Articles elaborating the teachings

What is Right Effort?

Audio Version - 10 minutes

 Right Effort is a very important part of our practice. We need to get it right or we waste time and get frustrated.

We know we are using right effort when energy, peace, stillness, joy, wisdom and insight arise. When we are using wrong effort we become tight, frustrated, angry and lacking in joy.

Below is a summary of a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm on Right Effort.  In addition, here is a series of Dhamma talks by Ajahn Sona on Right Effort.  Experiencing both of their talks on this subject will help us develop a fuller understanding of this very important step of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha defined Right Effort in four parts: 1. The effort to prevent unskillful mind states from arising. 2. The effort to let go of unskillful mind states that have arisen. 3. The effort to put in the causes for skillful mind states to arise. 4. The effort to maintain skillful mind states that have arisen.

These Right Efforts are accomplished, not by the effort to attain something, but by letting go, saying no, renouncing, stopping, resisting craving, disengaging. Meditation is not to attain something but to let go of things. This is a famous saying of Ajahn Chah's.

All four efforts are accomplished by renunciation/letting go. For the second one, we actively let go of what has arisen. For the first, third and fourth ones, by not picking up any new desires or ill-wills, resting content with the present moment, we put in the conditions for skillful mind states, like stillness, to arise, and for those present to be maintained. as well as preventing new unskillful mind states from arising.

Wanting to achieve occurs because of having a sense of a permanent self. And behind this delusion is our will.....that internal nagger that is always telling us to, "Do this! Do that!" The more we will, the more we do and the more we create this delusion of a permanent self. With this sense of self, failure hurts and success builds an even stronger sense of self.

It's important to read the Suttas. Even though we may know the teachings, reading them over and over is conditioning. (Ajahn Brahm calls this brainwashing.) If we keep filling our heads with the core teachings of the Buddha, this will change us. It will help weaken this delusion of a permanent self.

What meditation object we use isn't important (breath, metta, body etc). What's important is our attitude: to have a beautiful sense of patience (khanti), stopping. When a thought arises, to stop it. Any will, any plan, any controlling during meditation: stop it, resist it, let it go. But to do this gently, kindly, peacefully....not with ill-will or frustration. Our job is to be as still as possible. To do this we have to let go of this sense of self: the controller, the doer, someone who makes things happen. All that controlling and doing agitates the mind and prevents stillness.

The job of this path is to unravel this sense of self. We concoct a sense of a permanent self out of the five khandas: the body, feeling tone, perception, will and the consciousnesses. There's nothing else to us except these five khandas. And they don't belong to us....in the sense that we aren't in control of them. They just do their own thing; nothing to do with us. So if we let go of expectations, don't want anything - then we can enjoy the present moment.

Remember that there is no happiness without suffering and no suffering without happiness. The two always come together. This is the play of samsara. It is futile to strive for lasting happiness from the sensory world. Instead, we are on the path to nibbana where happiness arises from letting go, from stillness.

In meditation we sit there and abandon everything. We stop picking up things, wanting things. We can do a contemplation on, "What do I take myself to be?" (Not, "Who am I?" as this assumes a self.) Any notions we have of who we take ourselves to be, can then be abandoned.

A sense of self only comes from doing, from attaching to things, from owning things. Let this sense of identity vanish. Watch for the hindrances....wanting to have a cup of tea, read the newspaper, do something to distract ourself instead of meditating. This means we are searching for pleasure, fulfillment, happiness from the sensory world. Learn how to do nothing. When we do nothing, our mind will become still. Perhaps not immediately because of our past actions, the agitation from what we were doing before our meditation practice. It takes time for this busyness to settle down.

So, in our daily life, we do our duties, but we don't try to find extra projects to do. We do as little as possible so we have maximum time to meditate and generate the least amount of agitation that needs to be settled down. Just sit, be aware, do not complain, don't grasp. Just be. Don't worry about what's going to happen next in your meditation.

Stillness doesn't stay still. It grows. It develops, deepens. Things vanish (the past and future, body sensations, breath, thoughts, sense of self). The path of meditation is a gradual disappearance. This is why we need the concept of non-self. A self wants to hold on to things....won't let things go. We can't let go of the past because we see it as MY past. Take away the MY and it's easy to let go.

Be physically comfortable when meditating. If we sit in pain this will prevent stillness. So we adjust our posture if discomfort arises.

Stillness is delightful because when we are still, energy starts to come. Piti and sukha arise. (Joy and happiness). They comes because we aren't exerting ourself. There is no loss of energy. Meditation energy makes us happy.....as long as we don't see it as an attainment. If we see it as mine: "Look what I've achieved" it vanishes. It has arisen because the self has started to disappear. So if the self reappears, the bliss of stillness vanishes. "The path is, but no traveller on it is seen." This is a quote from the Visuddhimagga, an early commentary on the suttas.

The effort to do nothing, to disappear.

If we are trying to get something, it's a waste of time. The right attitude is letting go, renouncing, putting things down. Then, on their own, stillness and bliss arise.

Based on a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm

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