The Buddha once used a similar situation to make a point about spiritual striving. His student was a musician by training, a lute player named Sona, whose approach to meditation was interfering with his progress. He was trying too hard and getting in his own way. "Tell me, Sona," said the Buddha, "when the strings of your lute were too taut, was your lute tuneful and easily playable?"
"Certainly not, Oh Lord," Sona said.
"And when the strings of your lute were too loose, was your lute tuneful and easily playable?"
"Certainly not, Oh Lord," the musician repeated.
"But when, Sona, the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but adjusted to an even pitch, did your lute then have a wonderful sound and was it easily playable?"
If energy is applied too vigorously it will lead to restlessness and if it is applied too weakly it will lead to lassitude. In a foreshadowing of the "analytic attitude," the Buddha knew that too much effort could overwhelm the wonderful sound that we are seeking.
As I continue to take classes with my yoga teacher, I can see how much he wants to create a spiritual environment for us. While his intention is noble, our yoga postures are burdened by his desire for them to be special. His class provides a special challenge, one that I did not bargain for at the beginning. It recapitulates an all-too-familiar childhood drama, in which parental expectations can overwhelm a child's burgeoning self-expression. I have come to look forward to it as a unique form of therapy, one in which I can practice being free while imprisoned in the mind of another.
Mark Epstein, M.D., is a psychiatrist in New York and author of Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (Basic Books, 1996) and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart (Broadway Books, 1999). He's been a student of Buddhist meditation for 25 years.