Joyous Effort

“It’s a courageous, joyous mind that is excited to act beneficially.”
Bhikkhuni Thubten Chodron*

I assume many of you know the feeling of waking up on the weekend and just wanting to stay in bed. The exertion of the week still rests in one’s bones and it’s so nice to have a “free” day ahead. It can feel wonderful to stretch out all limbs and to sink again down into the mattress. Mind and body can calm even more.

Nevertheless there might be some other competing wishes for the day. A tension might occur in that, and we get up, perhaps with the thought that we’ll take a catnap sometime later.


A different scenario
If we are not exhausted, the weekend looks different. I myself know both of these versions very well. My favorite is to wake up and feel how the rising energy in my body and mind causes me to want to get up. Maybe it’s still dark outside, but I’d really like to get up and start the day. A bit of meditation, some breakfast, and then there are always some projects that are waiting on these weekend days. What helps us to experience such weekends more often?

Peace and good energy
How do we navigate these two needs, the need for peace and rest and the need to be active in a good way? One of the problems I see everywhere is our abundance of inspiration, ideas, wishes, and duties. On the other hand there is the lack of real peace, restful downtime, deep relaxation, and nourishment for depleted energy storages. Often the weekend (or even our vacation) is already over before we start to feel our energies coming back.

Inner conflict
What is the right thing to do? Do I rather work at home, go hiking, spend time with my family, or is it better to make some relaxation time for myself first and plan other things later in the day or on Sunday? How can we manage our energy and our strength best?


Our biology
Looking into human history, we can see that a 12-hour workday was not so common. Humans usually lived in communities, with work shared, and not really much going on. Except for during hard times when food was scarce, scholars of human evolution suggest that our hominid ancestors were only active for about 4 hours a day (cf. Dan Siegel). In other words, our modern busyness life style is unusual. Down time, lots of down time, was part of our ancient ancestry and so a part of our biological need.

Our body and mind need a good balance of activity and rest. If this doesn’t happen we don’t really feel well. Most of us are far too busy and are lacking downtime. Our nervous systems have become so tightly wound that downtime itself can be a little threatening. Accustomed to tension, we will create it inside if it doesn’t exist outside, and inner conflicts also prevent us from experiencing deeply restful states.


Effort and exertion
The word “effort” can have an unpleasant taste, but a daylong hike, a disciplined retreat, or a bike trip against the wind can feel fantastic though they were full of effort. Also, after organizing a beautiful children’s birthday party or other celebration, we might find ourselves exhausted but energized and happy in the evening. So, which activities energize us and which feel depleting?

Joyous effort
In Buddhism there is a liberating activity called joyous effort. Joyous effort is one of my favorite qualities to cultivate. Long ago during in my time working in hospitals I tried to plan my days in a way that allowed me to live them without losing my joy. It didn’t always work, but it helped me to establish a good relationship with others around me, and the stressful work felt easier. On the way home I felt depleted, but also content. A lot got done and I was able to help others find relief and maybe even connection and joy.

Four powers
Within the teachings on joyous effort and perseverance, the great master Shantideva describes 4 powers that come to our aid in doing good work:

  • A strength that comes from our good aspirations, a certainty in the benefits of our goals and their possibly far-reaching meaning.
  • A steadfastness that develops based on recognizing that we are uniquely qualified to pursue our goals—who else will do it if we don’t?
  • A delight that comes when we recognize that we are actively moving towards our goals—we are doing it! This joyous energy especially helps if things get challenging.
  • And finally, when we happily understand where we’re heading and why, there’s a natural letting go of activities that don’t help us. We don’t have to force ourselves to let go of anything; we naturally feel like staying in the stream of the good energy we’ve been enjoying.


Knowing what we do, why we do it, and how we can do it in a way that is easier for us, allows us to plan our life accordingly. Often when we notice that we are stressed out and off-balance these things are not clear and respected any more. Reflecting on our real goals and wishes, our daily needs and our intentions, we can find new clarity and regain our balance.

Reflection, joy, and joyous effort
Living with new-found balance, maybe after a phase of relaxing and reintegrating during a nice vacation, we might notice how our energy comes back and we can move on again with focus, good motivation, and joyous effort.

IMG_4796Autumn, the end of the busyness of summer, is for me always a good time to see what’s true, to rethink, and to set a new orientation if needed.

And by the way you can still join my new online course “Joy and Ease”.

Enjoy a colorful and sunny October week.



* I mentioned Bhikkhuni Thubten Chodron at the beginning. She gave a beautiful, long Buddhist teaching on joyous effort and Buddhist practice. You can find it here.

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