"When I first began practicing Buddhism in earnest at the monastery, I asked my teacher what I should do in the way of spiritual practice. Where should I start? Which practice should I make my priority? The lama suggested that I start a set of practices called ngondro, which means 'preliminary practices.' These practices prepare students for some of the more involved meditations in the Tibetan Buddhist path. The first part of ngondro involves doing 100,000 prostrations, laying yourself full out on the ground 100,000 times. It is a bit like an extended marathon that tends to take weeks, months, or years, depending on how many you do every day.
"I dove right into this practice. It took me about six months to complete. I would start after breakfast every day and prostrate before a statue of the Buddha until lunchtime. Then I would take a midday break. I would begin again at about three and go until five. In this way, I passed months. In truth, I was very enthusiastic about the practice, but it was certainly physically challenging. It taught me that I could do more than I thought possible in a day. It taught me that boundaries can be pushed. After the completion of that practice, I was told that the next part involved the recitation of 100,000 long mantras. Things continued in this way for many more months. Eventually, in about two years, I finished all the preliminary practices. I remember well the day I finished. I was elated! Finally the pain was over! Certainly after all this, the lama would give me some kind of profound practice or meditation. There must be some kind of amazing reward to look forward to after such a monumental effort, after thousands of hours of difficult practices.
"I imagined that he would give me instructions on one of the profound practices that I had heard about in my time at the monastery, one of the secret meditations that quicken the path to awakening. I was full of anticipation when I went up to Lama's little room to tell him the good news: I had finished the hundreds of thousands of repetitions of prostrations and mantras and prayers. Lama simply said, 'That is very good. You should do it again.'
" 'Again?' I asked tentatively. 'Um, isn't there something else?'
"He did not suggest anything else. Instead, he mused, 'I think it would be very good if you do it all again.' I was speechless. Surely he did not mean for me to repeat the preliminary practices all over again? But, as I ascertained after further inquiry, that is exactly what he meant. Of course, I was stunned. It had taken a lot of perseverance and pushing through my laziness to complete the first set of preliminary practices. Thousands of hours. Sore muscles, painful joints, boredom. I could not imagine doing it again.
"Later I brought my dejection to Lama. I felt discouraged. He laughed. When Lama laughs, his eyes turn up in a way that is simply contagious. You cannot help but smile. I remember the laugh . . . it had a certain good-humored compassion in it. It said, without him having to say it, 'You still have a lot to learn about what this path is about.'
"But he just said, 'Did you know the Buddha taught that discouragement is just a form of laziness?' I think it was with that comment that a trickle of understanding began to seep through the wall of my discouragement. Lama had placed the responsibility for feeling downtrodden and overwhelmed right in my lap. Are not external conditions responsible for my discouragement? Is not the downtrodden person justified in finally giving up? That is what I had always believed. But here the responsibility was being placed squarely on me. Discouragement, I repeated to myself, is a form of laziness. It became my mantra when I woke up the next morning. It became the phrase that got me into the shrine room to begin the preliminary practices yet again and to continue every day for the next two years. It is what kept me going for the ensuing months of repeating, yet again, the 100,000 prostrations.
"Enthusiasm takes energy. When you feel as if you do not have the energy to be enthusiastic, consider one inherent source of energy at your disposal: emotional energy. Even depression, a state that many people consider lethargic is often a manifestation of repressed emotional energy. If you can get in touch with that underlying emotional energy, it is possible to channel that energy into enthusiasm for your passion, your spiritual journey, your everyday dharma, and perseverance to see your path through to its completion.
"Over time, I learned that underlying Lama's advice was an even more profound concept: Perseverance feeds passion, and the other way around. We are not automatically overjoyed and enthusiastic about serving humanity. It will mean a lot of inconvenience to our ego. It will mean hardship. We will get bored and bedraggled and discouraged. We will get tired. To counteract our tendency to get discouraged and give up, we need to work on two levels.
"First, we need to reflect frequently on the big picture. Is there any more exciting picture than the journey as we have imagined it?
"Second, we have to be creative: We have to create diligence and enthusiasm. We must already have diligence and enthusiasm in place. Diligence is the no-nonsense attitude, and enthusiasm is the optimistic energy. But the remarkable thing is that joy and enthusiasm can and must be cultivated for us to really accomplish anything in life, not to mention the amazing project of serving humanity. And another remarkable thing is that enthusiasm and perseverance fuel each other. No one is going to serve you enthusiasm on a silver platter. And when your enthusiasm wanes, you cannot count on anyone but yourself to rekindle it.
"When you get into a groove of rekindling enthusiasm daily, it becomes easier to persevere, to follow through to the end. For me, completing the preliminary practices the second time became a study in joy, enthusiasm, and follow-through. I was doing something that I did not particularly want to do. But, by God (or by Buddha), I was going to do it and do it well. With this attitude, I started to understand the term spiritual warrior. I went to war with my laziness, to war with my discouragement. I convinced myself not to lose this battle. For me, the point of this practice was to work with my resistance.
"I think battling laziness and complacency is one of the key points to spiritual practice. You begin by simply pushing yourself beyond where you thought you could go. Limits are largely self-created. Enthusiasm is best cultivated by not making things harder for yourself than they actually are."