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Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose

October 2, 2012

There is a story in the earliest Buddhist scriptures in which the Buddha helps a practitioner understand the principle “Not too tight, not too loose.” Here’s a paraphrase of that story:

A musician playing the vina

There was a monk named Sona who was very inspired by meditation and determined to practice it as diligently as he could. He practiced walking meditation so intensely that his feet cracked and bled. He thought, “This is terrible! I’ve tried really hard – as hard as anybody I know — and I haven’t achieved enlightenment.  All I got for my effort are bleeding feet.  Maybe I should just give up and go home.” The Buddha understood how Sona felt, so he gave him some advice.  Sona was a musician; he had played an instrument called the vina (often translated as the lute.) The Buddha asked Sona whether the vina worked well if the strings were strung really, really tightly.  Sona replied that it didn’t work so well like that.  Then the Buddha asked Sona if the vina worked well if the strings were strung really, really loosely. Sona replied that it didn’t work so well like that, either. Then the Buddha asked Sona if the vina worked well if the strings were strung not too tightly,  and not too loosely.  Sona replied that that was the way the vina worked best. So the Buddha advised Sona to treat his practice like that:  neither to practice too tightly, nor too loosely, but always to find just the right pitch of effort.  When Sona practiced in this way, he was able to achieve an awakening. (Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.55)

The too-tight approach can indicate a fundamental aggression toward ourselves and toward our situation in life.  Too-tight says, “This moment is not good enough.  There is another moment that would be better than this. I am not good enough.  There is someone better I could be.” Too-tight can be a rejection of our current state in favor of some potentially better state. But as the Bad Lama cautions: “Sitting won‘t make you any better.”  There’s nothing wrong with our fundamental nature, we just have layers of unfortunate habits that obscure our already-fine selves. Too-tight doesn’t trust in its own fundamental nature.

The too-loose approach can indicate that we’re ignoring our feelings and ignoring our current situation. Too-loose says, “It’s all good,” and then disengages from the current moment with a vacant smile. And while, theoretically, it may all be good, in our experience it doesn’t all feel good.  In fact, we are often suffering. Too-loose ignores that suffering.  It prefers not to acknowledge those layers of habits that cause us to continually wound ourselves and to wound those around us.  Too-loose doesn’t want to do the work of letting go of those habits.

If you find yourself steering a speeding race car in heavy traffic, it may not be the time for a formal meditation practice.

In our practice, we try to find a middle way between too tight and too loose.  We have to continually re-tune the pitch of effort of our practice. We can work on our re-tuning within a session: we may notice that we are over-tight, and relax; we may notice that we are spacing out, and tighten up a bit. It’s also helpful to be aware of our tightness and looseness on a larger scale.  Our lives go through periods of greater tightness and greater looseness; acceleration and compression, deceleration and decompression. Sometimes our lives are so accelerated and compressed — so packed with events and so speedy — that there is almost no time for formal meditation practice. A too-tight approach might say, “If I can’t meditate for an hour I won’t meditate at all.”  At those times we may have to loosen up our meditation practice. We might shift our practice to just the most gentle mind-soothing exercises.  We may have to fit these moments in the interstices of our day: some moments of stopping and breathing; some moments of releasing the tension in our bodies and minds; maybe just a moment of remembering meditation and aspiring to practice it again.  It’s good to do these things consciously – to make a voluntary choice to spend a few moments calming down. In this way, we won’t lose the pitch of meditation entirely. Then when our lives decelerate and decompress (however long that might take) we’ll still have some relationship to meditation, and we’ll be able to pick up the tune of meditation practice. Too-loose says, “Well, everything I do is meditation so I don’t really have to think about it, I’m just naturally doing it.” Too-loose might be more dangerous than too-tight in this situation:  not only have we lost the pitch of meditation, we don’t even realize we’ve lost the pitch.

Suzuki Roshi elegantly summed up the view of not-too-tight, not-too-loose: “Each one of you is perfect the way you are and you can use a little improvement.” When we find ourselves getting too tight, we can remember that our fundamental perfection is already here – we don’t have to strive any harder to make ourselves perfect. And when we find ourselves getting too loose we can remember that we do not currently have an unobscured view of that perfection, so we still have some work to do.

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