Part of the ‘noble eightfold path’ (which is one of the oldest formulations of the Buddhist path of practice) is ‘right effort’.
The kind of effort being talked about here is mental effort. Making choices, applying one’s will, meditation, stuff like that.
The four right efforts are:
1. Undermining unwholesome mental states that have already arisen
2. Preventing unwholesome mental states from arising that haven’t already arisen
3. Cultivating wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen
4. Maintaining wholesome mental states that have already arisen
I think about this quite a lot. It seems like such a totally obviously smart way of going about things.
Knowing it and doing it, however, aren’t always the same thing.
Walking the dog
This evening, I took the dog for a walk. It was dark. It was cold. I wasn’t properly dressed for the occasion.
Since the dog was nuts with pent up energy, I knew I couldn’t avoid giving her a proper walk. Or, I could, but that would be a different kind of pain. The kind of pain where a dog is jumping up and down in front of your face non-stop for several hours, whining, growling, getting under your feet, biting your sleeve, and generally not taking full account of the fact you’ve been working all day and you’re tired.
So I took her up through the fields.
Did I mention it was cold? And I wasn’t properly dressed?
It was also windy. And it started to rain. And the rain blew in my face.
The fields were muddy. Did I mention it was dark? And windy and raining?
Suffice it to say, I got muddy, wet, cold and tired.
The dog kind of liked it. I was grumpy.
The bit I didn’t mention yet
As well as me and the dog, I was also with a friend. She’d just arrived from the west coast of Canada (like, less than two hours before). She’d flown right through the night. She’s in her mid-70s.
While I was being grumpy, she was saying things like “Oh, isn’t this lovely!”, “Is that an oak tree? How nice!”, “Oh what a beautiful field!”
In one way, we were on the same walk. In another, we weren’t at all.
I have two theories about how she managed to enjoy such a dismal walk after such a long flight – and at her age.
1. She’s nuts. I don’t think this theory holds much water though.
2. Practising ‘right effort’ is second nature to her.
She’s not Buddhist (in fact she’s Christian – and a very inspiring Christian at that) and she wouldn’t think of it in terms of right effort, but while I was busy cultivating and maintaining grumpiness and wishing I was elsewhere, or the rain would stop, or the mud would disappear, she was noticing what was enjoyable about the walk.
I’m sure the unpleasantness was there, but she’d chosen not to focus on it. This means she was withdrawing energy from the unpleasant, and growing what was pleasant, merely by choosing where to place her attention.
Imagine doing that for 40 or 50 years. I wonder where you’d end up?
Maybe on a thoroughly enjoyable muddy windy rainy walk in the dark with a dog that was having a great time, and an Englishman being charmingly English. Moaning about the weather and everything. How quaint!
A note of caution
While practising right effort, don’t get caught up in denial. Be honest about how you’re feeling and who you are. Trust in the practice. You WILL change over time. You don’t have to force it.
Otherwise you end up like one of those people who have a rather strained smile, are always ‘fine’ and eventually turn up at the office with an AK47.