Wise Effort – Finding the right balance

While meditating before giving my dharma talk I noticed that when I over-effort — striving and straining, trying to get something right — the ‘cure’ is to apply my intention to be kind. Loving-kindness, releases the tight knots of unskillful exertion. I feel released into a quality of supported ease, where I am not alone, separate, singular in my efforts. I send metta to myself: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease…and I find the joy of wise effort in my meditation practice.


Conversely, it is easy to see that the ‘cure’ for under-efforting, where the mind dulls and lethargy sets in, is to apply the intention to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation. There is joy in cultivating mindfulness.


We can discern between Wise Effort and unwise effort if we are paying attention. Unwise effort leads to suffering for ourselves and others. Wise Effort is a direct cause of happiness. There are few things in life that can cause such an immediate sense of well being as Wise Effort.


In our Cooking Pot Analogy, we have established that you can’t start the fire without the match flame of Wise Intention. Now you can see that Wise Effort is represented by the crossed logs of a campfire.


Have you ever built a traditional log fire? If so, you know that you can’t just set out a log or two and hold a match to it. You need to lay out the logs in a way that they will remain steady and support each other. And you need crumpled wads of newspaper and kindling — smaller pieces of wood that will catch fire more easily — in order to start the fire and get it going strong enough to eventually light the logs. Building a campfire that will actually heat the pot requires a combination of understanding the requirements of the task and a willingness to take the time necessary to do it. That is Wise Effort.


Imagine being so hungry to eat the contents of the cooking pot that you rush through the laying of the campfire, thus get poor results and no meal. Or conversely imagine getting so caught up in the campfire building that you lose sight of the overall purpose — to heat the pot. Wise Effort keeps a balanced awareness of both the bigger picture and the task at hand.


We have explored Wise Effort — as Right Effort and Spacious Effort — before in this blog, and if you are interested in exploring further, I encourage you to check out these older posts.


This time around we have the benefit of our year long study of the teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to work from, so it seemed right to use the word ‘Wise’ because we have earned it! (If you are just joining us don’t worry, that’s not a prerequisite.)


We can look at the Five Hindrances that we studied a few months ago and recognize how they cause unskillful effort.


  1. The hindrance of desire might cause us to want instant gratification without effort, or to set our eyes so much on ‘the prize’ that we are caught up in striving and can’t be present, even when we achieve our goal.
  2. Aversion might cause us to resist making any effort at all, perhaps because nothing seems worthy of our effort.
  3. Restlessness and worry cause us to spin our wheels, to be ineffectual in our efforts.
  4. Sloth and torpor leaves us stuck in enertia, perhaps depleted from unskillful over-efforting and lost in depression and despair.
  5. Doubt might cause us to second guess every move so that we exert effort in unskillful fits and starts.


We can also look at the Five Aggregates, these aspects of life experience we erroneously believe to be who we are. When we are caught in the illusion of being a separate self our efforts are often unskillful, because our intentions are built on the fear of disappearing. If we can reset our Wise Intentions again and again, we may find that the fear softens and releases.


If you ever have the opportunity to observe babies and toddlers for any period of time, notice how they naturally do what they need to do in order to learn and experience life and they do it with joy. I imagine this joy is in part a feeling of being at one with the universe. There has not yet been a sense of separation established, a mindset of being solo in this life. When we believe ourselves to be separate, then we have a more exhausting challenge and feel unsupported. The baby, the plant, the tree is intrinsically supported because it doesn’t see itself as apart from the whole energetic is-ness of being. Well, all right, it’s hard to know what a tree thinks or believes, but when we release into the understanding of the nature of inter-connection, it certainly gives ease and powerful energy to our efforts.


For our class discussion, we explored various examples — from our lives or the lives of people we know — of unwise or unskillful effort and its consequences.


One important theme was the painful consequences of over-efforting. We all have had the experience of taking on a project and pushing ourselves to complete it within a tight time-frame. Even though our body is sending out signals that we need to take a break or quit for the day, we plod on, determined to finish. And what happens? Accidents, pain, long-term suffering, sometimes permanent disability, sometimes death. Hello? We need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies as we go about our tasks. Wise Effort knows when to stop!


Similarly, an all or nothing attitude can get us into trouble. If we have been exerting no effort and suddenly decide ‘enough is enough’ and set ourselves a grueling course of exercise — going from couch potato to marathon runner in one day — we totally sabotage the possibility of developing a sensible exercise plan. The next day we will be in such pain that it’s back to the couch for us. ‘Well, I gave it a shot!’ Really?


Another way we sabotage ourselves into unwise effort is by procrastinating. We put ourselves into a time crunch and give ourselves ‘no choice’ but to rush to complete the task. Well, we did have a choice in every moment along the way. We just kept choosing the unskillful one.


A clue to unwise effort can often be found in the language we use when talking to ourselves. For example, the word ‘should’ is used frequently to point out that we feel misaligned with our intentions, that we are exerting unskillful effort. See if you find that word in your vocabulary. It’s an opportunity to explore where you are conflicted and what’s keeping you from exerting Wise Effort.


Tension in the body when you are doing something is a clue that we are operating from a finite depletable source of energy; that we are striving, forcing things, feeling some conflict about what we are doing, whether it’s the amount of time we are given to do it or whether this is something we want or feel is right to do. Back to questioning our intentions!


We discussed how Wise Effort could be applied to planning a big event, like a wedding. Although it’s important to see the big picture, it’s wise to then divide all that’s required into do-able bits, manageable tasks, and only do the one that’s needed now. Allow this task to be its own event, to be joyful and meaningful in itself.


Remember that the most skillful surgeons bring all their experience to bear on this moment, fully present, loving what they do. In fact, loving what you do is a prerequisite to Wise Effort. You might say ‘Well there are some things I love to do, but there are some things I just have to do, love it or not.’ 

Yes, that’s true for all of us, but let me share my experience on a silent retreat: 
Every retreatant is given a ‘yogi job’ so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or provide meals. On this particular retreat I asked for a job that would allow me to maintain my silence completely, so they gave me scrubbing shower stalls. Yup, that would do it. Oh joy!
I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space with cleaning product fumes. The cleaning products are non-toxic and the work requires a half-hour to forty-five minutes a day, but still… I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, and each day I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work:
  • At first I did it because I had to and I just tolerated it as best I could to get through it. I was a ‘good sport.’ And I labored with the hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job. 
  • Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings. 
  • And then I felt my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
  • I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.


Perfectionism
You can see from the above example that at a certain point the goal was set aside, the idea that at any one point in time that shower had to be glowing to pass inspection. Many of us live life as if there is this looming inspection day just ahead, and we will be judged. So we spend our time — yes I say ‘we’ because perfectionism is something I deal with — judging ourselves constantly, seeing all that we do with some imaginary judges eyes.


Perfectionism arises, at least in part, out of a need to feel we can control the world, but can we? Of course not. Things happen all the time that are completely outside of our control. No matter how immaculate our house or person, a big wind could come and make a mess of it. No matter how good a job we do, someone might not approve of us, might not like us, and we will still survive. Passing inspection is not the goal of life.


To strive for perfection is to live in delusion, one of the ways we create suffering for ourselves and others. In many traditions of craft, such as rug or quilt making, it is important to have one mistake on the piece because no one but God is perfect. Whether we believe in God or not, it’s a good reminder to not be attached to perfectionism.


Does this mean we don’t do our best? Of course not. It is a joy and pleasure to work hard. But Wise Effort means being present with the joy of the work and not live with our minds entangled in the future, focused only on the end result.


Wise Effort is balanced effort, neither pushing too hard nor avoiding exertion. Finding that balance takes awareness, noticing the nature of our effort in this moment. Are we straining, striving, stressing, or are we lethargic, lax, bored, avoiding mental or physical exertion? And if so, how do we respond to that recognition? With judgment or with kindness, and a resetting of our intentions?


If we have our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind, then our efforts are going to be wise, and unskillful efforting will be seen and instead of judged, simply adjusted with kindness and renewed wise effort.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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