Noble Eightfold Path: Right Effort

An Uposatha Day teaching for the First Quarter Moon.

We don’t like to think Buddhist practice takes effort. Buddhism abounds with metaphors that might suggest it doesn’t, some traditional images and some new marketing slogans such as being already enlightened, realizing your own nature. It is true that our characters are bursting with possibilities many of which come forth when left alone. Our task is like that of a gardener, one pulls out the unskillful weeds and waters the skillful flowers, shrubs, vegetables and herbs and thereby give the desired shape to the garden. Right Resolve and Right Effort are the bookends to the Ethical Conduct Group. Right Resolve is the outline of how we conduct ourselves in the world, selflessly, with kindness and with compassion. Right Speech, Action and Livelihood are our proper verbal and physical activities. Right Effort drops down to the level of intention, the mental qualities we bring into our activities. These mental factors, like the actions they may give rise to, are sorted in terms of skillful and unskillful.

We have seen that actions of body and Speech fall under the term Karma. We need to learn a bit more about karma, in particular that there are purely mental actions as well. Karma comes in three flavors, those of Body, Speech and Mind. Actions of mind do not directly work on the world, but always work on shaping character. For instance, you might be angry at someone, so you daydream of all the ways you can gain revenge, through malicious gossip, by stealing their cell phone, and so on. Even if you do not put these things into verbal or bodily action, these thoughts are Karma and have karmic consequences for the shaping of your character. You can turn yourself into a vengeful person simply by entertaining such thoughts if you do so habitually enough. Right Effort is itself manifested in Karma, in weeding and cultivating the mind, mental actions which have intentions behind them.

What are the skillful and unskillful mental factors? How do we recognize the weeds? The answer is in the roots: The unskillful mental factors are those rooted in Greed, Hatred or Delusion, the infamous Three Poisons in Buddhist doctrine. However, you don’t need to take the Buddha’s word for this, in fact you shouldn’t. It is important to study the various mental factors that arise in the mind until you understand why the Buddha classified them in this way. The fact is, in many cases you will almost certainly disagree at first, and maybe never fully agree. For instance, Anger falls under the category of Hatred. Most people think of Anger as necessary as a motivator to fix what needs fixing (Where’s the Outrage? Alright, no more Mr. Nice Guy.). Consider this, because it is not the view of the Buddha or of untold generations of Buddhist practitioners throughout the centuries. Or lust, including for instance sexual or culinary delight, falls under Greed. Most people think of lust as the spice of life, as necessary to keep life from being dull. The Buddha himself reported that it was particularly difficult for him to see the downside of sensual pleasures, yet he finally came to regard these too as unskillful. Basically, when you look at these things, and this is a matter of developing Right View, consider two things. First, when the mental factor arises, is there suffering around it, that is, does stress or anxiety arise inseparably with the mental factor. You will be surprised how ubiquitous suffering is when you start looking, even when you think you are having fun. Second, when you allow that mental factor to give rise to an action of body or mind, are the consequences of that action desirable? How does the action play out in the world, is anyone hurt? How does it feel to yourself? Do you regret the action, does it feel right? Become an ardent student of these issues! Italian opera is a particularly useful resource in examining the unskillful qualities of lust. Unless you are a monk or nun you will probably set your own parameters around the range of Right Effort then focus on those unskillful mental factors that are particularly vexing in your life and on those skillful mental factors that you value when you see them in others.

Right Effort provides the energy of practice. Every time there is resistance to Right Anything, then Right Effort is called for. If it is time to meditate and you are just to lazy, laziness is to be weeded out and ardency needs to be watered. If you really want to eat Ted’s cookie and are about to snatch it when he is not looking, greed is to be weeded, contentment watered. Often the effort required is enormous; you may be dealing with ingrained habits or natural instinctive behaviors. There are some standard mental techniques involved in Right Effort, but you will probably discover some of your own, from substituting another thought for the one you are entertaining, to deconstructing your present thought, from changing your perspective or conceptualization of the situation, to bringing the thought into the focus of attention until it dissipates of itself. By the way, Guilt is always considered unskillful in Buddhism; Shame is OK, but Guilt is a form of Hatred. Don’t be guilty about what arises in your mind, but do recognize if for what it is and try to move it in a more skillful direction.

Right Effort is the first member of the Mental Cultivation Group of the Noble Eightfold Path. The other members of this group are Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Each of these folds is best practiced in seated meditation, walking meditation or one of the recognized postures of meditation. You can think of each of these postures as a laboratory for working with mental factors in a pure state, free from most worldly concerns and from the demands of verbal and bodily actions. In fact if you can embed this little laboratory in a remote and quite setting where you can dwell for days, weeks or months, perhaps with other meditators, that is ideal. However, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are also practices you can engage in throughout your day. This is particularly important for Right Effort, since the everyday activities and interactions present abundant situations in which factors such as anger, lust, deluded views, fear, stress, envy, jealousy, spite, restlessness, anxiety, arrogance, pride, and on and on, will arise. At the same time, Right Effort is the basis of the Mental Cultivation Group and of seated meditation. Meditation is often hindered by out thoughts of lust and anger, by sloth and torpor, by restlessness and be moments of doubt in the efficacy of practice. All of these are unskillful factors that call for some light weeding as one settles into meditation.

On this First Quarter Moon day, take a few minutes, sit down in a quiet spot and close your eyes. What thoughts come up? Is there anger, anxiety, restlessness? Is there an unsatisfied longing? Is there joy, appreciation, kindness? See if you can catch one of these thoughts and hold it for a moment. Does it feel painful or unsatisfying? Is this thought asking anything of you? Then try to catch another and another, answer the same questions.

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