The Eight Fold Path, Step SIx, Right Effort

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Step six of the Eight Fold Path is Right Effort: When laid out on the Dharma Wheel, Right Effort is directly opposite from Right Thought (motive, intent, and attitude). In that contrast, Right Thought where we’re coming from, Right Effort is where we’re going. It’s our direction, our pole star and our motivation to keep moving forward.

Effort can be a bit tricky though, especially here in the west where we are programmed to think more is always better. Do you know the number one hindrance most athletes face? It’s overtraining. We tend to think if we just work a little harder, do one more set, go to one more class, run one more mile, eat even less than we do now, or not get proper rest because that’s time we could be training, then we will reach our goals which are all too often, unrealistic.

The Buddha did this too.

Before reaching enlightenment he went through a long period when he went to extremes in his training. He wouldn’t eat, bathe, or take a break to evaluate if his training was even working. He became obsessed, and unfortunately he had others with him who were doing the exact same thing, so he found safety in numbers. He became emaciated, haggard, and was no closer to reaching enlightenment than when he first started. Then one day, as the story goes, he heard a music teacher talking to one of his students about playing a lute. “If the strings are too loose, then they won’t play. If they’re too tight, they will break. There has to be the perfect balance between tension and slack for them to play music in tune,” the instructor said.

This was how the Buddha discovered the Middle Path.

Another classic example of the Middle Path and Right Effort is the Yin & the Yang symbol. In this symbol, there are two small dots which lay within the center of the broadest area of contrast. These dots represent how when we take things to extremes, we inherently place the seed for the opposite thing to manifest. When we go to extremes, we become obsessive and fanatical, or we become lazy and dispassionate. Both sides lead nowhere.

One of my favorite parables is a great example of Right Effort: A new student goes to the master and asks how long it will take to become proficient under his teaching. The master says it will take at least five years. Disheartened, the student asks how long it will take if he works twice as hard as any other student. The master tells him it will take at least 10 years. Exasperated, the student asks how long it will take if he trains day and night, every single day until he reaches enlightenment. The master tells him it will take at least twenty years, probably more. Finally the student asks why it will take longer the harder he trains. The master says; “because when one eye is fixed upon the destination, that only leaves one eye with which to find the way.’

Along with those who try too hard are those who seem to have little direction and make little effort. There are those who create their own drama thunderstorms, and then complain when it’s raining. It’s as if they are drowning inside a child’s wading pool, and you simply want to yell at them to STAND UP and save themselves.

I am something of a gym rat and it seems that every six months or so, someone will ask me to be their training partner. I love it when this happens with a like-minded person who takes their training seriously and shows up when they say they will. Most of the time though, it’s someone who doesn’t train as hard as I do (this isn’t to say that I’m better, I just happen to be on the overtraining side of the spectrum more than the lackadaisical side), and almost immediately after starting, they quit. Perhaps if they could up their game a little, and if I could relax just a bit more, we could help each other reach our goals.

Jeannette Maw in her fabulous book Slacker Manifesting, speaks about both sides of the Yin/Yang equation: “Find a way to release the resistance and perhaps even enjoy the activity or event.” There have been many things I initially hated but after a while grew to love. There are birthing pains whenever you try something new. The secret is to make it past those pains and enjoy your new life after being reborn. For those that try too hard, Jeannette suggests: “Identify the area of your life that you expend the most effort and gradually introduce more ease there.”

Trying softer will almost always result in positive effects; however the key word is ‘trying’. Right Effort does not equal No Effort. There is an old Christian saying that I think applies to Right Effort perfectly: “Pray as if all things depend on God, but work as if all things depend on you.”

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