Virya and Productivity
Today I was productive. In between bursts of productive, I had periods of both genuine rest (still productive) and periods of frustrating, unproductive effort. That’s how I think of it when I feel like I’m expending energy without actually doing anything.
I don’t mean that I did something that didn’t ultimately matter or that I made a mistake and had to redo past work. I literally mean I’m not really doing anything at all. I’m sitting in my chair with my glasses off, rubbing my face, thinking of my next task in a very abstract way (as in “I ought to have a next task”), and not actually directing my effort towards anything in particular. Nevertheless, it feels at though I am expending a great deal of effort. It feels at though I’m pushing a boulder I cannot touch up a hill I cannot see.
Depending on the day, this can last anywhere from a minute to an hour. I’ll look out the window, eat a piece of chocolate, open and close blank browser tabs on my computer, stare at an email inbox with no unread messages, and basically be useless. Yet I feel like effort is pouring out of me like a waterfall.
I’m beginning to recognize this as a kind of purgatory, an intermediate state between someone who has fairly successfully mastered the ability to prevent herself from actively procrastinating but not yet entirely mastered what Buddhist literature calls virya (viriya in Pali) and what American’s call “productivity.”
Virya is often translated as “effort,” “energy,” or “diligence,” but the deeper meaning is actually closer to “effortlessness.” It is part of Right Effort and related to the ability to “generate desire” for skillful and wholesome things (SN 45.8). Think about that for a minute.
To generate desire is to want to do something. When we genuinely want to do something, it tends to take significantly less effort than doing what we don’t want to do, right? Or at least, it feels that way subjectively. A marathon is still a ton of effort, but I can’t imagine how much more effort it would take if you spent all 26 miles thinking of how you wanted to be anywhere but here.
Virya is also part of the five factors of exertion, specifically: “…energy aroused for abandoning unskillful mental qualities and taking on skillful mental qualities. [The practitioner with virya] is steadfast, solid in his[/her] effort, not shirking his[/her] duties with regard to skillful mental qualities.” (AN 5.53) I often feel as though I am caught in between the stages of abandoning and taking on. I know how I procrastinate, the tricks my mind plays, and how to defeat them or turn them to a better purpose. Yet, I still struggle to maintain focus and diligence throughout my day. I’m not surfing the internet, but I’m not really writing that report either. My effort is still being poured into abandoning, leaving little for the taking on.
The Buddha further unravels the roots of effort in the Canki Sutta (MN 95) leading to a long chain of reasoning that rests finally on “conviction.” The Buddha references specifically the conviction needed to visit a teacher and learn the Dharma. You need to believe that person can help you in order to bother going to see them. Likewise, you need to believe that your effort will yield results before you engage in it. I remind myself of this when I’m feeling stuck.
When I am productive, I am terrifically productive. When I can get my mind to settle and focus on a task, I can create an enrollment projection from scratch, draft a three page report, make a twenty slide presentation, or create a five page research summary in a few short hours. And I feel awesome both during and after. I get lost in the flow of the work and receive a deep sense of accomplishment at its conclusion.
The problem is, I completely forget that when I’m in the midst of abandoning the habit energies that keep me unproductive and procrastinating. Having conviction in my own capacity for productivity is the first step out of that trap. It helps that everyday I get to go to work and apply that productivity to making a Buddhist university just a little bit better.