How we use effort to get to a state of effortless meditation
From time to time I’ll hear people saying that meditation shouldn’t involve effort. For example, Krishnamurti said, “All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation.” And I just stumbled upon a website that decried the “arrogance” and “ignorance” of those who say that meditation involves effort, because “Effort is the antithesis of meditation.”
It’s clear, though, when you look at the Buddha’s teachings, that he encouraged us to make effort in meditation, and in our lives generally. His last words, in fact, were “With diligence, strive on.”
And in my own meditation I find I have to make effort all the time. I have to let go of compulsive thinking, steer my awareness back to the body and the breathing, correct my posture, adjust my attitudes.
One section of the Eightfold Path — one of the Buddha’s key teachings — is “Right Effort.” Right effort is counted as being part of the meditation (samadhi) section of the path.
Right Effort, in the context of the eightfold path, is seen as one of three pivotal aspects of practice, along with Right View and Right Mindfulness. Every aspect of practice depends upon effort, mindfulness, and view.
Effort, mindfulness, and view are described as three states that “run around and circle” all other practices. For example, if you want to practice Right Speech, you first have to be mindful of your speech. Without mindfulness, there is no possibility of any practice. You also have to have a discriminating awareness (or view) of which speech activities are unskillful and cause suffering, and which are skillful and lead us away from suffering. And then you actually need to make effort to abandon unskillful speech and to cultivate skillful speech. So on every step of the path, effort is involved, along with mindfulness and view.
Right Effort is usually defined in terms of the Four Right Efforts, or Exertions. These are:
- The effort to prevent the arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
- The effort to abandon unskillful qualities that have already arisen.
- The effort to cultivate skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
- The effort to maintain and increase to fruition skillful qualities that have arisen
Of course we can make either too much or too little effort. There once was a monk called Sona, who was considering giving up monastic life because his efforts weren’t paying off. Just as he was wondering whether he should return to his family, the Buddha appeared to Sona. (This was described as the Buddha “magically” appearing, but I think we could take this as the image of the Buddha appearing in Sona’s mind as he debated with himself.) The (imagined) Buddha asked Sona:
“Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the lute?”
Sona of course replied that he had.
The (imagined) Buddha went on:
“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too taut, was your lute in tune and playable?”
“No, lord,” replied Sona.
“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too loose, was your lute in tune and playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your lute in tune and playable? … In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should find the right pitch for your energy, attune the pitch of your faculties, and thus begin your reflections.”
How do we know when, like Sona, we’re making too much or too little effort? The thing is that for our effort to be “right” effort it needs to be combined with mindfulness and right view. Mindfulness allows us to notice what the results of our efforts are, which right view lets us know whether those efforts are helpful or unhelpful, and whether we’re making the right kind of effort.
For example, if your mind lacks mindfulness, and you’re simply drifting, lost in thought, then you’re not exerting enough effort. If you’re feeling a sense of despair about your practice, then you also probably don’t have enough effort. If you’re getting tense and uptight, then you’re making too much effort. If you’re in a state of elation and aren’t very sensitive and kind to others, then you’re probably making too much effort. If you’re giving yourself a hard time, you’re trying too hard. It’s our mindfulness and our “view” that let us know what’s going on and whether it’s helpful.
You need to keep noticing what’s happening around your effort; what’s happening as a result of your effort. When we do that, our effort is more likely to be balanced.
The word “effort” and the related word “work” sometimes give the wrong idea. We can think of work and effort as being joyless activities. So when I talk about working in meditation, and putting effort into our practice, I like to flank the words “work” or “effort” with the terms “rest” and “play.” There needs to be a relaxation of any unnecessary effort — the effort that goes into making the body tense, or that goes into endless thinking, for example. So around our effort there needs to be an attitude of restful, mindful, expansive awareness. And the effort we make should ideally not be forced or unnatural, but light and playful. Meditation can become a joyful exploration: “Where can I go today?”
Yes, there may be times when we have to struggle (to stay awake for example) or have to forcefully restrain ourselves from doing something that we think is grossly unhelpful (for example when we repress the urge to say something unkind) but these should increasingly be unnecessary as we retrain the mind.
Now, it is possible to get to a point in our meditation practice where we don’t need to make any effort. The mind clears and becomes still, joy arises, and we’re simply present to our experience as it unfolds. The positive factors we’ve been developing in the mind reach a kind of critical mass and establish themselves stably. It seems that you’re not meditating — that your meditation is simply doing itself. It doesn’t seem that “you” are doing anything. But to get to that point we need to first put in some effort — usually a lot of effort. On the way to effortlessness in meditation, we find that we generally have to use a subtler and subtler kind of effort. We start to realize that any effort we make creates a kind of disturbance in the mind, and so we refine our effort. One image I love is of catching a feather on a fan; we have to make effort to catch the feather, but if you move too quickly you’ll blow the feather away. But we still have to make an effort — at least for a while.
As Shunryu Suzuki said, “Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort.”
It’s not really possible to short-cut this process, and jump straight to effortless meditation. Eventually we get to the point in meditation where effort is in fact unnecessary, but to get there we need to use an effort that is balanced, mindful, and, where possible, playful.