Motivation and Excitement: Learning to Distinguish

We need to check our motivation carefully. This is a teaching we often receive, but do we hear or practice it?

That’s why Phakchok Rinpoche asks us to really think about motivation when he says, “my main practice nowadays is bodhicitta.”

In this audio teaching, Rinpoche explains the importance of distinguishing between motivation and excitement. He began by teaching emptiness around the world for two or three years, but he says that when he checked the result, it was not so good. People didn’t really understand emptiness and they felt frustrated. Students weren’t focusing on devotion or karma. And they weren’t really practicing compassion. They fought with one another. Then Rinpoche thought to himself that something was wrong. So he went back and checked the advice of the lamas and the great masters. Even more, he went back to the teachings of the Buddha.

Core Teachings

And what did they all begin by teaching? They advised that the accumulation of merit is important and purification is important. Taking refuge and practicing bodhicitta is important. Being decisive is important. Devotion is important. Then, after students absorbed those teachings, they began to speak a little about emptiness. It is a different order of teaching. Rinpoche says that he learned from this examination.  But these days, people have different tastes–they respond to teachings on emptiness. They like these types of teachings. That’s because they don’t like the idea of devotion or praying.  But emptiness sounds exciting!

Motivation and Excitement: Avoiding the Trap of Emotional Excitement

But here’s the bad news, that excitement is not good. If our motivation is based on excitement, what happens when that excitement goes away? And the excitement does go away — that’s why we call it excitement! Rinpoche has discovered that students may confuse motivation with emotional excitement.

We can get excited about “deep” topics, but we may forget our motivation and therefore go astray. That’s bad, right? Our motivation has to be very stable. Rinpoche says that nowadays his main practice is bodhicitta and guru yoga. With these as the basis, he says that emptiness comes to him naturally. Before he practiced in that way, he says that he had to “look for emptiness.”

Letting Go: Some Advice

Telling yourself over and over again to let go doesn’t work so well. That is tough. It is tough on you, not tough on emptiness. We squeeze so hard, but how can we let go when we keep looking? It is completely the opposite. Letting go means not wanting. We want something, and that is not letting go. That’s why devotion is the only answer to relax you.

Phakchok Rinpoche was recorded on this topic in a Question and Answer session hosted in 2017 for the updated edition of A Glimpse of Buddhadharma, by Phakchok Rinpoche.  This revised edition will be forthcoming from

Reflection and practice exercise

This week, add a few extra minutes to your practice sessions to investigate your motivation.  Really allow yourself to investigate–why are you sitting down to practice?  Spend some time really contemplating your precious opportunity to practice.  

Before you start your chants, really consider this carefully.  We have a tendency to rush through this key practice–so this week, just allow yourself to soak in this contemplation.  If you allow the time, you can feel great joy–and this is a fantastic way to start your day!