I’ve always found the Buddha’s many lists of wisdom teachings difficult to remember. You too? All of them are valuable, but the Noble Eightfold Path in particular, provides immediate help. It can pop you out of any mental muddle in a minute! In order to remember the eight aspects, years ago I created a visual metaphor, and I have been using it and teaching it with great success. I call it The Cooking Pot Analogy. (For those of you who have seen it before, you might notice an upgrade. I asked my artist husband Will Noble to illustrate it.)
In our ongoing exploration of what I call The Buddha’s prescription for what ails us all, I will refer back to this drawing again and again over the coming dharma posts on the Eightfold Path. If you would like a print out of it to have on hand, contact me and I’ll send it to you.
Every time I teach it, the metaphor offers me new insights, so even if you’ve studied this before, stay with me! It just gets better, the flavors melding, so to speak. 😉
To review, the first aspect of the Eightfold Path we looked at was Wise View. As you can see here it is represented by a cooking pot. You can’t get much done without a pot to cook in, can you?
In the last post we looked at Wise Intention. Now you can see that in this illustration Intention is a flame. Just the way we can reset our wise intention in every moment, if the flame goes out, you can just light another match, again and again, until the fire takes hold.
But if you want to build a useful and sustainable fire in order to cook something, you need fuel. That’s where Wise Effort comes in.
How to make effort wise
Start small – A little match flame can’t light a log, can it? No, it needs kindling. In Wise Effort we start small. Think of examples of this in your life. If you decide to do an exercise program when you haven’t done any exercise in a long time, and you try to do too much, the next day your body’s in so much pain you likely abandon all plans to exercise.
That’s an example of Wise Intention applied to unwise effort. Lesson learned. You didn’t have any ‘kindling’! You started out too ambitiously. Try again and start small!
For anyone who has never meditated before, start with a few minutes of simply sitting and knowing you are sitting, noticing physical sensations. Start small!
Build up to a sustainable level of effort — With a campfire, if you only have kindling to burn, you’ll spend all your time lighting the match and the fire won’t be sufficient to heat the contents of the pot. Just so, if you want to exercise or meditate but only practice at that minimal introductory rate of effort, you will not feel the effects of your practice. You will be relying completely on intention without seeing any substantial benefit, and you will probably give up. Wise Effort provides the necessary fuel to keep Wise Intention alive.
Find balance – Like the logs in the campfire shown here, Wise Effort is balanced so that it supports the cooking pot of Wise View. But what is balance in regard to effort? Apparently the Buddha liked metaphors, too. It is said that after his experience of enlightenment under the bodhi tree, he was sitting listening to a lute being played. He reflected on how if the strings of the lute were too loose or too tight there would be discordant sound instead of sweet music. Just so when we don’t exert enough effort or we overdo, we cause suffering with our effort instead of ease and joy. If after meditation we feel neither joy nor ease, then our effort is out of balance and unwise. This is true in any other activity in our lives as well. The Buddha called this the Middle Way.
Anchor effort in Wise View — Any effort done to prove something to ourselves or anyone else is stuck in the belief that we are isolated fortresses in need of defending. All effort from that perspective will cause suffering instead of a sense of well being.
When we sense into the infinite interconnection of all being, that deep understanding supports us the way air currents hold birds aloft. Ah!
The other aspect of Wise View is understanding the nature of impermanence.
The other day I was in the company of a young woman at the Verizon store who astonished me with her ability to read the tiny tiny tiny type on the SIM card AND could hear through a poor reception on a phone held by my husband several feet away the numbers being shared by a coworker in Texas in the process of transferring an account. Wow! Youth! No effort on my part could replicate those abilities that are part of being young. And that’s okay! It was just fun to see her in action. As we age, we can’t help but notice impermanence — in our bodies, our lives, our relationships and the world. Attachment to the way things were causes suffering. Staying present in this body, in this situation here and now, appreciating it just as it is, allows us to calibrate our effort wisely.
Listen in and befriend — We all have negative self-talk that sabotage our efforts. By listening with respect, without argument, but with a deep understanding of the fear that motivates these challenging threads of thought, we can stay grounded in our Wise Intention and Wise View, and exert Wise Effort. By these repeated skillful actions we assure these fearful aspects that our efforts are no cause for concern.
It also doesn’t hurt to do a little negotiation! I once had a resistance to exercise and discovered an inner aspect I named Slug who felt that bed was like a big mommy hug. (I had recently lost my mother.) Fortuitously, I found a yoga teacher my mother’s age who for the final pose, resting on our backs in shivassana, brought out blankets and tucked us each in. Slug was happy! And I was able to get the exercise my body craved.
Greet each moment anew — Use transitional cues to remind yourself to be present, to release whatever leftover mental muddle has you in its thrall: When you open a door, cross a threshold, turn off the car, close your laptop, look at someone’s face, look up at the sky, see a bird, see a tree — whatever works for you to bring you fully present. This will give your effort the wise intention it needs to alight and burn bright.
We will continue looking at Wise Effort in the next post, but for now experiment with it in your own life. And please share your findings here!