Right Effort brings joy and ease. If after meditation we feel neither joy nor ease, then we have not exerted Right Effort. This is true in any other activity in our lives as well.
Effort is expending physical or mental energy. We can feel energy in our bodies, so we can feel when we are straining or when we are resisting making an effort. We can feel when we are trying too hard, over doing it or when our efforts are half-hearted at best.
Each of us has a wide range of energies within us, depending on multiple physical, emotional and environmental factors. But most of us have a set point somewhere in the mid range, a default position. It’s easy to know where our own set point on this range by checking in with our natural inclinations. If we generally can’t sit still and want to go for a run or are restless for a mental challenge, our energetic set point is on the high side. If we’d rather snuggy down with a book and a cup of tea — not just after an active period, but as the main event of our day — then our set point is on the low end.
It’s useful to know our natural set point in order to recognize when effort will be needed. For the high set point, effort will be needed to sit still. Sitting meditation may be a challenge, either physically because the body wants to move, or mentally because the mind is racing.
For those with a low set point, effort will be required to take on physical or mental challenges. This is no reason to beat ourselves up, calling ourselves lazy. But it’s also no reason to limit ourselves to a sedentary life. We just accept that more effort will be required of us for active challenges.
If we have a high set point, we may cut ourselves off from activities that require us to sit for periods of time or ask us to pay attention. Our restlessness seems to preclude this kind of passive participation, and we may mourn that loss or we may prefer to judge those activities as worthless. But we don’t have to limit ourselves this way. We just need to develop patience as we learn a different kind of effort than the kind that challenges our muscles or our brain.
Most of us know from personal experience that when undertaking a new exercise regimen, we can sabotage ourselves if we do too much on the first day. We may injure ourselves or have such an unhappy experience we can’t bear to repeat it. We learn that if we begin small and add on incrementally, with dedication and patience we will achieve our desired results.
This is also true with meditation. If you are not a meditator and would like to start, begin with a few minutes of sitting in silence following your breath. Then gradually build up to 30 or 40 minutes. To expect yourself to be able to sit for 40 minutes the first time out may set you up for thinking meditation is not for you.
We also know from experience that if we don’t feel like getting off the couch and out on the walking path, when we do we feel better. And this is also true for meditation. The effort is simply setting the intention and getting ourselves to start.
As well as sensing into our bodies to see if we are exerting Right Effort, we also want to notice our thoughts – the stories we tell ourselves that support over-exertion or giving up: “I don’t want to stop until I’m done, no matter how I feel, because I’m not a quitter.” “I have to prove how good I am to myself and or others.” “People won’t like me unless I’m perfect.” “Why should I bother? It won’t make any difference,” “If I can just accomplish this one thing everything will be perfect in my life.”
Whatever our stories are, it is worthwhile to really listen to them, follow them back to their source, see if there is someone else’s voice in there – a parent, teacher, childhood friend perhaps? By exploring with great compassion the roots, intentions and fears expressed by these stories, we can begin to unravel the tight knotted tangle of thoughts that trip us up and cause us to be unskillful in our efforting.
The spacious presence that we develop through the practice of meditation is key to Right Effort. In the practice of meditation itself, there is a certain amount of effort required: The effort to honor our intentions to bring ourselves continually back to the present moment and to be kind. The effort to stay relaxed but alert, without fidgeting or falling asleep. Every time we meditate we are practicing Right Effort. We notice when our efforting becomes tense or strained. We can see how unskillful this kind of effort is, how it takes us out of the moment, is potentially harmful and counter-productive.
If we don’t feel joyful or at ease after meditation or other activities, then it is this aspect of the Eightfold Path that we might want to ponder. Like all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort is a guidepost to show us where we may be causing ourselves and others suffering, and to cast a light on our path toward freedom from suffering.
Right Effort is finding the Middle Way, as the Buddha did. As a child and young man, no effort was required of him. He was coddled by his wealthy family. So, not surprisingly, when the opportunity arose, he was drawn to the opposite extreme and followed the ascetics for whom deprivation was a spiritual practice. To attain enlightenment he was told he must exert great effort, denying every desire of his body and mind. He was exceptionally gifted at doing so, but it didn’t fulfill what he was seeking. Finally, he rejected both extremes, indulgence and asceticism. He found the Middle Way to be the clearest path the end suffering.
So when we feel ourselves straining, putting our well being at risk, this is not Right Effort. When we feel ourselves slipping into oblivion, this is not Right Effort. Right Effort is fully conscious, fully alert, yet relaxed and buoyant.
Think of a violin or other stringed instrument. If the violin strings are pulled too tight what happens? If they are too loose what happens? The violin can only make beautiful music when its strings are neither too tight nor too loose. And so it is true with us as well. With spacious awareness we can tune ourselves to Right Effort.
Right Effort comes from a deeper connected place within us. Quieting down and settling in, we find this calm connection and from there anything we do will feel almost effortless because it will rise up from within us in a natural font. Does the tidal water make an effort to rise? No, it is a natural arising out of its nature and surrounding conditions.
This may seem all well and good if we are in touch with our deep connection. But what if we are not aware of it? How do we get aware of it in order to experience this effortless Right Effort?
In this case Right Effort is simply getting ourselves to our cushion to sit. Once there, our effort is to follow our breath and notice and then let go of any ambition for achievement, fear of failure, anticipation of results, reflection on past experiences or judgment about ourselves, our teachers, our fellow meditators, our parents, our culture, a higher power, or any other object of blame for our current state of suffering.
By using the least amount of effort possible to bring ourselves back to the breath, to awareness of this present moment, we don’t waste our energy with tension, regrets or recriminations. We simply accept our humanity and celebrate this awakening to this moment, and then this one. Again and again.