I think I have eventually understood what Geshe-la means in the section on What is Meditation? in Joyful Path, where he says:
Since most of the problems we experience when we are new to meditation come from overstraining at placement meditation, it is important to be moderate and avoid becoming tense from exerting too much pressure. The effort we apply should be relaxed and steady, and whenever we become tired we should rest.
Surely, I’ve always thought, concentration takes effort, and I need to try hard if I’m going to overcome my distractions. So, this advice doesn’t apply to me: I’m not new to meditation, after all. But now I realise that wanting to be an over-achiever is what’s making me an under-achiever.
It is very easy to overstrain at placement meditation: it happens naturally whenever we think I should be feeling peaceful now or I need that annoying little voice in the back of my head to JUST SHUT UP – in other words, whenever we have expectations of ourselves. And seriously, when do we ever not have expectations? Those expectations exert a subtle pressure, and so we become tense. And you can’t meditate with a tense mind: that is a contradiction in terms.
So, Geshe-la says, the effort we apply should be relaxed and steady. How can effort be relaxed? By focusing on the joy. Effort is not about pushing, it is about letting go and welcoming in the pleasant feelings that naturally arise from a clear mind.
I think this is most obvious when meditating on receiving blessings. Rather than thinking, ‘Go on, make my mind change, won’t you?’ try just sitting and waiting with an open heart. Believe Buddha is there, and simply stay there with him until the blessings just fill you up without your having to try to do anything at all. It takes patience: let it come, rather than forcing the issue. It is quicker in the long run not to try and rush.
All our meditations could feel like this – relaxed and effortless, impelled by blessings rather than brute force. Stop trying so hard. I know that can feel counter-intuitive, but actually, it is straining after a still mind that causes a lot of our distractions: if you check carefully, you will see how that pushiness makes you jittery, and the mind begins to skitter around from one object to another. Stop pushing and you will settle down.
Of course, we need balance – this advice doesn’t mean don’t apply any effort to overcome distractions! But let the effort come from blessings, not from expectations.