Napa Valley Insight Meditation Message Board › Wise Effort: Readings for July 8th NVMG Meeting
This Tuesday (July 8th) I will be leading the Sangha and would like to discuss the Buddhist concept of wise (or right) effort. This is one of the factors in the eightfold path that along with right mindfulness and right concentration helps us cultivate greater awareness and joy in our daily lives. The reading for our discussion comes from Phillip Moffitt’s book, “Dancing with Life: Buddhist insights for finding meaning and joy in the face of suffering.”
You can download a copy of the reading by clicking on the link below:
Please print out a copy and bring it with you to the meeting.
Wise effort has to do with the energy we bring to our practice, during both formal meditation and the attention we bring to being mindful in our daily lives. The idea is that we are learning to cultivate and train our minds in such a way that we can see thought patterns as they arise and shift from one object of thought to another. Learning and perfecting this skill can help us to more clearly see when we’re obsessing on unwholesome thoughts (worry, doubt, aversion, craving shame, fear, etc.) and to shift away from them. It can also help us to cultivate wholesome thoughts by placing our attention on them and giving us the ability to sustain our attention.
Sylvia Boorstein considers wise effort “the unsung hero of the eightfold path. I agree with her. Wise effort is necessary for any of the 7 other steps to be effective. It’s the basic engine of all the rest. Traditionally, wise effort is taught as letting go of the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome. Below are the tradition four steps as presented by Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being.”
1. When there is no unwholesome, to not let any arise. There is so much to do in this world, don’t go looking for suffering, don’t go stirring up trouble, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
2. When there is unwholesome, to let it go. Not always easy. The Buddha taught: “Abandon what is unskillful. One can abandon the unskillful. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do so.” We all know we can get really hooked, what Pema Chodron calls shenpa, we can get hijacked by old patterns. We can be really attached to old views, beliefs, behaviors.
3. When there is wholesome, to recognize it and take in the good. When we experience the wholesome, to notice, experience, savor for 10-30 seconds, give the brain the time it needs to install the wholesome as resource. The more we can repeat that experience of the wholesome, the more readily, the more easily we can access it. And the more we can fill ourselves up with the wholesome, the easier it becomes to let go of the unwholesome.
4. Where there is no wholesome, to cultivate it. Our traditional practices of cultivating kindness, compassion, gratitude, patience, perseverance, equanimity. And the Buddha taught, when we are determined to increase the wholesome, we should practice as though our hair were on fire. To be ardent, diligent, and resolute. Like you really mean it. Wise effort is all about abandoning the unskillful and cultivating the skillful through a sometimes fierce effort of awareness and choice.
I think that wise effort helps us to see that life is nothing other than a series of present moments. Even regret about the past or anxiety about the future is occurring in the present as thinking. So the only effort we can make is to be with this moment, right here, right now.
One point I’d like to add is that while cultivating joy and happiness takes effort, it does not necessarily take striving. Perseverance is important, but also is relaxation – not holding on too tight. An over exerting mind is a tense mind and it cannot come to rest very deeply in a meditative state. Working to find a balance between precision with relaxation is the most effective way to become mindful. Striving does not work and neither does drifting along in some kind of pleasant but unaware state. Instead, a gentle determination that is clearly informed by our desire to be mindful is the key to practice. As Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita told Sharon Salzberg on retreat, “You just sit and walk and let dharma take care of the rest.”
A poem by Sun Bu-er, a revered 12th century female Taoist master in China, echoes the theme (transl. Jane Hirshfield):
Cut brambles long enough,
Sprout after sprout,
And the lotus will bloom
Of its own accord:
Already waiting in the clearing,
The single image of light.
The day you see this,
That day you will become it.
Bringing effort to seeing the patterns in our mind can gives us the ability to move away from endless thought patterns that give rise to suffering. With intention and effort we can start cultivating mental habitats that allow more space for wholesome thoughts to take root and grow, bringing us greater joy, equanimity and peace. As the Buddha said:
The thought [or intention] manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed
The deed develops into habit
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care
And let it spring from love,
Born out of concern for all beings.