Right effort – Part 2

We often hear inspiring stories of people who took on a challenge everyone thought was impossible, and who succeeded through sheer determination and persistence, and broke new ground in our understanding of what humans can be capable of. Sometimes you hear people say – ‘if you work hard enough, anything is possible’, but of course that’s not true. What we hear less about is the people who become obsessed and invest everything in a dream which doesn’t work out, and who are left broken as a result. At what point is an obsession inspiring, and when does it become pathological? Often, success has more to do with external factors (right place, right time) than just the personality of the individual concerned. Yet we can be quick to praise ‘heroes’, and condemn ‘losers’, without taking into account that their roles could easily have been reversed. For example, by all accounts Winston Churchill was a very effective prime minister during the war, but not afterwards in peacetime. His particular qualities suited one set of conditions more than another, and this applies to all of us. When is our effort heroic, and when does it become deluded and obsessional? And how do we know the difference?

Right effort is about finding the sweet spot between trying too hard, and giving up too easily. It’s a particularly complex area in our interpersonal relationships. I’ve worked with people who lost everything, including the family home, because they had a child with a drug addiction who kept taking and taking until it was all gone. Others stay in abusive relationships year after year, forever trying to fix something which show no signs of changing or is actually getting worse. We might feel we just need to try harder and everything will be alright, but all the effort in the world can’t fix someone else’s brokenness unless they themselves want to change. They say it takes two to tango, but sometimes we just need to walk off the dance floor and go home.

Right effort can be about persistence and hard work, but it can also be about accepting our limitations, and being at peace with those. Not everything is doable or fixable. We can also ask ourselves – is the prize worth it? A lot of heroes have families who’ve hardly seen them for years.

Sometimes the real heroism may lie in coming to terms with the life we have, with all its broken dreams and limitations, without becoming bitter, or jealous of other people’s success. Of course we can admire people who’ve achieved greatness, but we can also admire people who’ve attained equanimity and peace of mind. There is a place for incredible effort and persistence, just as there is a place for surrendering and letting go.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a quiet place to sit, and take 10 minutes to think about a dream you had which didn’t quite work out. What kind of thoughts and emotions come up for you as you reflect on this dream? Perhaps it transformed into something else which you appreciate, or you’re still in the grieving phase, or you feel it’s time to let go. What can you learn from your reflection?

Anja Tanhane

Right effort – Part 1

One of the eight components of the eight-fold path in Buddhism is called ‘right effort’. When we hear the phrase ‘right effort’, we may immediately sit up more straight and feel that we have to work harder. And while this may well be the case in some parts of our lives, it could also be that in other areas, we are trying too hard. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and learning to use it more wisely can make a very positive difference to our health and wellbeing. Yet knowing when to push ourselves harder, and when to ease off, is not always easy. Between the two extremes – barely bothering to get out of bed vs driving ourselves to the point of a mental and physical breakdown – lies a large grey area where there are few rules. Trying too hard, or not hard enough, can both become habits which are difficult to break. And what was true for us on Monday may not be the case on Tuesday. Perhaps on Monday we really did need a day at home to rest, but by Tuesday we would have been better off dragging ourselves to work. When our mood is low (as opposed to clinical depression, which is different), we might like to rest on the couch for a while and feel better for it. But other times, forcing ourself out of the house and going for a brisk walk in fresh air may quickly lift our mood 100%.

Right effort also applies to our meditation practice, whether it’s a formal practice, such as daily sitting meditation or yoga, or a more informal way of including mindfulness into our everyday life. One of the core attributes of mindfulness is non-striving, and it’s certainly true that we can’t strive for results during meditation – it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, it’s very easy to drift off into daydreams or convoluted thought patterns during meditation. We might be sitting still in a beautiful erect posture for thirty minutes, but are we actually meditating, or simply stewing over something a colleague said four days ago and organising our shopping list?

There is no doubt that a considerable amount of effort is required if we want mindfulness to become part of our lives. Yet there is also a sense of ease, of flow, about being more mindful. On the one hand, we hold the intention to be mindful, and remind ourselves regularly to be more present. On the other hand, we don’t want to go around muttering to ourselves, ‘come on, be mindful, okay now, mindfulness remember, are you paying attention here, mindful, mindful, BE MINDFUL!’

Right effort can apply to so many areas of our lives – how we use our bodies, what we focus on, how resilient we are, whether we are fulfilling our potentials or frittering them away. It’s a complex area, but reflecting regularly on right effort, and how we use it in different areas of our lives, can really help us to live more effectively and with more ease.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one hour where you are engaged in a regular activity, and during this hour pause from time to time and ask yourself – am I putting in too much effort, or not enough? What would right effort look like for this activity? And how might that apply to other areas of your life?

Anja Tanhane