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

Holiday favourites – Flourishing

This is the final of the holiday favourites – thank you for your positive feedback about these posts! New mindfulness reflections will begin again next week:

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “grow, grow.”

The Talmud

The desire to grow, to flourish, is one of the most basic drives in nature. When we see a fragile seedling emerge from the ground and strive rapidly upwards, or watch a young child take its first steps, we are witnessing the desire of every living being to establish itself in the world and maximise their potential. After we’ve sown lettuce seeds, we don’t expect any of those seeds to deliberately sabotage themselves, to grow more slowly so that seeds 45 to 55 may thrive instead. Yet we as humans frequently hold ourselves back, often with the intention of assisting others. Much of this is essential in order to live in harmony with others, to ensure the protection of more vulnerable people.

We learn to reign in our desires so they don’t harm others or ourselves. A gentle self-discipline seems to be crucial for a ‘good life’, a flourishing life. And yet the pendulum can swing too far the other way, where we deprive ourselves in ways which may lead to a poverty of spirit, to feelings of resentment, disillusionment, isolation. Sometimes these feelings are obvious, but more often they can be quite subtle.

One of the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is the ability to attune to our internal signals when they are more subtle, rather than only becoming aware of them once we’ve made some harsh sarcastic comment at a wedding and everyone is staring at us in horror. It is natural to feel resentment at times, to not always be a saint who is happy for everyone else (and who never once asks, ‘but what about me?’). Yet these subtle feelings of resentment or jealousy can be a message to us that our life is out of balance; that perhaps we are not allowing ourselves to flourish as we should.

It is natural for us to want to be fulfilled. There may be external circumstances holding us back which we have little control over, but we do have a choice when it comes to the more insidious, internal self-sabotage we can all engage in from time to time. Sometimes, like that blade of grass with its angel, we just want to grow into our potential.

Weekly practice idea:

What do you need in order to flourish? Think of one small act you can do this week, which will give you a sense of thriving. Set some time aside for it, and reflect afterwards on what it meant to you.

Anja Tanhane


Holiday favourites – New Beginnings

‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Yet physiologically and mentally we still respond as if we’re standing opposite a tiger about to pounce. Not only is this exhausting, it also limits our ability to remain aware of the bigger picture. We can spend months and years staring at a door which was shut in our face, and in the meantime life goes on, filled with new resources, new delights, new opportunities we barely notice.

The other extreme is to pretend nothing affects us, as if we were somehow immune from the normal processes of grief. Or we may give up too easily – at the first indication that a door might be closing, we’ve already dashed off to look for something new.

During meditation we learn, over time, to rest somewhere in the middle – to loosen our fixations, so our outlook becomes broader; but also to feel our grief when there has been a loss, to allow ourselves, with kindness, to feel hurt. To ‘always look on the bright side’ can be absurd when we are caught up in devastating circumstances. However, even in suffering, there can be opportunities for appreciation – for the caring gesture of a friend, the compassion someone has shown you.

When we watch our breath during meditation, we notice the outbreath coming to an end, a pause, and the beginning of the next breath in. The pause between each breath is the pause before the next new beginning. Resting in that pause can feel like a neutral space pregnant with new possibilities. The breath teaches us that we can’t hang onto the outbreath, to what has gone. Yet we also don’t need to rush immediately to the next breath in.

Perhaps, if we pause from time to time, we find new beginnings emerging by themselves, without much effort on our part. When we feel very stressed, it can be difficult to pause. We might fear getting stuck in the distressing sensations if we don’t rush headlong ahead. In fact, people usually report the opposite – that pausing during stress opens up new possibilities, a different approach, a sense of new beginnings.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to notice your breath, and allow yourself to rest in the pause between breathing out and breathing in. Notice the spaciousness before each new breath begins.

Anja Tanhane


Holiday favourites – Living with Ease

‘May I live with ease.’

This is the last line of the loving-kindness (or metta) meditation I often use during meditation classes and retreats. At first the phrase might simply sound pleasant, or even a little self-indulgent. We hear the word ‘ease’, and imagine an easy life. And yes, it does make sense to wish ourselves an easy life. We probably don’t want to go around saying,

‘May I have a tremendously difficult life’ (character-building though that may be!).

Yet when I repeat the phrase, ‘may I live with ease’ during meditation, to me it also has another meaning – may I be at ease with my life, regardless of the circumstances. May I be at ease with the inevitable ups and downs of my existence, instead of constantly struggling against ‘what is’. This is not passive, or resigned – in fact, being at ease with our lives involves a very active engagement with reality, as opposed to clinging onto some idealised fantasy of how life should be. Being at ease is not the same as ‘anything goes’, ‘she’ll be right’, or the ‘yeah, whatever’ attitude we’ve probably all come across.

A Christian minister who was taking part in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course found himself struggling with the idea of a life at ease. In his tradition, ongoing struggle and obligations were considered very important. It is actually possible to be very busy, work hard, even feel a little stressed, and still be at ease. When we see sports people give the performance of their lives, there is often an ease about how they move, despite the obvious effort which goes into their achievement. They are not being lazy, but neither are they wasting energy by tensing up their bodies unnecessarily. They expend exactly the right amount of energy, in the muscles which count. Their minds are focused, and they’re not distracted by obsessing about a long list of other things they ‘should’ be doing.

When I play a difficult passage on the piano, I’ve learnt to allow my fingers to soften rather than tense as I make my way through the many notes. It is remarkably effective, and goes against our notion that extra tension = extra effort = better results. In fact the formula should probably look more like this:

Extra attention = less effort = better results.

Weekly practice idea:

Notice times when you tense more muscles, and expend more energy, than you need to. It could be as simple as gently picking up a cup instead of impatiently grabbing for it.

Anja Tanhane