The Union of Energy and Wisdom

Jill Shepherd explores the relationship between the perfection of energy and wisdom, and how applying our energy and effort wisely leads to less harm to ourselves and others.

By Jill Shepherd

The Flames of the Sun. Painted by Arthur Twidle. The prominences of the sun as observed through a spectroscope. From: Marvels of the universe by Harry Johnston (published between 1913–1927) .Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library

The ten pāramī are ten beautiful qualities of heart and mind that powerfully support our progress to deep freedom. The term pāramī is traditionally translated as “perfection,” and the ten pāramī are understood as ten highly skillful attributes that the Buddha-to-be perfected over many lifetimes, eventually culminating in his full awakening.

Given the common tendency towards perfectionism that many of us carry, I prefer the term “polishing” to “perfection,” to suggest that these qualities are ones that we all already have, to some degree, and there is a process we can undertake to help bring their beauty forward.

As you read the list of what the ten pāramī are, you might tune in to any responses that each word elicits. With some, there might be a natural sense of recognition or resonance, while for others, there is almost no response, or possibly a twinge of resistance. These are all useful responses to bring awareness to, as you take in each term now:

  • Generosity (dāna)
  • Ethical integrity (sīla)
  • Renunciation (nekkhamma)
  • Wisdom (pañña)
  • Energy (viriya)
  • Patience (khanti)
  • Truthfulness (sacca)
  • Resolve (aditthāna)
  • Kindness or good will (mettā)
  • Equanimity (upekkhā)

It’s possible that on first reading, this list might sound like just a series of nice character attributes, but what gives them their spiritual power is that each of them is supported by all the others. 

In fact, each pāramī depends on the other nine to make sure that they’re developed in ways that lead to the greatest benefit for ourselves and for others. This is particularly true of the fifth pāramī, the pāramī of energy or viriya, which needs the pāramī of wisdom to make sure that this energy is well-directed and not wasted.

Wisdom in this context includes the understanding that actions have consequences: that the underlying motivations that we do things with shape the direction of our lives, for better or for worse. If our actions stem from the three core afflictive mind-states of greed, hatred, and delusion, then we’re likely to bring harm to ourselves and others. 

The opposite is also true: if our actions are motivated by clarity, kindness, and compassion, we’re more likely to experience beneficial results from those actions.

Wisdom and energy are intimately connected because wisdom gives us the understanding of why we need to practice, while energy motivates us to actually do it.

This balance is important because too much wisdom without energy can lead to complacency, while too much energy without wisdom can lead to burnout and confusion. In either case, there’s a tendency to fall back into unconscious habit-patterns, so by making energy one of the ten pāramī, the Buddha invites us to investigate the attitudes we bring to our energy and how we can use that energy more wisely.

When we pay more attention to our behavior in the world, we more clearly understand the benefit of applying our energy wisely: one that’s conducive to living with less harm to ourselves and others. This is what the English monk Ajahn Sucitto calls “setting wise boundaries.” He writes, in “Ways to Cross Floods”:

We must consider what is unskillful, what leads to harmful results and should be left aside. And we must consider what is skillful, what channels our energy towards that which is supportive and nourishing. The most obvious area that we should consider is our ethical standards — otherwise we’re going to have to deal with the psychological and social mess, the furtiveness, and the guilt that comes from not making our ethical boundaries clear.

So we apply wisdom to our ethical conduct, how we behave in the world, for our own benefit as much as anyone else’s. With everything we do, we can consider: “Is this [what I’m doing] for my welfare, the welfare of others, and does it lead out of stress and towards peace?

As we start to live in closer alignment with our ethical values, the energy that otherwise would be wasted in anxiety, regret, self-judgment, shame, and so on is freed up and has a direct benefit not only in daily life but on our meditation practice, too.

Those experiences of direct insight that can happen during intensive retreat or in daily life often bring with them a corresponding boost of energy: an “aha” moment where we suddenly recognize something with greater clarity. This new understanding feels exciting, invigorating, and enlivening, and boosts our motivation to continue on this path to freedom.

Applying our energy skillfully thus sets up a chain reaction. This positive upward spiral develops its own momentum so that over time, less effort is needed to keep making progress.

At the beginning of this process, though, it’s common to take our energy for granted, assuming that it will always be available — until inevitably, it gets low or runs out completely due to stress, illness, injury, or aging. 

Because of the organic nature of our human bodies, our energy has limits. Much as we might try to deny it, we are in fact mammals—not machines or cyborgs! This makes it even more important to bring wisdom to what we do with our energy, to apply it in alignment with our deeper values and aspirations. Developing the pāramī of energy, then, first involves looking at where and how our energy leaks out and gets frittered away.

Among the huge challenges of our current times are the societal attitudes that impact us all. The increasingly fast and frenetic pace of life, the expectations of constant productivity, the hyper busyness and complexity; these drive the stress and anxiety and depression that afflict so many.

Individually and collectively, we tend to use the resource of our own energy in the same way that we relate to other natural resources: over-exploiting it, until we’re depleted, exhausted, on the verge of complete collapse. 

Taking more time for non-doing can be a powerful protection against this deeply conditioned tendency towards over-doing. We can practice non-doing by meditating regularly, and taking time to go on retreat whenever possible. 

However, the dominant values of mainstream society are encroaching on retreat life, too, seen in the increasing reluctance to let go of everyday pleasures and the expectation of getting “results” as quickly as possible. 

In a time-poor society, people are more likely to want to multitask during retreats too, trying to keep up with their work and family and social lives, while still expecting the same benefits that come from deeper seclusion and surrender to the simplicity of retreat life. 

Here too, we need to apply energy to not undermine our own efforts on retreat by trying to have our cake and eat it, too. Just as with every other aspect of our lives, the effort or energy that we put into something is reflected in the results. If we do something in a half-hearted way, we don’t get nearly the same benefit as when we give ourselves to it fully.

It’s a Catch-22, because to the extent that we hold back, to that same extent, our efforts are compromised, and because we don’t get the benefits, we don’t apply our full energy and effort to the whole process. As a result, it doesn’t develop the momentum and the benefits that will occur naturally — even inevitably — when we surrender more fully to the dharma.

What often gets in the way of this surrender, is our primal need to be in control. Once again, this is where we need the wisdom pāramī, to help soften the clinging to that sense of Me who is so often trying so desperately to drive the whole freedom project.

The more clearly we understand the truth of anatta, of not-self, the easier it is to see through the agitation of clinging to I-me-mine and instead, surrender to the process, trusting that the dharma is unfolding almost in spite of us!

As these two pāramī of wisdom and energy work together and strengthen each other, we start to relax the tight grip of needing to be in control. We understand more clearly that the practice develops not in a linear way, but organically, in cycles, according to causes and conditions, and that trying to drive this process through sheer force of will is usually counter-productive.

To the extent that we can develop a wiser relationship to applying energy, our efforts become increasingly effortless, as we move ever closer to experiencing the complete freedom of heart and mind that all ten pāramī lead towards.

May our efforts to cultivate the pāramī of energy help us to know that freedom for ourselves.

Jill Shepherd

Jill Shepherd

Jill Shepherd began practicing insight meditation in Thailand in 1999, and since that time has lived and worked at several meditation centers and monasteries in the US, Australia, England, and Thailand. She spent seven years on staff at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, where she participated in several long retreats and Buddhist study programs, as well as offering weekly meditation classes at a nearby prison. She is a graduate of the IMS / Spirit Rock teacher training program in the US under the guidance of Joseph Goldstein and Gil Fronsdal. She lives in Aotearoa / New Zealand, and teaches internationally, offering insight / vipassanā and brahmavihāra retreats as well as ongoing study and practice groups focused on bringing the dharma into daily life. She also leads courses and non-residential workshops exploring the relational practice of Insight Dialogue, as developed by Gregory Kramer and colleagues.