The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Effort
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The Fourfold Right Diligence is nourished by joy and interest. If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
In order to progress on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, effort must be exerted. One cannot simply sit back and wait for something to happen, one has to practice, one has to work at it. To some people that means working very, very, hard, perhaps meditating for hours on end, day after day. This comes from the Western work ethic that teaches that the harder you work, the more likely it is that you’ll achieve your goals. This is also the case in some Zen schools. A meditation teacher once described a Zen retreat as “Buddha boot camp,” requiring extreme endurance and perseverance. For many people this simply does not work and may lead to them abandoning practice and the path completely.
“Right Effort” sometimes called right diligence is the sixth component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” The idea of “Right Effort” is that the effort exerted in practice and in life needs to be “Right.” It needs to be finely tuned, neither too lax, nor too effortful. The Buddha taught that practice should be like a well-tuned string instrument. If the strings are too loose, they won’t play a sound. If they are too tight, they will break. Practice should be nourishing, not draining. So, “Right Effort” actually points precisely to the Buddha’s “Middle Way.”
The notion of “Right Effort” is not just for meditation practice but for how we conduct our lives. It calls for us to develop and encourage good qualities, ones that will lead forward on the path, and reduce or discourage bad qualities, ones that interfere or block progress. There are many good qualities to be cultivated but the ones that the Buddha particularly targeted were mindfulness, investigation of phenomena, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.
This suggests that we should work to develop mindfulness, paying attention, on purpose, without judgment, to what is occurring in the present moment. After all, how are we going to progress on a spiritual path if our minds are lost in thought, memories of the past or projections of the future? Only by being attentive to what is happening right now, do we have any hope of seeing things as the truly are. Mindfulness can be developed by engaging in contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer, mindful movement practices, etc. So, “Right Effort” mandates that we practice to cultivate our mindfulness, but do so with energy and striving, but not too much or too little. We need to practice on the “Middle Way.”
Investigation of phenomena needs to also be cultivated. Whereas mindfulness is observing what is, investigation is probing into the nature of what is. Investigation involves exerting concentration and energy to search out the characteristics, conditions, and consequences of the phenomena we observe with mindfulness. So, we look carefully as to what exactly composes a feeling, what leads up to the feeling arising, and what is produced by the feeling. So as anger arises, we look with mindfulness as to how exactly it feels in the body and mind, we look at what produced the anger, and we look at what consequence it might have for our actions and thoughts. If we can truly see these aspects of anger, we can better recognize it when it begins to arise, control it, and manage its consequences to lead away from harm and toward greater wisdom and happiness.
Fundamental to the entire process is energy. It must be cultivated and distributed carefully as there is only a limited amount available. We must first develop the energy to initiate mindfulness and investigation. It is impossible in real life to be constantly in the present moment and probing its nature. But, we must have the energy to return to these healthy processes whenever we have the opportunity to come back. Once mindfully engaged it is important to cultivate the energy to persevere and remain mindful as long as possible. Finally, we have to learn how to hold some energy in reserve so that when we reach a significant juncture in our practice we can focus our energy to break through and make a leap forward.
All of this energy can be built and cultivated by making our efforts joyful. Joy will replenish and charge our batteries for use when we need it. So, practice with joy, allow yourself to experience the beauty and awe available in every moment, and refrain from pushing too hard and losing the joy and happiness of practice. If we are careful and follow this joy, it will build and build and reach crescendos of bliss. This fuels our progress on the path. But, it is impossible to remain in a state of continuous bliss. Eventually the practice leads to tranquility, a peacefulness that comes from knowing the joyfulness of existence and practice. This tranquility now can allow the practice to proceed with knowing serenity. This peacefulness is the foundation for ceasing seeking and quieting the mind. Maintaining this stillness requires concentration. Once stabilized equanimity develops, an inward poise, free from the extremes of inertia and excitement. A state is reached like when driving a car with the cruise control on, neither having to press the gas peddle harder nor letting up on the peddle, just rolling along enjoying the scenery, without effort or striving, just observing things as they are. Just moving along the “Middle Way.”
It is wonderful to be cultivating positive qualities but at the same time it is necessary to prevent bad qualities from hindering progression on the path. There are also many bad qualities to be discouraged or removed but the ones that the Buddha particularly targeted were sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and doubt. As part of pursuing “Right Effort” on the path effort should be exerted to prevent these bad qualities from arising and if they do to refrain from pursuing or reinforcing them so that they can diminish or extinguish on their own.
Sensual desires is actually a broad category that includes cravings for all those objects or states that are pleasing, sights, sounds, emotions, feelings, tastes etc. The actual experiences are fine and need not be avoided. It’s the pursuit of them and the attempt to hold onto them that produces hindrance. “Right Effort” involves not seeking them out, but if they arise letting them come and go without striving to hold onto them. Just letting them pass by like a sunrise or a sunset, looking, seeing, appreciating, and letting go. Trying to hold on only produces unsatisfactoriness and frustration.
At times negative feeling arise toward objects or people. These can be a hindrance also if they are focused on, held onto, or pursued. Feelings such as hatred, anger, resentment, repulsion, jealousy, etc. arise at times in the normal course of life and in our practice. This is normal and need not be actively pushed aside. This will only tend to strengthen them. They should simply be let go, allowed to dissipate on their own, noticing, taking note, sensing the feelings and releasing them. Situations and people who tend to evoke these feeling should be avoided as much as possible. It is easier to handle them if they never arise. So, if someone should cause you harm and anger and resentment begin to arise, let them. Just observe them with mindfulness. Feel the feelings and the mental anguish. Don’t avoid it, but don’t pursue or react to it. This can be difficult, but the more it is practiced the easier and easier it becomes. This is how to exert “Right Effort” toward these ill feelings.
Dullness and drowsiness are often indicators of too little rest and sleep or too much exertion. “Right Effort” involves staying on the “Middle Way” and getting sufficient rest and sleep and not overdoing anything. These states of dullness and drowsiness are actually very good indicators and guides to return to the “Middle Way.” So, when tired, rest, when sleepy, sleep, and when dull, relax and recharge. Similarly, restlessness and worry are indicators of straying from attention to the present moment and wanting things to be different than they are, ruminating about the past, or fantasizing about the future. These states can also be useful as signposts and guides leading back to the present moment. “Right Effort” is to use these states to assist in maintaining energy, staying with mindfulness, and concentrating. The more they are used in this way the easier it gets to sense straying from the path and the sooner the return can happen.
The path can be difficult and progress is haphazard, improving one day, falling back another. It can sometimes be difficult to tell that progress is actually being made. This can lead to doubt that the “Eightfold Path” is the right way toward spiritual development. When doubt arises don’t fret. This is normal. It signals that questions should be asked of others, particularly those who have navigated the path. This can help to elucidate that the up and down course of practice is normal and if energy is invested in persistence, progress will be made. Doubt also signals that studying the teachings, reading, and contemplation may be needed to strengthen resolve and provide direction. This is truly “Right Effort.”
Obviously, there’s a lot to “Right Effort.” But the keys are joyful practice and the “Middle Way.” Look carefully at discursions from the path of unhealthy desires, bad feelings toward others, sleepiness or restlessness, worry, or doubt. There’s no need to feel bad about them. They are part of being human and everyone from time to time experiences them. Rather than regretting them, let them be pointers to returning to the path. Slowly, improvement will occur and falling off the path will happen less and less often, the good qualities will be present more and more often for longer and longer periods, and forward movement will occur on the path toward awakening and enlightenment.
“Enlightenment is not your birthright.
Those who succeed do so only through proper effort.” – Ramana Maharshi
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