Right Effort is the first practice in Mental Discipline on the Eightfold Path and is also known as Right Diligence. This practice supports all the others because it gives you the energy to keep practising, even through difficulties. It involves cultivating a positive attitude and cheerful determination on your quest for freedom from suffering.
Right Effort is about making a persistent effort to do the right thing from day to day, and follow all the various rules and precepts. In other words, you give it your best shot. But it also means doing so without complaining when things get difficult.
And things always get difficult.
It takes effort to keep going with any practice, especially when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere. That’s hard enough when all you’re trying to do is lose a few pounds or learn to play the bongos. But with the Eightfold Path your intention is to free yourself from suffering and that means being mindful of every act, every thought, every word spoken or written, every intention, every feeling and emotion, every day for as long as it takes.
Needless to say, this isn’t easy.
It’s also possible to fool yourself into thinking you’re working hard on the spiritual path, when really you’re putting effort into the wrong activities, or doing the right things but in the wrong way. Thich Nhat Hanh says that if your practice doesn’t bring you joy, then you’re doing it wrong. This might happen if you’re repressing difficult emotions, for example, rather than working with them using compassion and insight.
Right Effort includes four practices which you can do as part of your sitting meditation, but you should also be mindful of them as you go about your day. These are:
- Don’t let unwholesome seeds in your unconscious sprout and take root.
- Help the unwholesome seeds that have sprouted to return to the unconscious to be mulched (but not by repressing them).
- Water the wholesome seeds in your unconscious that haven’t sprouted yet.
- Feed the wholesome seeds that have already sprouted so they can grow stronger.
Unwholesome seeds means anything that works against realising your true nature or that causes suffering to yourself or others. These can be things like the potential for hatred, fear, anger, ignorance, and so on.
Wholesome seeds are the opposite and are anything that supports your desire to awaken. So things like happiness, love, joy, compassion, and so on.
How you actually go about watering your positive seeds and dealing with your negative seeds, depends upon all the other practices in the Eightfold Path, but the other mental discipline practices in particular: Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
“Suffering can propel us to practice. When we are anxious or sad and see that these practices bring us relief, we will want to continue. It takes energy to look into suffering and to see what has brought about that suffering. But this insight will lead us to see how to end our suffering, and the path needed to do so. When we embrace our suffering, we see its origins, and we see that it can end because there is a path. Our suffering is at the centre. When we look into the compost, we see the flowers. When we look into the sea of fire, we see a lotus. The path that does not run away from but embraces our suffering is the path that will lead us to liberation.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
Right Effort means dropping any behaviour, thought or emotion that doesn’t serve your intention to awaken. It means deliberately cultivating compassion and mindfulness regardless of whatever else is happening in your life.
Anything that happens can be used to serve your practice, whether good or bad. The experiences of your life can be used to either wake you up or put you back to sleep. It all depends on your attitude and how willing you are to make the effort to practice. Right Effort means seeing whatever arises from day to day as an opportunity to practice. So there’s no such thing as a bad day. You can’t flake out and make excuses.
There’s nothing that can’t be approached with mindfulness. All it takes is a little effort. No exceptions. No excuses.
This all sounds like a lot of hard work, but it’s important to remember that ‘effort’ doesn’t mean you have to force things or push yourself to achieve liberation. It doesn’t work well when you do it like that anyway. Meditation works better when you let go and relax – like most things in life.
The Sanskrit word for effort is samyagvyayama which means energy, endurance, and exertion. But that doesn’t mean what you think it means. When you see reality as it is using Right Understanding, then the right thing to do or say arises spontaneously. There’s no real effort involved – it just happens.
So Right Effort is about going with the flow and doing what life requires of you in the moment. When you do anything that you love, you might appear to be working hard at it, but it doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel like work because you’re in the flow.
To do this you have to be totally present at all times. When you align with your true Self – your inner Buddha – any effort you put in should come naturally. This is the same as the Taoist idea of effortless action or Wu Wei, where you live in harmony with the Tao. Wu Wei means ‘without action’, but it doesn’t mean sitting about doing nothing. It means aligning your will with the movements of heaven and earth and not acting against the Tao. So when the going gets tough, the tough let go.
Right Effort is actually effortless.
Next time: Right Mindfulness