Effort is one of the most important of all the qualities that we aim to develop in the practice of meditation and work on ourselves. Just by saying that we ‘work on ourselves’ we say that we need effort, what we are doing is work.
It’s very easy to stay as you are, but if you want to change yourself, you cannot expect it to happen by itself! Put simply, you make effort when you do something that is not easy. Effort is the opposing force to the laziness in all of us that wants everything to be easy, and is reluctant to do what is harder, longer, or that takes us out of our comfort zone.
Whatever goal you want to achieve requires effort, no matter what it is. You want to have money? You have to work for it. You want to pursue some career or other? You have to study and learn your subject. You want to eat? You have to at the very least make an effort to get out of bed in the morning, walk to the kitchen and put some toast in the toaster. You want to not have smelly breath? You have to make the effort to brush your teeth. (You may laugh, but depending on somebody’s situation and state of mind, just these may seem like monumental mountains of effort to climb at times.) All that is achieved in life is built on effort, combined with other qualities too of course.
Right Effort and Wrong Effort
Right Aim, Wrong Aim
It takes a great deal of effort to plan and carry out a mass murder, but effort fuelled by hatred is obviously not the effort we wish to develop! The opposite to this is the effort of somebody who works 13 or 14 hours a day to save lives as a doctor working in a refugee camp, fuelled by love for humanity, compassion and desire to help others. The quality of one’s effort is conditioned above all by the aim for which you work. It’s “easy” and very common to work for a selfish aim; to work towards something for MY benefit – more rare to work for an unselfish one that removes from one’s Self.
Here as meditators, all our effort is for the aim of working on ourselves and perfecting ourselves, for kicking out the bad qualities from the mind and developing good ones. Effort is one in the list of specific qualities we try to develop, and the fuel we need to work on all the rest. It’s always easier to be ungenerous than it is to give, always easier to keep whatever you like than it is to renounce, easier to be immoral than it is to be moral, easier to be dishonest than it is to be honest, easier to think only of oneself than it is to have compassion for others. It’s easy to slide down a mountain, hard to climb upwards. All qualities require effort to practice and develop them.
Right path, wrong path
It’s possible for two people with the same aim to make the same amount of effort, and yet one of them will progress quickly and get closer to their aim while the other does not. The difference is that one of them directs his energy in the right direction; the other takes the wrong path. If you are lost in the forest and your aim is to get back to civilisation, you need to work without stopping, walk without stopping until you reach your goal. But if at some point you start walking in the wrong direction along the wrong path, you can walk for days and days, face dangers, stand up to difficult conditions for a long time – yet all this effort is useless when it is in the wrong direction.
Applied to meditation, what this means is that our effort in meditation has to fit with our aim. We cannot expect to achieve the aim of removing all selfishness inside us by simply repeating a mantra or chanting. No matter how many hours we spend doing this, and no matter how much effort we put into this, we will come no closer to the aim; we don’t become wiser, more generous or more moral.
Mental Effort, Physical Effort
If you are working to plough a field and your plough is not working well, you can make the physical effort to continue stubbornly despite this and keep going until your entire field is done, taking twice as long as you would normally do – but while you have been making physical effort, you have been mentally lazy.
It’s easy to think of effort as being purely physical, purely to do with persistence and non-stop work. It is easy to fool ourselves that we are not lazy because we work hard and for many hours, not seeing that laziness is just as present and even more problematic when it is in the mind: the laziness of not wanting to think, not wanting to calculate, not wanting to analyse.
When, as in the example just given, you don’t want to bother to stop and investigate to see what is the problem with the machine, or to take the time to solve the problem, you are not only wasting time taking longer to do your job, but causing further damage to your machine. You are turning a small problem into a potentially much bigger one, through your reluctance to stop and think.
Another aspect of mental laziness is being hard and sticky to a routine or an idea of how things should be organised. When the lazy mind has a problem, he doesn’t want to have to go to the trouble of trying and testing out different solutions. He likes to complain. When offered an idea to change or to solve the problem, his response is “Yes, but…” or “I know, but…” or “But it’s sure it won’t work.”
Mental laziness is the most subtle and problematic enemy, because it is not necessarily easy to see in the moment. You are not aware of having an actively wrong or harmful intention, and if you are not used to thinking, not used to calculating, what will prompt you to suddenly decide to stop and think? While other harmful qualities of the mind such as fear or anger are very easy to see, like a fire that is burning your house, this laziness of the mind is more like carbon monoxide – colourless, no smell, no taste, hard to detect. You don’t see that you are doing something wrong, and it does not necessarily occur to you to do something differently.
For this reason, mental effort needs a mind that is at least to some extent sharp and aware, as well as focused on its aim. It is mental effort that is needed to step out of one’s comfort zone, to change the status quo, to change direction, or to change anything whatsoever for the better. When you see something is not working, you try something different. That’s still not working – think again, reconsider, change again! You don’t just blame the material, or the space, or the people you have around you, or whatever else, you see “this is not working the way I’m doing now – so let’s try another way!” All this is mental effort.
Effort of the Tortoise, Effort of the Hare
In meditation, the consistency of one’s effort is more important than its intensity. If your ship has sunk and you are floating in the ocean waiting for rescue, it is worse than useless to tire yourself by trying to swim as fast as you can in any direction – what will happen? At some point you will get exhausted, be unable to go any further, and will be almost certain to drown. Just by moving your legs and arms a little bit from time to time, you can hope to stay afloat for long enough for a rescue boat to arrive. If you stop moving for even one minute, what will happen?
In meditation, we need to train our mind, like training a wild dog to become obedient. If you only work to train a wild dog for half the day, and for the rest of the time you let him do whatever he wants, can you expect to get good results? Even if you train very intensively, it’s no good if you don’t continue to train the dog consistently all the time, not allowing him ever to do something that you don’t want him to do. If you let go of the leash of a wild dog for even half a second, do you expect him to stay by your side? If you let go of a kite for even a moment, do you expect the rope to stay in your hand? Meditation for this purpose does not work if it is done only for half an hour each morning; we have to be able to carry some awareness with us throughout the day.
Labour of love or just labour
Making effort does not have to be hard and heavy, a chore, a load; it can be the joy of one’s life, a labour of love. It all depends on your will to get where you want to go, your certainty in your aim, and your determination to reach it. Two boys can climb the same steep hill by bicycle, both the same age; both making the same physical effort, but the quality of their effort can be entirely different. For one of them whose idea it was to go there, whose aim it is to reach the top of the hill, it is a thrill and a challenge – he WANTS to reach the top of the hill and even if somebody tries to pull him back down or he is called to eat dinner, he won’t want to stop. The pain in his muscles does not bother him; it just means he’s getting closer to the summit.
The other boy, who has, let’s say, been dragged away from his video game by his friend to do this activity, is really having a hard time keeping going. He is still pedalling, but his mind is on the pain in his chest, every movement of his legs is a bore and a chore, and at the earliest opportunity to stop moving, he will. Maybe he’ll accidentally-on-purpose lose his balance and fall and hurt his knee, crying out ‘you go on without me!’
When you love to do something, any amount of effort that you put into it is a joy. If it feels like Hard Work, a chore, a bore, then it means something is wrong, and we must question ourselves: Am I sure without a doubt that my aim is clear? Have I renounced the things that are holding me back or am I still hanging on to something that is blocking me and making me heavy? Am I sure that I am working correctly, or is something wrong in my practice?
Never give up
When your work is your joy, when your aim is clear and you have no uncertainty, you don’t give up, no matter what difficulties come in your way. Even if you fall, you get up and keep going. Even if you fail ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times, you don’t let go, you keep trying. When a grizzly bear first comes out of hibernation, he has to try many, many times before he can catch his first salmon. If he were to become discouraged and fall backward in dismay every time that he does not succeed in catching a fish, he could not expect to ever get something to eat! He keeps trying and trying, knowing that if he keeps trying hard enough for long enough, eventually he will get a fish, even if he’s the stupidest bear in the forest, even if he is weak and tired and out of practice after his long hibernation.
This is the magic of effort and determination: it means that anyone, anyone at all, is capable of reaching their aim. No matter what your ability is, what your quality is, what your situation is; no matter where you start from, you are sure of getting there in the end if you are really determined and if you do not give up. Just get on the path, and keep going – whether by plane, by train, by car, bicycle, on foot, limping, crawling – if you keep going and don’t give up, you will get to where you want to go.