Over the past weeks, we have been examining components of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. In traditional Buddhist teaching, these eight components fall into three categories. We first explored Right View and Right Understanding, which are in the category of wisdom, and then Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, in the category of morality. Tonight’s topic is Right Effort, which falls into the category of concentration.
Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian master, said: “Enlightenment is not your birthright. Those who succeed do so only through proper effort.” Without Right Effort, we may accumulate knowledge about a spiritual path, but we cannot develop skillful qualities of mind and heart to transform habitual patterns. Right Effort isn’t so much the effort to transform the world, as it is the effort to understand and accept the nature of our body, our mind, and our life.
In this use of the term, effort often refers to energy, to how hard we try when we practice mindfulness or attempt to avoid hurting ourselves and others. Right Effort entails striking the right balance between laxity and perfectionism. It’s trying hard enough but not too hard—in meditation practice and in daily life. Ongoing effort involves a mixture of energetic will, enthusiasm, interest and curiosity.
If you aren’t enjoying the practice of meditation, you may be pushing yourself with too much effort. It’s helpful to note whether your body is relaxed or contracted in tension, and to try letting go of desires and expectations for better results. With compassion for yourself, you can let go of judgments about your performance as a meditator. We can set a healthy intention to be present and connected with each experience as it arises. With right effort, each conscious moment helps dissipate ingrained habits.
The Buddha described four kinds of Right Effort and gave suggestions for engaging with each one. Two deal with relinquishing unskillful states:
Prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising.
Abandon unwholesome states that have arisen.
Two others deal with inculcating skillful states:
Develop wholesome states of mind.
Cultivate healthy mental states once they have arisen.
Let’s look at the four types of effort, one by one:
We can practice noting whatever stimuli we sense, trying not to get caught in reacting to pleasant or unpleasant forms or sensations. Whenever we return to the focus of breathing, we can try to remember, “This could be my last breath, so I want to pay attention.”
If we sense our mind heading in an unhealthy direction, we can practice like a warrior saying, “No!” For example, most of the women in my yoga class are decades younger than me, and they are extraordinarily flexible. Sometimes I catch myself starting to compare my limited range of movement with theirs. If I tell myself firmly, “No comparing mind,” I don’t cause myself unnecessary suffering, and I can return to enjoying the sensations of stretching my body, accepting it just as it is. There will always be someone with greater or lesser talents than ours in whatever endeavor we undertake, and it is unproductive to pursue thoughts that diminish our own efforts or those of others.
Instead of identifying personally with our experiences, we can note objectively whatever emotion is arising and then investigate any related body sensations. For example, “Fear, fear….Tense, tense, tight, tight, queasy, queasy, etc. Sometimes it helps to identify recurring themes in the mind without following the story line associated with them. With enough consciousness and with right effort, we can refrain from reactive words and actions.
Today’s Houston Chronicle published an essay by Joshua Inwood about Martin Luther King’s advocacy of Agape, a form of love that transcends the desire of Eros and the friendship of Philia. Martin Luther King built a social movement focused on the moral imperative to engage with one’s oppressors in a way that showed them how their actions dehumanize and detract from society. He stated, “In speaking of love, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion…. Agape means…an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” King envisioned a love that demanded that individuals, who all depend upon one another in an interrelated community, stand up for themselves and go to any length to restore that community.
It’s possible to abandon a thought by investigating its root and asking, “What caused that thought to arise?” Maybe a sad or angry story underlies it. I have been angry about a lack of justice and health care for many women in American society and around the globe. As I prepare to join thousands of women across the United States of America who will be marching for respect and equality the day after Trump’s inauguration, I want to remember Martin Luther King’s warning, “If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate, I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”
When a difficult thought arises, we can leave space around it. Every day I send prayers to my mother who is blind and arthritic at the age of 91. I write and phone her, and I visit her in NYC, but I cannot change the fact that she is in pain and needs round-the-clock care. Sometimes I leave space around my feelings of grief and impotence.
Along with the effort to abandon unskillful habits, we need to make an effort to maintain new healthier habits. When someone asked if Mark Twain had ever stopped smoking, he said, “Sure, it was easy. I’ve done it thousands of times.”
The Buddha said, “We incorporate our thoughts into our lives.” Because he so consistently inclined his mind in a positive direction, he was known as “the happy one.”
It helps to have a clear intention to cultivate happiness. While you are waiting in traffic, you might try asking yourself, “Is there anything I can enjoy now?” A bird in a nearby tree? A favorite song playing on the radio? The sun emerging from behind some clouds… The point is not to cover up or avoid real suffering, but to seek opportunities for enjoyment when possible.
An excerpt from the Dhammapada reads: “One person on the battlefield conquers an army of a thousand persons. Another conquers himself, and that is greater. Conquer yourself and not others, discipline yourself, and thereupon learn freedom.”
All healthy mental states entail mindfulness. Take a moment to reflect upon what healthy state of mind you would like to develop. (I’d like to develop more patience. I can try sending Metta to my impatient mind states, breathing deeply, and returning to the present moment.)
For instance, I can acknowledge to myself, “Right now I’m acting in a generous way.” Let yourself appreciate any natural delight that arises when you witness or participate in words or acts of truth, beauty, or kindness. Remind yourself of how precious it is to be born in human form, with the possibility of moving towards enlightenment.
Right effort does not come from will power but from sincerity and faith that steady practice will produce benefits for oneself and for the world. We’re not responsible for thoughts that arise, but we can make an effort to return to the present moment whenever we notice that our mind is wandering. The concept of CHITA-ITIPATA in the Pali language means falling in love with the purity and authenticity of the Dharma, which motivates us to bring Right Effort to our practice.
Let’s close with some paraphrased comments by Jack Kornfield about Right Effort:
It’s the effort of learning how to generate or cultivate what is skillful—which means awareness, loving-kindness, caring for the world around us, or living more in the present; the effort to abandon old habits and fears of suffering; and the effort to sustain new, positive patterns. Our daily life is made up of little activities and little habits. We can practice Right Effort by being more conscious and caring about how we drive our car, how we relate to people we encounter, how we choose and prepare our food, and how we eat our meals.
Fundamentally, the meaning for Right Effort can be expressed in a simple way: it’s the effort to be aware, the effort to see clearly, to pay attention. A student asked her Zen Master, “What is the essence of the teachings?” He replied, “attention.” Unsatisfied, she persisted, “Now would you give me the whole teachings and how I should practice?” The Zen master answered, “attention, attention.” She inquired, “Isn’t there anything else?” And he said, “attention, attention, attention.”