The Eightfold Path: Right Effort
So, what is Right Effort and why bother?
Right effort is defined as the consistent and disciplined application of energy. In this context it applies to the path of practice and the attainment of its results. When we look at Right Effort, we are really looking at a combination of intention, energy and will. In tough times, it may be better viewed as the power or ability to make something happen in spite of the circumstances and difficulties in front of us.
Right Effort is the fuel that drives practice and its necessary change, transformation and realigning of values. It leads us through the challenges and resistance that accompany the path and the letting go of the familiar and comfortable. Without appropriate effort our practice will never develop and we won’t have the necessary resources to let go of the habitual patterns that keep us running in circles, unaware and unable to stop doing the same old thing we’ve always done. Right Effort makes the difference. It determines ultimately how far we go in uprooting the suffering and dissatisfaction in our lives and how capable we become of contributing to the reduction of global suffering.
Looking at the fourfold path: lusty defilements
Within earlier Buddhist teachings Right effort was divided into four pragmatic categories (gotta love those lists). They are;
1. To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states
2. To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen
3. To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen
4. To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen
(Bhikku Bodhi, 2008)
When I read these lines the first time I was rather amused by the author’s choice of words. I actually enjoyed reading Bhikku Bodhi’s traditional Theravada take on The Noble Eightfold Path, although to me it reveals much of what is wrong with more traditional representations of Buddhist teachings. In rereading his chapter on Right Effort in preparation for this blog post, I was struck by his use of the terms ‘defilements’ and ‘lust’ on repeated occasions. What wonderful words! They seem to come straight out of the bible, or the Koran.
I’ve written in previous posts of words as suggestive symbols that entice often unintended subjective meaning and interpretation from readers and listeners. Yet, words are also keys that unlock doors of understanding, awareness and consciousness. Like all keys, words also close doors, as well as confuse and misdirect. I would hazard a guess that the words defilement and lust fail to open the appropriate doors intended along the eightfold path for most folk from my generation. Lust just happens to be the name of perfumes by both Sex and the City (I’m not kidding, TV programmes now produce fragrance for the more daring and chic) and Lush, and Defilement inspires, at least for me, thoughts of a dodgy S and M porno. Even the word wholesome is iffy, sounding like something you’d eat, rather than examine on the meditation cushion. Needless to say, I shall avoid using such terms below, or at least have them accompanied by more user-friendly words.
Going a little deeper
We can further define Right Effort here as the conscious direction of our time and energy, through alignment with a clear intent. Why is intent important in this case? Because effort and energy are not governed by ethical forces. Energy goes wherever it is directed, and effort has no ethical bias. Energy and effort are both creative and destructive forces that are harnessed either consciously through choice and applied will, or unconsciously through impulsiveness, reactivity and learnt responses, or alternatively through allowing others to determine our choices and direct our lives for us.
Energy follows the direction we give to our actions. Because so many of our actions are habitual and driven by a larger intent that may be hidden, we are often incapable of seeing accurately the driving force behind them. Much of our energy, and therefore effort, goes into maintaining the emotional and psychological structures that define our fixed sense of who we are, which is usually a very complex mess of interwoven strands of identification, our reactive patterns, beliefs, dreams and ideas.
Starting a genuine practice with a clear intent to develop insight will necessarily involve pulling energy away from the maintenance of the web of self and redirecting it towards an alternative purpose i.e. waking up. This inevitably creates conflict. Because identity and our fixed sense of who we are is at the core of our day-to-day ‘modus operandi’, the destabilising of this structure can’t help but produce friction. When this friction arises, effort is required to maintain the discipline of practice and the commitment to change. When the going gets tough, effort moves us through.
Although meditation is often sold on the idea that its main goal is to bring happiness, calm and peace of mind, for those dedicated to a more transformative endeavour, meditation actually constitutes a revolutionary path designed to root out all of the fictional strands of our life’s story and replace them with unimpeded engagement with the stream of livingness. Effort should emerge from meditation training; through Right Mindfulness. A sense of what meditation is actually doing to us, or rather the space and the quality of experience it provides is essential if we are to have sufficient commitment to practice and apply the necessary effort to obtain results. A recalibration of what’s important, aligned with a strong intent will lead to a more naturally arising commitment to following through on practice and a reduction in resistance and therefore suffering.
How does it look in practice? Applying effort.
Right Effort is essentially effort/energy directed towards the path. So, initially it is simply the development of a disciplined and consistent meditation practice. We sit and meditate every day and do our absolute best not to miss a day, not to avoid feeling guilty, but because we recognise that a lot of repetition is required to build skill and dismantle distractions and we soon catch on that it requires consistency to get good at it. In great part it is building familiarity with a socially unconventional process.
We prioritise meditation in our lives, because without doing so, we will never start to progress on the path. We create momentum through repeated reengagement with the space of meditation through regular sitting. This momentum will carry us forward so that we don’t turn away when the going gets tough, and so that we build the foundations of experience that lead to genuine insight and change. Eventually, meditation becomes as integral to our lives as sitting down to eat a meal. Then even the word meditation loses its appeal. We are not doing anything particularly abnormal, we are simply sitting and allowing things to be as they are, to settle, to reveal themselves. Another great example of the wonderful and paradoxical nature of existence: we need great effort to discover great simplicity.
Off cushion effort is required to change our habitual and conditioned behaviour and responses to people, situations and experiences. In the traditional fourfold division of Right Effort we are called to avoid certain states, get out of certain states, achieve more helpful states and maintain the best ones long-term. As anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking, or start a new discipline such as a new diet or going to the gym knows, change is not always easy. This usually ends up being doubly so for our worst emotional indulgences. A great part of change work is learning approaches that provide us with choice. Our patterns often give rise to the illusion of no choice therefore narrowing us into black and white responses that have no inherent flexibility or creativity.
Insight is so sought after on the Buddhist path because it provides a direct view into the nature of things and this includes our emotional and psychological habits. Unlike psychology that works to understand the story and the reasons why a pattern came into existence, meditation leads us into recognition of the structure of the emotional or psychological pattern; its mechanisms and form. Habitual patterns are like well worn grooves in a track in which bicycle wheels naturally slide into without effort. We are the same with our most familiar patterns. They are easy, they fit, and even if they are painful, their familiarity endears them to us.
The key as always on the Buddhist path is to prioritise our search for the end of suffering and really the dismantling of the ways we give rise to and sustain the personal mechanisms we employ for creating and sustaining a relationship with experience that maintains the illusion of a separate and permanent self. Eventually the pay off that can come from self-indulgence is insufficient in keeping us from recognising how it directly causes pain and adds to the endless mess in the world. Then we are compelled to make the effort required to change. And once you start, well, then there really is no stopping. Energy has found a new direction, and like a river flowing down hill, it is difficult to stop.
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