of over achieving and is trying to find that balance, and as a parent and grandparent, I suggest inspire, encourage and engage. Yes, don’t indulge bad habits and involve teachers if you think something needs addressing, I don’t know the details, but be careful of accepting arbitrary definitions of success and expectations. I think it’s a bit like in Doman’s article on Zengut on meditation where he quotes Yasutani I believe “name the color and blind the eye.” Be careful of the story you tell yourself and expect your children to embody. Pushing gets you to Newton’s law: every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. Now, your kids have been through a lot. I suspect the best you can do for them, that any of us can do for those in our lives, is to show that you are trying to live what is important. To live your love. That makes little sense grammatically, but it sounds right anyway. Much Love, Shikan

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