The Eightfold Path, part 6
This article is the sixth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the sixth factor of the path, right effort. This is an important dimension of the path with many subtleties, so we'll spend some time unpicking each step. First, though, I'd like to cover off another way you'll sometimes hear 'right effort' described.
Right effort as 'how much effort should you use in meditation?'
Effort is a contentious topic in Buddhism. Some people will tell you that practice should always be effortless, and anything else is wrong. My guess is that they're people who were prone to over-efforting themselves, and so their teachers gave them the most extreme advice in the hope of getting them to relax their grip just a little - and now they've taken that as a universal truth that applies to all meditators.
I've recently written about the dangers of using too much effort in practice, so I do absolutely agree that over-efforting is a problem - but I think it's going too far to say that any effort at all is bad or wrong. The fact is that we don't always want to practise, and it takes a certain amount of effort even to get ourselves to sit down on the cushion and start to meditate. Until the mind is quite deeply concentrated, it's also prone to distraction, and it does take a bit of effort to keep re-committing to the object of meditation until the mind settles sufficiently. This is why, in the article I linked above, I talked about 'relaxed diligence' - we absolutely do want to be relaxed, but we also need to be diligent, and that implies at least a bit of effort at times.
That previous article goes into this topic in more detail, so I'll leave it here for now and move on to the description of right effort found in Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, as shown at the top of this article.
The Four Great Efforts
SN45.8 defines right effort in terms of the 'four great efforts'. The definitions of the four are compact and sound a bit repetitive, so it's worth spending some time teasing each of the four apart to see how we might apply them in practice.
1. The effort to cause the non-arising of an unarisen unwholesome state
There's a whole lot of negatives in this one. Let's start at the end and work backwards. First, we need to understand what's meant by an 'unwholesome state'. What makes a state unwholesome? From the standpoint of early Buddhism, a state is unwholesome if it's conditioned by one or more of the Three Poisons - greed, hatred and confusion/delusion. Another classical list of unwholesome states is the Five Hindrances - sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, sceptical doubt.
More generally, though, there's an invitation here to observe ourselves as we go through our days, using the mindfulness that we've cultivated in our meditation practice to see what makes us tick. The first two Noble Truths relate to understanding our first-person experience of suffering and what causes it to arise. We can't do that in the abstract; all we can do is observe ourselves and see what gives rise to suffering and negative states of mind. As we come to understand those better and better, we'll begin to identify triggers, and we can then act on that knowledge and start to avoid problems before they even come up.
Here's a concrete example. Suppose I'm a busy person and I don't always have time to eat breakfast - but, after a while of doing this practice, I notice that, on the days when I've skipped breakfast, my mornings seem to be generally more difficult, particularly around about 11 o'clock, when everything starts to feel just a bit more annoying than it really needs to be. It turns out that there's a name for this unwholesome state: 'hangry' (angry because hungry). It isn't that the world is secretly conspiring against me at 11am on certain days; it's that, by skipping breakfast, my body is a little bit undernourished, and the hunger that I've been keeping swept under the carpet is actually manifesting as a more critical, negative view of the people and events around me. Fortunately, this one has a relatively easy fix - I can commit to doing my very best to have breakfast every single day, come what may, even if I have to get up a few minutes earlier on a really busy day. This will require some effort on my part, but it also means I won't get hangry at 11am, and that's good for me and the people around me.
2. The effort to abandon an arisen unwholesome state
Sometimes, though, we find ourselves already in an unwholesome state. We can't go back in time and avoid it - it's here already. So the invitation of the second Great Effort is to find a way to get ourselves out of that 'arisen unwholesome state' - to abandon it.
Whereas the first Great Effort was more about detecting patterns in our personal triggers and learning to work around them, and could thus potentially be performed with at least some degree of thought and analysis 'at a distance', the second Great Effort is a much more visceral experience. You're right there in the thick of it, caught up in anger, fear, worry, greed, whatever it might be. To make matters worse, negative states often tend to have a self-reinforcing quality - realising that we're angry can make us even angrier ('how dare he make me feel this way?'), realising that we're worried can make us even more worried ('if I keep worrying like this I won't be able to sleep, and then I'll feel even worse tomorrow...'), and so on - which can make it even trickier to extract ourselves from what's going on.
This step is where some skill in meditation is profoundly helpful - I honestly don't know of a better tool. The trick is that, in order to extract ourselves from a negative state, even if we have some kind of tool for changing our mind state (whether it's meditative, deep breathing, visualisation or something else entirely), we must first have that moment of mindfulness which says 'Oh, hey! I see what's going on. I'm in an unwholesome state, and it would be in my best interest to get out of it.' For me, at least, I've found that a regular meditation practice has greatly increased the frequency of those moments of mindfulness, and also their duration - giving me a longer window in which to do something about the negative state I've gotten myself into, before I get sucked back into it again.
Meditation is great training for the second Great Effort. A core part of the act of meditation is having those moments of mindfulness - noticing that, for the thousandth time this sitting, my attention has wandered away from the breath, body or whatever else I'm paying attention to, and that I need to make that small but significant effort to bring it back on topic again. That simple act is a kind of training is extracting myself from an unwholesome state (defined here as mind-wandering) and returning to a wholesome state (paying attention to my meditation object). We can liken this to lifting a small weight many, many times - over time, we get stronger, even if it takes a long time and we don't really notice the changes.
That moment of mindfulness is just the start, of course. We still need a way out of the unwholesome state. In some cases, that might be simple: in the hangry example, perhaps we notice that, once again, we skipped breakfast and now we're getting grumpy - but now that we're aware of the pattern, we can eat a banana or grab a handful of cashews from the secret stash under our desk at work, and that'll be enough to mollify the body until lunchtime. Some unwholesome states are likely to need individual solutions according to the specific situation. Other times, though, we may be able to bring general strategies to bear on the situation, and here again we see a benefit of a regular meditation practice, as we move on to...
3. The effort to cause the arising of an unarisen wholesome state
Many meditation techniques aim to bring about the arising of a wholesome state of some kind, thereby accomplishing the third Great Effort. Here are some examples:
In general, in early Buddhism the emphasis is on finding resources inside ourselves, rather than being dependent on the external world to supply sources of pleasure to keep us feeling good. It's easy to think 'Oh, I'll just eat another chocolate, that'll make me feel better,' but while that does trigger an all-too-brief experience of pleasure and a momentary decrease in stress, it's also not as good as having an inner source of wholesome states. (For one thing, maybe you've run out of chocolate and the shop is shut.) The momentariness of the pleasure of eating chocolate is also worth considering, particularly in light of the fourth Great Effort:
4. The effort to maintain and develop an arisen wholesome state
We don't just want a flash in a pan - a moment's relief from whatever unwholesome state we've dragged ourselves out of. Ideally, we want that wholesome state to persist, and even to get stronger.
My teacher's teacher Ayya Khema said that you should always begin a meditation session with some metta (loving kindness) practice. Quite apart from the cumulative benefit of the loving kindness practice itself, it also serves to put us into a wholesome state at the beginning of our meditation session, which tends to make everything that follows go a little more easily.
Sometimes, though, I'll sit down and try to get the metta going, but what comes out is a bit of a dribble... like a tap that's rusted up and doesn't want to open up all the way. There's some metta there, but it's a bit of a struggle and it'll fizzle out if I'm not careful - like the first wisp of smoke coming from a newly lit fire, that needs to be tended with care if it's going to become a steady blaze. What's needed at this point is care and subtlety - a nurturing attitude, providing an environment in which this embryonic feeling of metta can grow and develop, gradually opening up the tap until it's flowing more strongly.
This takes skill, and that skill comes from practice and repetition. Over time, we learn how to shift into this 'nurturing' attitude in order to help our fledgling wholesome states become their fullest selves. As we do so, we also learn how to maintain wholesome states in increasingly difficult situations. It's quite common for people new to meditation to start to find some peace and happiness in their practice, only for that to be shattered by a difficult encounter at work or a challenging family situation. This type of experience can knock the confidence of a new meditator - 'Oh, what's the use, it didn't work when it really mattered!' But it's just a matter of degree. Someone going to the gym for the first time isn't likely to be able to lift the heaviest weights. At any point in our practice, we'll have situations which really don't trouble us at all, situations which we can work with if we're careful, situations right on the edge of our abilities (which is where the most potential for growth can be found), and situations which are too much for us. A good sign of progress is when a situation that used to take some conscious effort to navigate no longer bothers us in the same way - our 'easy' category has grown larger, because our skills have grown stronger. Yes, there may still be situations which can knock us off balance and cause us to lose our cool, but expecting perfection is asking too much of ourselves. The fact is that, through regular practice, we can learn to inhabit more robust wholesome states more and more of the time - and each time we move the needle, even just a little, our lives get a little bit better overall.
May you develop the skill and wisdom needed to avoid unarisen unwholesome states, abandon arisen unwholesome states, bring about unarisen wholesome states and cultivate arisen wholesome states!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!