As we look at the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, at first glance Wise Effort seems the easiest to understand. We see from our own experience and by observing others how over-efforting and under-efforting cause all kinds of problems in life, from the tense host striving to make everything ‘perfect’, causing her guests to feel uneasy; to the couch potato who seems unable to move forward in life; to the ambitious dreamer who seems always in motion but whose wheels are spinning.
Any of these sound familiar? Using the Eightfold Path as a guide for self-exploration, we see that this is not about self-improvement or changing who we are. We are instead looking at patterns in our thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are causing us, and probably those around us, unhappiness. These patterns do not define us. But they may be confining us a bit, and that’s why we want to look more closely.
To investigate, we don’t use our overdeveloped muscle of critical facility, the fault-finder that is often particularly adept at turning inward and causing misery. Instead, with regular meditation, we cultivate mindfulness, compassion and spaciousness where all the tight patterns are able to loosen, soften and quiet down. Only when the cacophony of harsh judgments and strident opinions have been given enough space to settle down, do we have the opportunity to hear the quiet, calm, loving voice of our own inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. This is one of the great gifts of regular meditation practice.
Once we have accessed that inner wisdom in meditation, we can recognize it at other times as well. We can actively seek it out at any time, just by quieting down and listening in. And over time we begin to align more and more with that wiser way of seeing what is actually going on in our experience. We become less reactive and more responsive. When it comes to effort, we are better able to identify the cause of our unskillfulness. We can see what’s really happening with the examples I gave above:
If you relate to the host who wants everything perfect for her guests but instead creates tension, let’s review Wise Intention from the previous blog post. We can see that her intention is not wise. Why? She is fearfully caught up in wanting people to see her in a certain way, in order to admire, respect and love her. She is busy shoring up her separate identity. That is literally off-putting. She puts people off by setting herself apart. She wants to be seen as the kind of person she aspires to be.
A wise intention, such as the intention to be compassionate to herself and all beings, would ensure that she takes care of herself, takes on only as much as she can handle, asks for help or, if she can afford it, hire help, so that she can be fully present to interact with her guests. If this means she doesn’t get a write-up on the society page, so be it! If that was her intention, it was painfully unwise. What people respond to is coming into a space and being greeted by a person who is fully present, fully engaged and not freaking out about whether the space or the food is up to the standards of some magazine editor who probably eats mostly take out in her NYC apartment anyway.
After a dharma talk of setting truest intentions one student came up to me and said that she thinks her truest intention is authenticity, but she wasn’t sure about the wording. That reminded me of an insight I had on a silent retreat that has stayed with me for many years, and has helped me and students I’ve shared it with again and again. I promised my students I would include it here. It is:
I have nothing to hide.
I have nothing to prove.
I have nothing to fear.
I have something to give.
See if this phrase empowers you to live without regard to how people see you. For me, it helped me to stop seeing myself as an object being viewed by others, and allowed me to simply live from the center of my being. This is a challenge women often relate to more than men. Men are generally encouraged to ‘Be your own man.’ But women, traditionally, have been encouraged to put others first and to polish themselves up to be beautiful objects in body and manner in order to attract a mate. Even the princesses among us who promote themselves as the center of the universe are caught up in needing to be objects to be adored, totally dependent on exterior approval. Plenty of men fall into this pattern as well. But rather than demanding that others see us as the center of their worlds, it is possible to live with ease and clarity, making all our efforts grounded in wisdom.
If you related more to the couch potato, your compassionate investigation will not include derogatory terms like ‘couch potato’! That’s not your wise inner voice but one of the many judgmental ones that contributed to the pattern of lethargy you find yourself succumbing to. Set a wise intention — to meditate regularly, to be compassionate, and to attune to the muscles that want to move and the mind that wants a challenge. As a kindness to your heart, eat sensibly and get up and move about. Find the natural strength and fluidity that is within you, waiting to be set free. That is compassion. If you just can’t muster the will to make an effort, ask for help. But choose someone who will help you investigate what’s going on rather than a drill sergeant who makes you feel even more miserable about yourself even as you ‘get into shape.’ Compassion is not giving in to your most fear-based patterns of thinking, but attuning to the vibrant potential for living fully in every moment.
You might be inspired by this story from PBS Newshour called ‘Back on my feet’ : http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/morning-run-can-first-step-homelessness/
If you recognize yourself in the dreamer with the spinning wheels, your compassionate investigation will be to notice the circular patterns, the walls you have set up and the short circuits in your thinking that bounce you back to square one again and again. By living in the future, imagining some perfect life, you are completely missing the offerings of this moment. No matter what your situation, no matter how imperfect, there is in this moment some beauty, some light, something funny, something touching. There is a zen story that speaks to this:
There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.
He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.
So set the intention to meditate, then listen in to that wise inner voice, the one that helps you set an intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with yourself and all beings. Discover how to live fully in this moment and your life will unfold in its own way, more and more aligned with your truest intention. Let your life surprise you with its gifts!
Wise effort is not how much we accomplish, but the kind of the effort we are making in whatever we do. Often when we are exercising we are caught up in a goal: To get to the end of the course, the trail, the time period allotted; to change the way our body appears so that it will be more attractive or acceptable; to have bragging rights that we are able to run or even won a marathon. There’s nothing at all wrong with winning, but focusing on that isn’t wise effort. We can win with wise effort and go on to enjoy the activity. Winning with unskillful effort leaves us exhausted and without a sense of purpose in our lives.
Wise Effort is meditating on a regular basis, setting up and sustaining a daily practice. Kudos for that! Once we are sitting, we continue to use Wise Effort to stay present and compassionate with ourselves, to adjust our posture as we so that it is both erect and relaxed, and we rely on the bones instead of the muscles to support us, and if we notice any tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree we are able.
Goal-setting in meditation is not wise effort, sabotaging our ability to stay present and compassionate. The goal stays ever distant, always on the horizon. When we shift away from imagining the outcome and instead cultivate in this moment a spacious way to be in relationship with all that is occurring right now, we become available to insight and deepened understanding.
Awakening is both potentially instantaneous and a lifelong rich exploration. It happens each time we become fully present, each time our heart is cracked open a bit more with compassion, each time we recognize that we and all beings are intrinsic to the whole of being. We become more and more familiar with our Buddha nature, that wise inner wisdom that speaks softly, has no agenda and all the time in the world. So it really is up to our Wise Intention and our Wise Effort to practice meditation, become more spacious and available to attune to that inner wisdom. All the fear-based judgments and opinions within our thinking mind have enough room to co-exist and feel heard, even if they don’t get to rule the roust. We understand the protective impulse of their fear-based intentions. Over time we begin to see them for what they are: patterns of thought initially launched by some words or actions of someone long ago, who was unskillful because of all the fear-based patterns they were dealing with. Another opportunity for compassion. Which is not the same as condoning or approval of behavior.
Our Wise Effort is to keep cultivating spaciousness and compassion, for ourselves, for everyone in our lives, even those who push our buttons, and for the contributors from the past whose own unskillfulness set off an unskillful pattern within us. This is our practice. Sometimes it is skillful to put distance between ourselves and someone who pushes our buttons. Although we are developing inner wisdom, there is no reason to force ourselves to confront our demons constantly. In fact, we are actively seeking our community of people who support us in our wise effort, and letting go of actively involving ourselves with people whose fear pushes them to antagonize us. At some time we may be ready to sit with them, but we can give ourselves permission to wait until the time is right. Meanwhile we send them infinite lovingkindness whenever we think of them: May you be well.
Wise Effort has a quality of effortlessness because the exertion is appropriate for this body, mind, time and place. It is enough to keep us engaged in an optimum way and mindful so that we are not prone to accidents.
What are some examples in your own life of wise or unwise effort? What might be a skillful way address the challenge?
On silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, all attendees are given yogi jobs so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or create meals. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen, vacuumed dormitory hallways, swept porches, cleaned bathrooms and maintained the Council House. But on one retreat I really wanted as little potential interaction with other retreatants as possible, so they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls.
Right away I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space.
Since I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, each day as I took up my sponge, squeegee and scrub brush, I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work. It started with bare tolerance, trying to be a good sport. Then I noticed some 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.
A few days in I sensed into 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.
So coming into the present, noticing all the judgments and opinions that arise in relationship to what we are doing, we develop a skillful relationship with even the most mundane tasks. In this way all we do becomes part of our practice. That’s Wise Effort.
No one has our individual answers. But if we notice that we are out of balance in the area of effort and that this under or over efforting is causing problems, then we can skillfully test out either taking on physical or mental challenges, or we can let up on the whip a bit.
I have written many posts over the years on Wise Effort. Feel free to explore more.