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Right Effort

A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, May 5, 2010)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

Good morning.

I want to talk a little bit about two aspects of practice: letting go and cultivation.  The reason I brought this up is that I just finished teaching a 6-week, introductory mindfulness course, and each week the students were given a series of questions and exercises they were supposed to do; and, one of the exercises actually generated a lot of confusion for some of the students.  We asked them to do an activity that tends to bring about a positive state of mind, and to do that activity more frequently than usual.  So for instance, let’s say you love to pet your dog; you would do that a little bit more frequently than usual, notice what your mind is like when you do this activity, and then reflect on what you can do to sustain that mental attitude or that mind state.  The main thing that we heard back from people who had problems with this exercise was that, “Well, I thought we’re just supposed to accept what is; it seems like we’re trying to change something instead of accept what’s happening.”  You know, because when we’re paying attention to our minds in meditation, we’re focusing on the breath, a thought comes up and we just let it go, an irritation comes up and we let it go; we are in the habit of letting go.  It seemed to be a little bit in conflict with the instructions.

As I started reflecting on this a little bit more, one of the things I thought about is that there are two basic ways that we practice.  On the one hand, we practice in that, ‘be here now.’  You know, everything is in the present.  That’s the most relevant thing we have at any given moment, this moment right now.  But at the same time we decide to practice every day for ‘this’ period of time; we set a goal.  We do that because we have something we want out of it, right?  Maybe we want to have a more relaxed mind, have less mental torture or maybe just lower our blood pressure, but we have a reason that we do it.  At the same time we have a goal, a reason for doing this.  And so we set ourselves to make plans for the future, and at the same time all that’s really important is to show up every moment, moment after moment; and, to be able to hold both of those things at the same time.

One of my favourite quotations is from Gandhi.  He said, “Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.” That means every moment notice the bird outside, that might be the last bird you’ll ever see; you know, the smile on the child’s face.  “Live as if you were going to die tomorrow and learn as if you were going to live forever.”  So then you get interested in everything.  You allow yourself to make long-term plans.  So it’s a really wonderful thing.  Again, they seem to be two opposite ideas, but it’s what allows us to be really whole in our lives, to hold both of those.

Getting back to the original question about positive mental states, one of the things that our mindfulness practice does is that we are able to see our minds clearly enough that we realize we have a choice about what we do with our minds.  It just gives us that little bit of room to make these choices, and these choices will create karma.  Karma is action.  What happens for instance, let’s say you have a lifetime of being a very angry judgmental person.  You’ve got these incredible mind habits that just have a lot force and power, but here you’re generating a moment of mindfulness, a moment where you actually have a choice.  You can either encourage your mind to continue complaining about how terrible the world is, or you can take a moment to appreciate this moment, to appreciate what your life is right at this moment.  That moment of choice conditions the next moment.  So you have this, maybe this lifetime of this, but every moment that you’re bringing a little moment of peace, a little moment of peace, starts changing how your life is, how your mind is.

A lot of people start to meditate and they think of this practice as just something you do on the cushion, but it’s the same mind that’s on the cushion that washes the dishes, talks to your spouse, goes to work; it’s the same mind.  Even though we might focus and do our formal training of the mind in this sitting period that we do each day (hopefully), it’s the same mind that needs to use those same practices during the rest of the day.  So mindfulness is just one aspect of the eightfold path.  Another aspect is concentration, how we live our lives, wisdom, but one of the steps of the eightfold path that’s essential in every other aspect is wise effort.  This brings us directly to the question, what is wise effort?  It’s defined often by four different ways of putting out effort.  Two of those efforts are efforts to help you let go, and two of those efforts are efforts to help you cultivate positive mind states.  Two help you let go of unhelpful mind states; two help you cultivate these helpful mind states.

The first one is to guard against any unhealthy or unhelpful mind states.  Let’s look at what that looks like in meditation.  Let’s say you’re sitting there just nicely watching your breath and you hear somebody turn on the leaf blower outside, one of those really ‘pleasant’ sounds, right?  And so, if you’re carefully watching your mind and you’re really alert for the movement of your mind you’ll notice that the noise is definitely unpleasant, but if you’re staying mindful you can just leave it at that.  ‘Oh yeah, it’s just unpleasant.’  You don’t have to get upset over it.

Now if you’re not being really mindful of that, you’re not guarding yourself, then the mind can say, ‘Oh God, how could they do that?  They should be outlawed,’ and suddenly you’re miles and miles away; maybe you’re angry and you know, really, ‘God, those are horrible.’  It’s not that it might not be a useful thing to do at some point, to try to get rid of leaf blowers, but in the moment what’s happening is this emotional clinging that happens.  So guarding is not really guarded, like being tense.  It’s being alert to that process, to where an unhealthy mind state might come in, and if we notice what’s pleasant and unpleasant in our lives, in our meditation, then we can guard against grabbing onto those things, pushing away the unpleasant, grasping the pleasant.  The next way of letting go is that once you have an unskillful mind state and you are in the middle of it, to abandon it, to let it go.  Now you’ve probably all done that a lot during mediation, right?  The mind’s totally caught up in something, you go, ‘oh, oh, here I am,’ so we let it go.

Now we go to the two that are the developing, the cultivating of wholesome states.  And of course the first one is to make a wholesome state arise.  Now this is the one that created the problem, right? —You know, the idea of developing the wholesome mental state.  But what do you do when you sit down to meditate?  Sometimes you’re just rushing around, getting yourself ready, and you sit down.  You’re doing it to create a positive, helpful mental state.  It’s something we do all the time.  We do it with mediation; we might do it with the practice of loving kindness.

We might cultivate generosity by giving mindfully and really noticing.  For instance, people can write a check and do so, ‘Oh yeah, I should do that,’ because they feel guilty; they can do it out of many, many reasons, if they give.  But we can cultivate generosity of the heart by really staying mindful of the process.  You know, you give somebody your time, and maybe your heart constricts, ‘Oh God, you know, I wanted to actually be running right now, but they want my attention.’  And so, maybe your heart contracts a little bit right before you give, but by staying mindful you’re cultivating the generosity.  If you give something that you value, you’ve decided to give it and you’re happy to give but a little bit of the mind contracts; so, we’re practicing generosity.

And then the fourth right effort/wise effort is once you have a wholesome mental state to make it continue.  Again that also can smack of being a little contrived, but what are we doing in meditation when we’re staying on the breath and we’re trying to make it stay there?  Okay, we’ve been stable on the breath and we continue to stay there.  We continue to be calm, to be tranquil.  We don’t get complacent.  Sometimes what happens in meditation, a very frequent thing that happens is, you know, in a sense, we’re struggling along with a lot of restlessness, and we finally get calm, and then, ‘Ah, this is good enough.’

We’re still putting out the effort; so, that’s where that fourth right effort comes in.  You’re in an alert and relaxed mental state.  That’s what we’re looking for in practice, alert and relaxed.  We see what’s going on, and yet we’re really relaxed.  It’s a vibrant, alive mental state.  So when we’re there we don’t get complacent, we don’t lower our energy and just be only relaxed.  So those are very useful efforts to do, both in practice.

Getting back to the original question, of petting the dog.  One of the things that happens sometimes is that when we do a practice that’s focused on letting go, what happens is we can train our minds to only see the things we have to let go of.  How many of you have noticed irritation, itching, restlessness, all these things in your mind, and forgotten to notice calm and tranquility? I did that for a long time.  I just kept looking for what was wrong in my mind and missing huge pieces of my experience.  So part of noticing your positive mental states is really recognizing both in mediation and in the rest of your life, how many moments of peace do you have?  Maybe you go take a hot shower, it feels really good, you’re very relaxed, and you don’t even notice it.  By noticing it and recognizing it we actually encourage it.

The other purpose for doing that, how many of you, just thinking about petting your dog makes you feel happy, or a similar thing, just thinking about it?  You’re not even petting them, but just, you think about it and this warm loving feeling arises.  So that’s another way that thinking about a mental state, it’s not the dog, it’s in your mind, right?  It has nothing to do with the dog; it’s just your mind, it’s your own mind. So that’s another aspect of doing this practice of cultivating positive mental states in your life.

The last benefit that I thought of is that sometimes the memory of something can really be helpful to cultivating these states.  For instance, how many of you have practiced metta, loving kindness practice?  Okay, some of you.  So one of the things you start with in loving kindness practice is you use an object, which might be yourself, your mentor; you’re supposed to use someone who it’s easy for you to feel kind thoughts towards, to wish them well.  Sometimes it takes our memory to bring that up.  I know someone, a friend who, the only being she could use that she had friendly thoughts towards was her dog; so, it was that memory of the dog that she used to cultivate this practice.

The last thing I want to say, there’s a shadow side that’s possible to cultivating positive mental states, and that can happen if we try to be positive.  Cultivating these really wonderful, skillful mental states is not about denying our emotions; it’s not about denying our pain.  It includes all of that.  We can have a positive mental state in relation to our pain.  If we are sad, we can be sad and be compassionate towards ourselves.  It makes our sadness a wholesome mental state.

So thank you, and thank you for sharing this morning with me.