Wise Effort is its own reward

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Whether we’re sitting down to meditate, making a meal, cleaning a room, or embarking on a project or adventure, it pays to pause and set our intention to use wise effort, one of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha.

But what is wise effort?  In our modern culture, we’re taught to keep our eye on the prize. So we grin and bear it, grit our teeth, and get on with it. Notice how that feels in the body. The tightness, the tension. That’s a good clue that this is not a skillful approach. Another clue is the feeling that we have to force ourselves to do things we don’t want to do. Our self-talk is full of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘have to’.

While any effort rooted in wise intention is generally better than no effort, we can set ourselves up for unnecessary suffering and create habits that cause misery all around.

For example, maybe we bribe ourselves with the end reward, whether it’s a sense of accomplishment, the praise of others, or feeling less overwhelmed or ashamed. This is living life in the same way a child might eat a meal is to deserve dessert. Most adults know how to create or order and enjoy a healthy meal. We don’t have to bribe ourselves to eat well. Yet we may use that childhood technique of focusing on an end reward to force ourselves to do tasks we’d rather avoid.

In the last dharma post, I invited you to think about something you are doing or want to do that excites you. In this post, I invite you to examine what you need to do to more fully engage and keep the excitement alive. And as you do so, notice what kind of effort you bring to the project.

In class, our sangha sister who’s a potter said that she loves the creative process of working with clay, but doesn’t much care for all the prep work. I suggested she allow her relationship with the clay to start long before the creative part of the process begins. Those stages of preparation are intrinsic parts of the process, arent’ they? All the tactile involvement with that slab of clay can be just as alive and engaging as the eventual transformation of the clay into an object from the potter’s imagination. That relationship is a unitive collaboration, not a force of will on inert matter.

I share this example because it applies to many kinds of activities. Even before we are doing the part of the process that excites us, we are coming into a relationship with the materials. Whether that is foodstuff, household objects, dust and grime, words, ideas, numbers, etc., all the stages of interacting are intrinsic to the experience that we imbue with our passion, interest, and understanding.

If we are focused only on the end goal, we miss out! And in the end, what do we have? An accomplishment. A temporarily clean room that’s fit to be seen by others but may make us feel exhausted and filled with dread about the next bout of laborious tidying, vacuuming, and dusting. There may be a desire for praise and it’s not forthcoming or is insufficient to make up for the drudgery. Or we may become attached to the end result, that clean space, for example; and feel irritated when someone sets a glass on that just cleaned table, as if the state of the room is more important than the people who inhabit it. Focused on the end result, we can’t help but want it to remain pristine. Why? Because we’re proud of it, but also because we dread having to spend our time doing chores we loath again, and again, and again. 

You might recognize this as a battle with impermanence, a hopeless challenge that causes misery all around.

Of course, it’s nice to have a clean room. But it doesn’t have to be drudgery to make it so. It can be done with wise effort, staying fully in the moment, feeling the aliveness of the body moving in space, being in relationship with surfaces. Maybe we turn on some favorite music and dance as we clean. Remember that scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Whistle While You Work? She was certainly in the moment with that experience, wasn’t she? Wise Effort is bringing that aliveness to everything we do, recognizing that this is not a ‘chore’ that must be got through but yet another expression of life, loving itself into being.

You can see how this applies to much more than housekeeping. We set goals and live for accomplishments in many areas of our lives. Maybe we go to school only to get a degree. Maybe we work only to make money. And then what? I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem about reflecting on what it is we are doing with our one wild and precious life. To live fully present in the moment whatever we are doing is the gift of awareness and self-compassion.

Keeping our eye on the prize only strengthens the mind-numbing habit of future focus, so even when the moment we have been living for comes, we don’t have the skills to stay fully present to savor it. We miss this moment. This precious moment. Just as it is. The classic Buddhist sand mandala takes days of mindful labor by monks for whom this is just another form of meditation, excellent practice in being present. And when it is done, the sand is swept away! An excellent lesson in impermanence.

So often after a loved one dies, people say, “Oh, I wish I had spent more time with them. I wish I hadn’t said I was too busy, that I hadn’t said ‘maybe after this project is finished’, or this goal is achieved, then I will have more time to relax and be with them. But now they are gone. I had my priorities all wrong.” 

Wise effort is its own reward. The moment-to-moment doing is satisfying and engaging. And whatever comes out of that wise effort will be able to be fully appreciated.

This is not to avoid hard work, but to redefine and reclaim the nature of that activity. How it feels to be doing that work. If the only satisfaction is in the end accomplishment, that makes for very few moments of true joy in life, doesn’t it? And if the effort is mindless and painful, we are likely to feel we deserve a reward that might be something unhealthy or unskillful. Then we may feel guilty for over-indulgence, and we go mindless in our unskillful efforts to find some balance by over-correcting, racing about, or diving under the covers to hide away in shame.

Wise effort is learning to dance with all that arises in all its amazing variations. Not to be seen, but to engage fully in the felt sense of being alive in this moment. When we can come to everything we do in this way, our effort feels effortless. And each moment of wise effort is its own reward.

I have written many dharma posts about wise effort, if you’d like to keep exploring. Here’s one:

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