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Right effort

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Edited by Richie Cuthbertson, Thursday, 6 Oct 2022, 07:32

The sixth factor of the noble eightfold path, and the beginning of the meditator's journey to right samhadi. Right effort contains a set of instructions to be carried out by right mindfulness. The idea is to seclude the mind from the five psychic harrassments: greed, aversion, dullness/drowsiness, restlessness, and doubt.

These are known as the five hindrances in Buddhism, and they are what stops our mind seeing things clearly, they distort our picture of reality. Their influence stirs up the mind like a pool of water so one cannot see clearly into the depths of it, only seeing the distorted surface. This means one is not getting an accurate picture of reality. And when one looks into it they cannot see their reflection properly.

The job of right effort is to prevent these five hindrances from arising in the mind, and to abandon them if they do arise. It works in conjunction with right mindfulness, the next factor of the eightfold path. Right mindfulness is the guard at the gate of consciousness, whose job is to prevent the five harrassments from entering - stopping trouble before it starts. However, if a hindrance gets passed the guard at the gate, then its job is to spot the presence of the hindrance in the mind and remove it, so it is no longer distorting one's ability to see things clearly.

The Buddha's teachings here run contrary to popular modern thinking about mindfulness. The job of mindfulness is not just to simply watch things arise and pass away and do nothing. No, it is to be a sentry that performs the duty of preventing and removing the five hindrances. Right mindfulness follows the instructions of right effort.

So how does one prevent unwholesome states arising? One way is to continually remind oneself to avoid unwise attention to the fault and to avoid unwise attention to the attractive. It does not mean walking around in sensory deprivation, as that's impractical in this world, you will always encounter agreeable and disagreeable sense impressions. What it means is to be at the sensory level and nip things in the bud before a pleasant or unpleasant sensation/feeling becomes the stories/delusions we tell ourselves about the feeling at the conceptual level, these stories are what cause the hindrances to arise and gather momentum in the mind.

It takes a great deal of practise and time to master this, so one will have to be patient as one trains the mind. One also needs to be kind to oneself, as one will make many mistakes while practising this, learn what you can from failures and let go, there is nothing to be gained by being hard on oneself, it does not lead to enlightenment. You are allowed to let it go, it is the past and there's no use crying over spilt milk, that won't solve anything.

One keeps reminding oneself upon waking and throughout the day. 'I will avoid the folly of the fault-finding mind; and I will avoid the folly of the lustful greedy mind.' Remembering that what we pay attention to leaves traces in the mind and grows stronger the more we pay attention to it; and what we repeatedly think about becomes the inclination of the mind.

If the hindrances get past the guard at the gate, then one turns to five strategies for removing them from the mind. Briefly these are:

1. Replacing the unwholesome state of mind with its opposite, there can be many opposites. For example some possible opposites of greed are generosity, contentment, remembering impermanence, or renunciation, and some possible opposites of anger are serenity practises, compassion, or loving-kindness. One does not wait for something external outside oneself to generate the opposite of the hindrance, one deliberately brings the replacement into being by being an emoter. There's a saying: 'Fake it till you make it.' It might well feel fake and inauthentic at first, but with repeated practise it does start to feel genuine and more natural. And the more one practises something, the more the psychic momentum builds up and the stronger it gets.

2. Feeling a sense of shame, imagining what a person you respect and admire might think if they saw you in the unwholesome state of mind. One reminds oneself it is reprehensible, has drawbacks, and is not conducive to enlightenment. This can be enough to drive the unwholesome state of mind away.

3. Distracting oneself from the unwholesome state of mind. Or just simply ignoring it as you would when closing your eyes to block out a sight you don't want to see. By not paying attention to the hindrance it starves it of energy and it grows weak and eventually disappears. Don't feed the monsters!

4. One turns to face the hindrance, confronts it. Sometimes just doing this can be enough to make it fade away like a whisp of a cloud or a phantom. But if this isn't enough, one can sit with it, investigate it, and gradually talk oneself out of the unwholesome state of mind till it dissolves away.

5. This is the last resort, and only to be used if the preceding four strategies fail. The fifth strategy is to suppress the unwholesome state of mind and not allow it to express itself. The Buddha here uses the simile of a stronger man holding down a weaker man. One suppresses the unwholesome state of mind until it calms down enough for one to then use any of the four preceding strategies to remove it if necessary.

Right effort also carries the instructions to bring into being seven positive wholesome states of mind and to develop them and keep them going continuously. These wholesome states of mind are known as the seven factors of enlightenment which are: mindfulness, investigation, energy/effort, joy, serenity, samhadi, equanimity. One can also include wholesome states of mind such as loving-kindness, compassion, joy in another's happiness. These also can be part of the enlightened mind, but are optional because not everyone is able to practise loving-kindness. For them having the intention of non-illwill and non-violence is enough.

Right effort can be practised in the course of daily life by noticing the hindrances when they arise in the mind, how do they feel? Do they feel pleasant or unpleasant? How do they manifest in the body? One watches and learns about them, how they manifest, how they arise, what triggers them, how to stop them arising, and how to remove them from the mind when they do. As one becomes less ignorant of the five hindrances, one's ability to prevent and remove them becomes easier and faster. The Buddha says one who has mastered this becomes so adept at it, that if an unwholesome state of mind arises it is removed as quickly as a chance drop of water on a red hot frying pan.

One way to practise this is through sitting meditation. Here one gradually gathers the whole mind together and secludes it from the five hindrances, by repeatedly bringing the attention back to a single topic, such as a meditation object and keeping it there, doing this every time the mind wanders. This brings into being the wholesome factor of mindfulness. Then to collect the mind together and unify it around the meditation object one generates interest in it, investigates it, this brings into being the wholesome factor of investigation. The repeated effort of doing this builds up a momentum of energy (the third factor), but interest and curiosity also brings energy to the mind. This leads to enjoyment. En-Joy, i.e the combination of energy and joy. Think about how one can become absorbed in a book or a movie, or a physical activity, a hobby, a game, and how one doesn't notice the body or passage of time or the noises around one when absorbed in an activity that one finds interesting. This is because one is enjoying themselves. So the idea is to try to do the same with meditation and become absorbed in that. The excitement of joy (the fourth factor) eventually cools and calms down and settles into a state of sweet serenity the fifth factor of enlightenment, which then takes one to the doorstep of the divine consciousness that is samhadi. Samhadi is a unification of mind, an exquisite stillness and lucidity, which in turn blossoms into equanimity (the seventh factor). This is how the act of meditation can bring into being the seven factors of awakening (-:

This all carries over beyond sitting meditation into every day life, because there is an after-effect which can remain for a while after meditation. When the afterglow wears off, one can top it up again by meditating. The seven factors of enlightenment get stronger with repeated practise, till eventually the whole thing becomes effortless. Then the enlightenment factors are present throughout the day whatever you are doing, wherever you are. When they are well established, whatever happens in this changing world, will not cause you to go into a negative state of mind or lose your composure. Your consciousness remains at peace and unperturbed as it continually cycles through the seven factors of enlightenment, being in any one of them at any time during the day or night.

Another important teaching that comes under right effort is about tuning the energy. If the mind feels strained and stressed at all during meditation or while practising in the midst of daily life, it means you are putting forth too much effort and need to relax it a bit, you are pushing yourself too hard, be gentle. If you feel dull and drowsy it can mean you are not putting forth enough effort which will lead to laziness and lack of motivation for practise. Mindfulness of death (maranasati) is a good way to energize one when feeling lazy. You want to tune the energy of effort so that it neither strains the mind nor makes it lazy. The Buddha describes it as being like tuning the string of a lute. If it is too tight it doesn't sound right, if it is too loose it also doesn't sound right, but when it's tuned correctly it is ready to play some music.

There are five spiritual faculties that can help with right effort, they are called the five spiritual powers, these are faith, energy, mindfulness, samhadi, and wisdom. Sometimes you can't know all the answers about something and you need to take a leap of faith and try things out, otherwise you can be locked in sceptical indecision which is not a pleasant state of mind, one becomes a prisoner of their doubts and this leads to stagnation and inaction. However, one also doesn't want to have blind faith either, some doubt is healthy to stop one being led down the garden path, so wisdom helps balance out faith. Energy and Samhadi also balance each other out. Too much energy leads to restlessness, and too little energy leads to dullness and laziness. Mindfulness is present throughout ensuring the five spiritual faculties are tuned correctly, keeping them in balance.

Despite its length, this has been a succinct piece of writing on right effort. Indeed one could write an essay or a book on this factor of the path. If one would like to learn more about right effort I highly recommend these videos by Ajahn Sona, where he goes into it in great detail.

https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCXN1GlAupG0LqKS3nNCkGv24r94LW5VV

In the words of the Buddha:

The four right efforts

'One generates the desire for the prevention of unwholesome states of mind, by making effort, arousing energy, exerting one's mind, and persevering.

One generates the desire for the abandonment of unwholesome states of mind, by making effort, arousing energy, exerting one's mind, and persevering.

One generates the desire for the arising of wholesome states of mind, by making effort, arousing energy, exerting one's mind, and persevering.

One generates the desire for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and development of wholesome states of mind, by making effort, arousing energy, exerting one's mind and persevering.
'

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The conscious frying pan

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Edited by Richie Cuthbertson, Wednesday, 30 Mar 2022, 17:30

I find writing can be helpful for clarifying my thoughts and reaching insights about things, things perhaps I wouldn't have seen by trying to think through or verbalise out loud.

Sometimes though I find it helpful talking out loud to myself. Giving myself a pep talk in preparation for upcoming challenges I see coming over the horizon, those dragons heading my way about to test me. There's no escape from those unfortunately, such is the kamma of having a body, of existence itself, an existence that is interdependent. It is simply the nature of an ever-changing universe in a state of entropy.

Anyway, talking oneself out of a negative state of mind is the Buddha's fourth strategy for abandoning unwholesome states of mind.  

The five strategies recommended by the Buddha for abandoning negative mental states are:

1. Replacement, replace the negative state with its opposite, e.g. sense-desire with contentment or equanimity, ill-will with serenity and goodwill, and so on...

  If that doesn't work move to step two.

2. Concern for the opinion of the wise. Imagine what someone noble and wise would advise if they saw you in that state of mind; or imagine that you are about to go out to dinner with people you really respect and admire and want to abandon that state of mind post haste as you want to make a good impression and not ruin the evening or feel regret later.

  If that fails move on to step three.

3. Distract yourself from the mood until it either goes away on its own and is replaced by calm and peace, or until it becomes weak enough to apply one of the strategies in the steps above.

 If this fails move to step four.

4. Talk yourself out of it. Try to be gentle, kind, and encouraging if you can. But if you need to be fierce with yourself, be so in a loving way, without feeling emnity towards yourself, treat yourself with compassion, like you would treat a noble friend you were correcting. 

 If this doesn't work, then the next step is considered a last resort, it goes against what is advised in popular psychology, but must be applied nevertheless, as one simply cannot allow that negativity to continue, to do so will cause harm both to oneself and others.

5. Suppress the mood, do not allow it to express itself. The Buddha describes it as: 'When a stronger man pins down a weaker man.' One must hold that mood down and not allow it to dominate the mind or express itself in any way. One must do this until it is sufficiently weak enough to then apply one of the strategies above to safely remove it. 

I ten to use the fourth strategy a lot. I will often use that strategy as a tool to weaken the mood sufficiently so that earlier strategies become more effective. For example I will talk myself into using distraction (third strategy).

With the third strategy it is good to have some activity you like doing that you can distract yourself with, so your attention is not focused so much on the negative mood, and absorbed instead by something else. Preferably the distraction is a wholesome activity. Our intentions and everything we do leave ripples and traces in the mind, when we do something once, we increase the likelihood we will do it again at some point, and then again and again, and the traces and ripples grow larger, leaving deeper and deeper grooves in the mind, which in time become new habits. 

 What we focus on grows stronger, so don't feed the monsters in your head, starve them of attention. What goes on in the mind is a lot to do with what we pay attention to. What we continually pay attention to dominates our conscious awareness, and the unconscious mind (trying to be helpful) will generate more of the same, actively filtering out things from awareness it considers unimportant and bringing us more of the same, reinforcing it. Not too disimilar to how the algorithm on YouTube works I guess, only more complex.The narrator part of mind puts this all together into a story. Which become the stories we tell ourselves about reality, about others, about ourselves. These in turn become our opinions, our delusions. Delusions come from a lack of information (not seeing the whole picture), misinformation and disinformation. Ignorance basically.

The first of the right efforts: prevention, is all about where one places their attention. One trains the mind to let go of unwise attention to the fault in ourselves, the world and others; and to let go of unwise attention to the attractive in ourselves, the world and others. What we pay attention to grows stronger. Unwholesome behaviours grow stronger in the mind, they take root and become harder to shake, so you want to become addicted to the wholesome if you can. Your future self will thank you for it.

The Buddha says with patience and perseverance one will eventually become super fast at removing negative states of mind. He likens consciousness in this instance to being like a red hot frying pan, with unwholesome states of mind like water droplets that upon landing on the pan go psssst and evaporate out of existence, leaving no trace. That's how quick one wants to aspire to be at removing unwholesome states of mind.


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Patience

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There's a bit of a conflict going on with what I am learning in Buddhism and popular psychology where one is encouraged to think that all emotions are okay. In Buddhism we are taught in right effort that unwholesome emotions are not okay and should be prevented or abandoned. Then one should work at bringing into being wholesome emotions and sustaining those. 

In one sutta the Buddha talks about how before he was enlightened he spent some time dividing up his thoughts into either wholesome or unwholesome. He watched his thoughts carefully and reflected on them and saw that those which where to do with sense-desire, ill-will or harmfulness led to harm for himself and others, they obstructed wisdom and did not lead to nibbana, so he placed them in the unwholesome pile and expelled them from his mind bringing them to an end.

And when he observed thoughts of letting go (renunciation), goodwill, and harmlessness, he saw they were beneficial, and where conducive to gaining wisdom, and attaining nibbana. So he nurtured those thoughts, strengthened them and brought them to completion. And at the end of this experiment he said it worked!

How long he spent doing that I don't know, he spent much time prepping his mind before he sat under the Bodhi tree to get enlightened it seems. So one should not get too disheartened at not being able to change one's head straight away lol.

I read something Ajahn Brahm wrote in his book 'mindfulness, bliss and beyond, a meditator's handbook' about how he loathed the all night sits he had to do in Thailand as a monk. He would feel ill-will towards the sits feeling they were stupid and unnecessary. He was also suffering from malnutrition and sleep deprivation at the time. He wrote it took him a couple of years to realise it was his aversion that was the problem, and when saw that he stopped fighting it and then found peace. Reflecting on that I realise I have the same problem sometimes. 

Anyway he's a great monk now, and I find it reassuring when monks and Buddhist teachers talk about how they also struggled on the path in the past and how they overcame it. As it gives me hope that I can do this, and helps me cut myself some slack for not getting it right away, it can take years of training. I guess we have all had years of training the mind in the wrong way and become masters at unwholesome states of mind. One isn't going to change that course in a single night (-:

Patience seems to be my teaching this year. I am having to learn a great deal about being patient. As the mind is a lot like a garden, that grows, flowers and fruits in its own time. Impatience will not make anything grow faster.

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The desert of effort

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Edited by Richie Cuthbertson, Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022, 14:41

Woke up with a right shitty mood today. Agitated depression with a large helping of anger, oh and fatigue, yes agitated fatigue, if that contradiction makes any sense.

 The first right effort of preventing negative moods from arising had clearly failed at some point in the night, and my brain had put me back together in a rather haphazard way. So I tried to practise the second right effort of abandoning this unwholesome state of mind. But the fatigue made it challenging to rouse the energy to abandon it, it was like trying to shake off something stuck with superglue.

 To be honest the four right efforts felt like a joke. I felt like a failure for being unable to practise them. Started feeling doubt that the Buddha's teachings really do work. I think I even nearly swore at the Buddha at one point, which was shameful of me. This made the anger and depression worse. 

And I couldn't get much done, no energy or inclination to study or paint, and couldn't get no sleep, no escape, just stuck in this horrible state of mind. Loving-kindness felt impossible to generate. So I tried equanimity, but maintaining that state of mind wasn't easy, especially as I felt so foggy-headed and physically beat. I felt like giving up. But I can't really, there's nothing to go back to in the world. I have seen through it, and I have no desire to be a worldling again. Once one has seen impermanence and how everything changes and that the self is insubstantial. One just feels dispassion for it all, for material things, for the self. Nothing lasts, everything fades away, we all die, we're all fated to become separated from everything we love and those we hold dear. Our material achievements are meaningless in the end.

I am watching the mind though, and what it does, looking for a chink in its armour and a way I can abandon this negative state of mind and bring a more positive one into being. Mindfulness is considered a wholesome state of mind, but the lack of energy makes it challenging to sustain. Monks apparently are deliberately sleep deprived to learn how to manage fatigue and not suffer. In fact the more I learn about the austerity Buddhist monks practise, the less appealing that lifestyle becomes to me. I don't think I could live like that, I am not into austerity, and very much dislike sleep-deprivation. 

I can't give up though. I have to keep on pushing through this desert of the mind and hope that the Buddha really did know what he was talking about and that there really is a way out of suffering. Many people throughout history have got enlightened, so it must possible. I can't go back now, I have come too far, I have to keep trudging forward. There's still some determination in me I guess, and perseverance is classed as a wholesome state of mind. I willl keep on keeping, even though training this mind feels like walking the wrong way on an escalator sometimes - I've had it with Samsara.

'Row row row your boat gently up the stream,
Merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream.
Row row row your boat gently up the stream,
If you see a crocodile try to stay serene.'


 

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Balance

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Edited by Richie Cuthbertson, Wednesday, 26 Jan 2022, 17:52

Have been listening to dharma talks a lot lately. Especially when out walking with my headphones on. I wear headphones in the town as I find the constant sound of traffic and construction wears my awareness down into a dull grey fatigue. I am practising though, sometimes I don't wear my headphones, and I suspect my aversion to industrial noise is to do with what the Buddha called: 'unwise attention to the fault.' (N.b. there is also 'unwise attention to the beautiful.' The gate swings both ways. ) 

In the first of the four Right Efforts of Buddhism, one works at preventing negative states of mind from arising. This is done by becoming aware of unwise attention to either the ugly or the beautiful and changing it to wise attention. As it is what we attend to in our consciousness that becomes the stories we tell ourselves about the world, which in turn generates either craving or aversion, which then entangles us in unhealthy unhappy states of mind. 

If one fails to prevent negative states of mind arising, then this is where the second right effort comes in, which is to abandon negative states of mind when one becomes aware of them. There are different ways of eliminating them. Some suggestions by the Buddha are to try to invoke the opposite, i.e. wanting and desire comes from a feeling of lack, so the opposite of lack is to cultivate a feeling of contentment. One can also reflect on impermanence, observing how everything is always changing, this can help with developing some equanimity towards it all and dampen the craving a bit. The Buddha also advises one to see the negative mood as a great stain on one's personality, and to imagine it being like having a dead snake around your neck that you want to remove post-haste as you are about to go to dinner with some people you respect and admire. Other techniques are: to distract oneself till the mood has passed; talking oneself out of it; or the last resort, suppress the mood until it is weakened enough to allow one to use some of the other elimination strategies.  

The third right effort is bringing into being wholesome states of mind. And the fourth right effort is cultivating those wholesome states of mind so they thrive and become continuous and fully-developed. 

The hope I get from this is that no-one has to be a prisoner of who they are. We can change ourselves if we want to. Transformation of one's consciousness and emotions is possible; but we are the ones who have to put in the right causes and conditions to make this happen. And do so with equanimity, with the right balance of energy - the middle way. One should not push oneself so hard as to burn out and become unwell; nor just sit on the couch and do nothing. One needs to find a sweet spot, which maybe means something a bit different to each one of us, it doesn't have to be perfectly in the middle. I imagine it as a dial with a section in green that I try to keep the needle steady in by making necessary adjustments; and with two red areas at the extremes of the polarity which I am trying to keep the needle out of. I know its a daft metaphor, it occurred to me while I was adjusting the water pressure for our boiler, but visualising it like that seems to work okay for me.


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