So far we’ve gone through five different spokes on the Noble Eightfold Path, comprising two groups — Wisdom/Prajna and Moral Virtues/Sila. They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Together, they make up the understanding/philosophy and practice/action parts of the path. Now, we head into the third and final group of the Path, spokes six through eight — the Meditation, or Samadhi group.
Right Effort is the very first step in that process, and to me it feels like sort of a companion step to Right Intention, stretched out from two to three dimensions. Right Intention tells us to make sure that we enter into each situation with a proper understanding of what we want to happen as a result of it — preferably the compassionate connection with another sapient being, allowing them to go on about their lives in peace and contentment. Right Effort is the mechanism we use to keep making sure we do that; it’s the way we sustain our drive towards Right Intention.
Specifically, Right Effort asks us to release these negative impulses that enable us to cling to attachments far too easily (called the Five Hindrances) and cultivate positive impulses that allow us to be more mindful and compassionate (called, appropriately enough, the Five Antidotes). The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will (remember that one?); sloth, torpor or drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and uncertainty or doubt.
Sensual desire is more a manifestation of greed than anything. Whether our craving for sex or doughnuts is at the root of it, this pull to titillate the senses can lead us to a lot of trouble. It’s rare that we become satisfied once we’ve actually attained the object of our craving; a lot of the time, there’s that short hit of bliss while we indulge, and very quickly we’re already wanting a repeat of that experience. Or maybe it’s just me, but man, when I make a candy bar disappear, the taste of it has scarcely left my tongue before I’m thinking about how much another one would be so great.
The antidote to sensual desire is RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and — eventually — Non-Identification. It’s a nice way to move through the steps of mindfulness, really. Acknowledge the desire without judgment, because it’s just a part of the human condition. We aren’t any less enlightened people for wanting to have sex or being in possession of a sweet tooth, but we must face that impulse in order to be more mindful of it. Investigate it once we’ve moved past our judging of it; what is it like, and where does it come from, and what’s the underlying desire that drives it? Meditating on our desires, noticing when they arise and turning it over in our heads can be a really helpful tool to become more aware of ourselves and our specific natures. Once we’ve recognized and investigated it, we can let it go, and this is where the magic happens. We realize that the desire is an impermanent, transient thing, separate from ourselves; we don’t have to act on these impulses — they, like everything else, come, stay with us for a time, and then go.
Ill will is pretty much what it says on the tin — thoughts of rejection, hatred, bitterness and overall hostility. We all have people we’ve viewed as enemies at one time or another, people who raise our blood pressure at the mere thought of them. We’ve wished harm on them; insulted them mentally or verbally; even possibly dehumanized them in some way. This, too, is a part of the human experience. There are always going to be people whose personalities rub us the wrong way, or through some means or another will come to represent everything we believe is wrong about the human race. This is especially true when you’re politically active. It can feel like there’s an entire world of them out there, actively working to make the world a more terrible place.
The more we give in to this ill will, the easier it becomes to indulge in it. We may find ourselves wishing harm on other people more and more often, for lesser and lesser infractions. Any pattern of thought we regularly engage in becomes easier to recall. So it’s important to cultivate an attitude of loving kindness instead. Meditating on loving kindness allows us to restore the humanity of our enemies, to make a genuine attempt to understand them and see how their impulses are also our own. Extending this consideration to people we’re diametrically opposed to makes it easy for us to extend it to everyone; strangers become more easily recognizable, and the things that annoy or enrage us are easier to understand. When we get to a place of loving kindness, we can brush aside the things that ruffle us to focus on the true intentions of the people we interact with all the time. We become more open, more accepting, and more forgiving.
Sloth and torpor is ennui, more or less, and this is a tricky one for me to talk about. In my struggle with depression, I’ve frequently fallen into a torpor of sorts when I’m at my worst. It’s an emotional exhaustion that makes it almost impossible to do anything, even if I want to, even when I know I should. That in itself would be agitating, if I could muster the energy to care about it. There are several friends I know who struggle with the same thing, that inability to focus or muster energy of any sort — and it’s through no fault of our own. This is an illness that affects our brain, which in turn affects our ability to rouse just about anything else. The sloth and torpor we speak of as a hindrance is not this kind, this illness outside of our control. It’s something else.
As we get older, we tend to lose interest in our lives and the world in general. Well, at least, I recognize this within myself. I can feel myself calcify, almost — I’m a creature of comfort, and when I find a comfortable state I just want to wallow in it for as long as I can. It can be very difficult to remain alert and present to the world, or to accept the things that we find challenging. When our days become full of the things we do to maintain our lives, it can be easy to become incurious, to turn away from things we don’t know to seek the comfort of the things we do. But when we do that, we expend less energy; we become used to that easy and comfortable life, and find that we have less energy to spare for the things that shake us out of that. Torpor sets in. And before we know it, we find ourselves asleep — uncritical, unthinking, on auto-pilot.
A beginner’s mind is a good antidote for this. When we don’t have the context we learn as adults, we have to ask questions about almost everything we come across. Why do we work only five days? Why do we have to work for five days? Why are things as they are? What would it be like if they were different? Why do we sit a certain way while meditating? Is suffering in life really inevitable? Isn’t that kind of a downer? By stretching ourselves, remaining curious, learning just a little bit each day, we hold on to precious energy and a curiosity about life that keeps us spry, flexible, and critical.
Restlessness and worry is the other extreme of this continuum. I kind of think of it as “monkey mind”. Again, this is a tricky thing for me to talk about. If you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, then the last thing you need is some asshole on the Internet telling you that your anxiety is a spiritual failing — it absolutely is not. But, there is an aspect of our attention that we can bring about to focus, with time and dedication.
It can be extremely difficult for me to focus on things at times. In the short term, I could be writing this blog entry when all of a sudden something in my brain tells me to see if there’s anything cool on YouTube. Then, I’m looking at spooky paranormal countdown videos, professional wrestling interviews, TED talks, cartoons and assorted science education vlogs for an hour. In the long term, I forget about my health or writing goals the moment a giant piece of cake or a fun, relaxed evening turns my head.
Sometimes it’s difficult to be still with whatever I’m thinking or feeling. Somewhere along the way, boredom became the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Or I’ll worry about the state of the country; the way our ecology is being pushed to the point of collapse; or my nonexistent relationship with my mother. These thoughts fill me with fear and dread to the point I can become paralyzed and blinded to the way things really are.
Learning to be present and content is the antidote to this. We live in a culture where this is extremely difficult. Advertising is all around us, and it works by telling us that we really lack something in our lives that a certain product fills. Even though we think we’ve become inoculated against us, in so many ways we’ve become conditioned to be discontent. We don’t have the latest phone, computer, game; we don’t have new clothes or furniture; we don’t have that cheeseburger we’ve been craving. I know for me, it’s become a matter of habit to just reach out and get something as soon as I want it. The world has made it so easy to do that, why not indulge?
Because, like I’ve mentioned before, acquiring the thing we want reflexively all too often doesn’t satisfy us for very long. For a short time, there’s a sense of relief or contentment, but then — an even newer phone comes out. Or that burger is gone and now we want a milkshake to go with it. There’s always going to be something we don’t have, but want, and as long as we chase after it reflexively we’ll never be satisfied.
We must be still, and cultivate contentment and gratitude about things as they are. Yeah, I really want an Oreo shake right now, but…I had a good dinner and a glass of beer. If I stop and pay attention, I can feel my full belly and that nice little buzz of intoxication. And it feels nice. The desire for a shake, that restlessness, falls away.
Finally, there is doubt. What’s interesting about doubt is that it is a very necessary thing to have. We must be critical and questioning of ourselves, our beliefs and our world. (Who says? Good question.) But doubt can also be crippling; we can feel so lost in it, with no idea where to begin, that we throw our hands up and give up on the whole endeavor. With meditation, we can often feel as if we’re not doing it right because we’re not in the lotus position, beneath a bodhi tree, with the morning star clearly twinkling in our field of vision. We will stop ourselves from stretching, from trying something new, from taking risks, because we doubt our own ability to do it, or the ability of the people around us to forgive mistakes. Doubt all too often leads to fear, and fear leads to paralysis, blindness, stagnation.
Doubt is one of the big ones for me. The antidote for this is preparation and trust; we learn what we can, while we can — and we trust in our ability to discover the answers we don’t yet grasp. With meditation, for example, learning the various traditions will help us understand a common thread that all meditators seek and we learn which ones will suit our own individual preferences as we seek the same thing. And we trust that any mistakes we make can (and will) be discovered and corrected, and that these mistakes are part of the process. It’s another way we learn and grow. And I know that it is very much easier said than done, but there you go.
Guarding ourselves against the Five Hindrances, recognizing the form they take within ourselves, and working on the traits that encourage us to be more open, accepting, curious, loving and prepared constitutes Right Effort for me. This is done through meditation, but also carrying the mindfulness cultivated on the meditation bench with me through the rest of my life. It’s an ideal I continually strive for, even though I fail. Frequently. But hey, part of the process, right? It isn’t Right Perfection, after all.