Effort from the Heart with Rebecca Bradshaw

May 3, 2023

A Q&A with IMS Teacher Rebecca Bradshaw

Effort from the Heart: Weekend Retreat
IMS Teacher Rebecca Bradshaw
Friday, June 2 – Sunday, June 4, 2023
Register for this program here.

Rebecca Bradshaw, an IMS Emeritus Guiding Teacher, has been practicing Vipassana meditation since 1983 in the United States and Myanmar (Burma) and teaching since 1993. She completed her dharma teacher training at Insight Meditation Society, where she is part of the three-month retreat teacher team and leads retreats for young adults. Rebecca emphasizes a body-centered approach to meditation, supplemented with large doses of lovingkindness. Rebecca has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a licensed mental health counselor. For more information visit: rebeccabradshaw.org.

Here, Rebecca talks with IMS’s Raquel Baetz about her upcoming online program, Effort from the Heart.

Why did you choose to focus on making effort in meditation practice for this online program? What speaks to you about this topic?

It comes from a bigger exploration I’ve been undertaking, looking at the cultural conditioning in which the teachings were passed on and the ways they may be biased towards a certain way of seeing and presenting the world and the teachings and—within that context—thinking about what we might need to achieve balance.

The teachings were preserved by male monastics within a patriarchal culture, so the conditioning has this tendency towards goal-oriented, active, aiming towards transcendence, determination, which are all good qualities, but when you read the suttas, they’re not balanced with much information about relaxation, receptivity, and effort from the heart.

It’s a different paradigm. We sometimes call them the masculine and feminine paradigms, but we all have these energies within us, though many of us have too much mind energy and not enough heart.

What’s different about effort from the heart?

We make so much of effort from the mind, for example, about how we should meditate, where we should be getting to, and what a good meditator should look like. We set up these ideals and then we strive for them, and then we get frustrated. Effort from the heart is much softer, gentler, kinder, compassionate, connected, and healing—all these qualities most of us need more of.

In many ways this question of appropriate effort goes very deep. I used to think it was just a surface question, that is, are you trying hard or not, are you relaxing or not? But now I understand it goes into the heart of what we’re doing. The means are the end. Are the means that we’re using leading to the end that we’re looking for? It’s paradoxical because some striving is useful. But most of us use way too much and need more balance.

Can you talk a little bit about where this striving conditioning comes from?

I call it internalized patriarchal conditioning. It’s conditioned by the mind-oriented, active-oriented, independent, Western way of viewing the whole world, and even the American myth of the “self-made man.” But it’s deeper than that, too. It goes back to our conditioning as tribal animals, and our desire to belong and be good enough. It’s even survival conditioning—to be good enough to get the food, shelter, power, status—all these deep humans needs. As tribal animals, if we don’t belong or we’re not good enough, we might get kicked out of the tribe, and if we get kicked out of the tribe, we die. That’s how deep this conditioning goes.

Striving conditioning has its roots in māna, in comparing ourselves to others and that goes way down to our fear of death. When you look at the stages of enlightenment, māna or comparing, conceit, is the last fetter to go.

Why is receptive effort so challenging?

We have a lot of hesitation around receptivity because it’s more vulnerable. We like effort from the mind or striving effort because it makes us feel like we’re in control. It gives us the illusion that we’re in control. When we settle back and receive—even in an interaction between two people—it’s vulnerable. It’s like, “I’m being touched. I can be affected.” That’s why heart or receptive effort can be so challenging. We have mixed opinions about being vulnerable. We’re not sure we like it.

How do we access receptive effort?

Soften, soften, receive, receive. Those are the two big words you could keep telling yourself. Sometimes we’re like hunters, even with the breath, “I’m going to get this breath perfectly!” What’s it like to be a farmer instead? Think of a farmer who is tending the soil, adding nutriments, being patient. We let causes and conditions come together and then we reap the harvest. It’s different—more vulnerable.

It’s scary.

That’s true. And yet, we know the other way is not answering our heart’s calling. So, we’re kind of between a rock and hard place—or between a hard place and a soft place! The whole path is this back and forth between control and openness.

What we call “self” is all about control. As a control mechanism, we attach to things and then react to try to create the world the way we want it to be. The other side is about relationships, receptivity, touching life, being touched by life, embeddedness, and the deepest belonging possible. We want both. We want control, and we want the deepest belonging and relaxation. We go back and forth.

But over the years we acculturate or increase our tolerance for vulnerabilities. We acclimate to vulnerability and increase our ability to be with all the wild manifestations of this changing world. Then we don’t have to control so much. We don’t need the other half so much—the security, control, domination. We don’t need to be so bossy with our own heart, body, and mind, or with the external world.

Is there anything you’d like participants to think about before they join the program?

They will get more out of it if they look at how they’re making effort in the days or weeks before the program. Then they can use the program to check out what they’re doing. If they’ve been paying attention to what their habits are, they’ll know what they need to do for balance.

We don’t often pay attention to what kind of effort we’re making in our meditation. We’re more focused on doing. I’m suggesting more of a meta (M-E-T-A) picture: how am I doing this? What’s my attitude behind how I’m doing this? What’s the energy behind how I’m meditating? What are the underlying beliefs or assumptions? The answers to these questions have an impact on balanced effort. What am I hoping to accomplish? That’s a good question too because the kind of effort we’re making might be pre-determined by what we’re trying to accomplish.

According to the early Buddhist suttas, we’re just trying to get off the wheel. Most of us start practice with the secret hope to transcend suffering. Yet are we really just trying to get out of here? Is that all we’re trying to do? What about the heart? That’s the balance. We need some transcendence, but if all we’re looking for is to transcend, there’s a lot missing there: connection, engagement. We need both in balance. On this weekend retreat, we will explore effort from the active and receptive modes, from the mind and the heart, finding balance in how we meet our own experience and the world around us.