On Sunday, Payton led a discussion on Right Effort as part of our investigation of the Eightfold Path. Below are the notes from that presentation. We also have an audio recording of the session as there were so many people absent that we’ll figure out what to do with soon.
In discussing Right Effort, we have to examine what we mean by “effort”. The word can be interpreted in many different ways. Some of them have a positive association, and some have a negative association. It’s something of a charged word in our society. Do you “put forth the effort to win”, or was it “a wasted effort”? Is there a place of balance between these two, a kind of effortless effort? And even if we achieve that balance, effort can be made for any purpose, so how do we know if our effort is the “right” one? What does right effort mean for you?
[recording: Jack Kornfield starting at 5:37-6:50: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/85/talk/1466/19920301-Jack_Kornfield–eightfold_path_of_practice_right_effort_and_mindfulness.mp3%5D
Let’s discuss the positive associations with effort first. One interpretation is that it’s the arousing of energy for a noble intention. We can have intention, but then what do we do with it? Without effort, there *is* no Eightfold Path. The Buddha said, “For the complete cessation of dukkha one has to make effort.” You could think of it as determination in this context. So you use effort to pursue your intent. Joseph Goldstein, in a great talk from 1984 breaks down effort into three basic types.
First there’s what he calls Launching Effort. This is the effort you put forth to get to the cushion, to get to the meditation space, to plan your schedule around doing something, even something that’s not meditation. This is tough to do. We need a certain amount of effort to end up there. To end up anywhere.
Once we end up on the cushion, on the walk, at work, wherever, then we have some challenges to face. In any practice we come up against obstacles. There are the hinderances that appear. There is difficulty and we have to expend effort to overcome that difficulty. This second type of effort Joseph calls Liberating Effort.
Sometimes, that’s about it. But sometimes we end up really getting somewhere. We’re very calm and very comfortable and our mind seems to be behaving itself for once. If the bell rings and we walk away in a peaceful daze, there can be this real feeling of happiness and accomplishment. It’s easy to just stop your practice right there and rest in that blissed-out state. The third effort is Progressive Effort. Coming back again and again whether you think you’ve achieved something or not. The Buddha had many teachers before he became enlightened and some of those teachers taught him the jhanas, the states of rapture and peace that the mind enters when it releases grasping. Each of those teachers hadn’t achieved what the Buddha eventually achieved because even after a great deal of concentrated effort, they decided to remain in the jhanas. They didn’t put forth the effort to continue, to find progress even when already feeling success. This Progressive Effort that Joseph describes does not let up.
So then we come to the negative associations with effort. Effort that doesn’t let up sounds like a lot of work! When do we get a break? That doesn’t make effort sound positive. So why are there negative association with the word? It may be that effort is ok if the intended goal is pleasant and effort is cumbersome when the goal doesn’t seem “worth the effort”. We create an economy of effort with the goals as the reward. When we think about it that way it’s like paying money. We can think of putting forth effort as scary, straining, or stressful.
Sky Dawson said, “We need to have kindness and compassion [toward ourselves] when we are working… In the West we connect Effort with Striving. ‘Being the warrior’. The idea of ‘maybe I should try harder’. Eventually this leads to ‘this is too hard, maybe I should just give up’.” So we need a balance.
Someone wrote down a parable which looks at this:
[recording: Jack Kornfield starting at 27:40-29:40: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/85/talk/1466/19920301-Jack_Kornfield–eightfold_path_of_practice_right_effort_and_mindfulness.mp3%5D
It’s a matter of letting go of all the “extra effort” and just doing what is necessary. As Gil Fronsdal says, we need to, “Not try to achieve something, but not just be a blob on the floor either.” We don’t want to avoid all effort, but there’s a subtleness to the different ways we can treat it.
Let’s see what the Buddha said about effort. If you look at the suttas, he rarely left things in an ambiguous state. The Buddha lists four elements of right effort. They are basically (as read by Jack) the effort to Avoid, Overcome, Develop, Maintain:
[recording: Jack Kornfield starting at 24:28-26:03: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/85/talk/1466/19920301-Jack_Kornfield–eightfold_path_of_practice_right_effort_and_mindfulness.mp3%5D
Gil summarizes these too:
1. [Maintain] Maintain wholesome states of mind that have already arisen.
2. [Overcome] Let go of unwholesome states of mind that have arisen.
3. [Develop] Bring about wholesome states of mind and heart that have not arisen.
4. [Avoid] Keep unwholesome states of mind that have not arisen from arising.
So here we can think of Right Effort as staying present with our mind states and keeping them in line. It’s very active. Pay particular attention though, that he’s not saying, “Get somewhere!”. The Buddha describes Effort as a process. Gil says, “Meditation is about trying to find the amount of effort necessary just to be alive, to be here right now.” So we need to be active, but we need to be compassionate and gentle with that action and with ourselves.
So maybe that gives us some handle on Effort, but what about “Right Effort”? “Right” is another charged word. Some teachers have worded this as “Wise Effort”. Rodney Smith in a 2008 talk explains his view that, “Stress reduction, mindfulness cultivation, [etc.] is Right effort, but it does not direct you toward freedom. *Wise* Effort is effort directed toward freedom.” Rodney suggests that Right Effort must also be tied to the teaching of non-self. That’s a whole discussion I don’t want to open here, but we can consider the implications.
Making effort requires an intention. Our intention is extremely important but our intention is often directed by our sense of self which the Buddha suggests is untrue. We try to *get* something for our self. We try to *protect* our self. If we create an intent based on this sense of self and we make effort to support it, then what will be the results of that effort?
[recording: Rodney Smith starting at 6:22-10:31: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/148/talk/3256/20080330-Rodney_Smith-IMSRC-right_effort_and_wise_effort.mp3%5D
In Rodney’s words, “The self manifests as a defensive resistance. …an expectation of a future recovery from the misery I’m now in. The sense of self is [this] contracted feeling. That’s the suffering. …So [normally] we make effort to surmount that contraction. But that effort to surmount the contraction is more contraction… We think we’re doing it right because that’s how we’ve always worked this thing.”
We do one thing after another to try to *solve* the puzzle of whatever problem we percieve. And that might be helpful, but it’s important to be always examining our reason behind wanting to solve the puzzle in the first place. Does it point towards freedom?
So we need to not only consider the *balance* of effort in our practice, but also the intent that underlies it. Without the other elements of the Eightfold Path, Wise Effort cannot exist. We need Wisdom to guide our intent and Compassion to keep us from over-doing it.
How do we go about this? There are many ways, but with our thoughts, the Buddha has this advice. Jack Kornfield here summarizes the Vitakkasanthana Sutta in The Wise Heart: (pp 301-304):
“The Buddha instructs his followers, ‘Like a skilled carpenter who removes a coarse peg by knocking it out with a fine one, so a person removes a pain-producing thought by substituting a beautiful one.’ The carpenter’s peg is a practical description of how we can remove unhealthy thoughts by substitution… Repetition is key.
Even so, some patterns of unhealthy thought… are so stubborn they are hard to tame by simple substitution. For these thoughts, the Buddha offers more forceful methods. … ‘And when there still arise patterns of unskillful thought, the danger that thoughts will cause pain and suffering should be clearly visualized. Then, naturally, like the abandonment of rotting garbage, the mind will turn from these thoughts and become steady, quiet, clear.’ We can actually feel the danger when we are posessed by thoughts of jealousy or anger, or we are in the grip of anxiety. These tighten and stress our whole body…
Still, some patterns of destructive thought are so strong that even more forceful measures are needed. The Buddha tells us to ‘deliberately and directly ignore these thoughts, as if shutting our eyes or quickly looking away from a disturbing and harmful sight.’
And if such patterns continue, ‘the wildly unskillful thought stream should be gradually slowed and stilled by slowing the breath step by step as if gradually slowing one’s pace from a run to a walk to standing…
the Buddha recommends a final and rarely used last resort: ‘Such thoughts should be met with force, teeth clenched, tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, determined to constrain, crush, and subdue these thoughts as if constraining a violent criminal. In this way does one become a master of thought and its courses. In this way one becomes free.'”