Skillful Effort

Not too little, not too muchPeter Doobinin

Some dharma teachers may be reluctant to encourage students to make strong effort. The Buddha, however, wasn’t at all shy about urging his disciples to do so. In doing so, he often explained to his followers that he was exhorting them because he had compassion for them, because he wanted them to find an end to suffering.

It takes strong effort to follow the Buddha’s path. It isn’t a path for the lazy or halfhearted. Like any meaningful undertaking, dharma practice requires great effort. Think about anybody who has achieved a high level of proficiency in a particular area. Chances are, they’ve made exceptional effort. Very little in life is accomplished without a degree of perspiration. When we watch somebody display great expertise, it all may seem rather effortless; but the truth is, it takes a lot of practice to reach that seemingly effortless state.

As dharma students we’re asked to make strong effort. But we’re asked to make a certain kind of effort: skillful effort. During the course of our lives, most of us have probably had a rather unskillful relationship to the subject of effort. In making effort, in whatever context, we’ve probably cultivated bad habits. We’ve probably caused ourselves suffering. Most of us, of course, were never shown how to make skillful effort. On the contrary, the people who served as roles models for us—parents, teachers, bosses, and so on—probably showed us how to make unskillful effort. In all likelihood we’ve learned ways of making effort that aren’t useful in terms of finding true happiness in our lives.

So how do we make skillful effort?

As dharma practitioners we make effort in the service of abandoning the unskillful and developing the skillful. The Buddha explains:

And what, monks, is right effort? There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen . . . He upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen. He . . . upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort. (Samyutta Nikaya 45.8; trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

In developing skillful effort we pay attention to (1) the quantity of our effort and (2) the quality of our effort.

It is important to be mindful of the quantity of our effort. Effort must be balanced. To this end we’re asked, in developing skillful effort, to discern whether we’re making too little or too much effort.

In observing the quantity of our effort, we step back and take a broad view of our practice. Doing so, you may discern that you’re not making enough effort. You may recognize, for instance, that you need to make greater effort to practice breath meditation. You’ve been meditating four or five days a week, but you realize it’s not enough. In order to develop sufficient concentration you’re going to need to meditate every day.

Conversely, you may discern that you’re making too much effort. Perhaps you’re putting too much time into “closed eyes” practice. As a result, you’ve been neglecting other parts of your life like your work or your relationships. All the meditation, you see, isn’t actually supporting your efforts to end suffering.

We also observe the effort we’re making from moment to moment as we’re following the Buddha’s path. Scrutinizing your efforts while meditating, you may discern that you’re not applying sufficient effort. You’re chasing after thoughts, and you’re not making much, if any, effort to bring your attention back to the breath. Recognizing that your effort is slack, you increase it.

We increase effort largely by inclining to the skillful quality of effort. We assert the intention to make more effort. We tell ourselves: More effort. We have an innate ability to make effort. It may not be developed, but we have it. By inclining to this quality, shining the light of our awareness on it, we’re able to connect to our capacity for making effort.

Examining your effort while meditating, you may notice that you’re making too much effort. Gritting your teeth, dripping with sweat, you’re pushing like a jogger with a twisted ankle trying to run up a hill. This sort of over-efforting creates tension and dis-ease. It prevents you, in fact, from developing concentration.

In the sutta “About Sona” (Sona Sutta), the Buddha explains how to cultivate skillful effort. Sona was a monk with a propensity for making an inordinate amount of effort. It seems he was putting so much effort into walking meditation that his feet were bleeding. Clearly, the way Sona was going about things wasn’t working, and he was getting discouraged. In fact, he was considering giving up the monk’s life. When effort is unskilled, we often find dharma practice unpleasant, and, consequently, we build up an aversion to the practice. The aversion frequently leads to doubt. We doubt our ability to practice. We doubt the practice itself. Many practitioners get caught in this syndrome.

Luckily for Sona, the Buddha was clued in to his dilemma. He taught Sona to develop skillful effort:

“Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina [a lute or guitar]?”
“Yes, lord.”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune and playable?”
“No, lord.”
. . .
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune and playable?”
“Yes, lord.”
“In the same way, Sona, overaroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence. . . .” (Anguttara Nikaya 6.55, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

If effort isn’t balanced, the Buddha says, we’ll produce an untoward result, in the same way that a stringed instrument, if not tuned properly, will produce a dissonant sound. In dharma practice, our effort must be “in tune.” Like a musician, the dharma student learns to discern the “pitch” of his effort. When he notices he’s making insufficient effort, he turns the effort up. When he’s making too much effort, he turns it down. Cultivating skillful effort, we learn to distinguish the “right” amount of effort. Not too little. Not too much. Just right. In tune. When we find the right pitch, our practice flourishes.

There have probably been times during your life, when you’ve been involved in certain endeavors, when you didn’t mind making a lot of effort. In all likelihood your strong exertion was in the service of doing something you wanted to do, something you enjoyed. This was my experience when I played soccer in high school and college. The sport required much effort, but I didn’t mind. On the contrary, I loved every minute of it. Putting effort into it wasn’t a problem; it was a joy.

In traversing the Buddha’s path, we have to learn to develop this same kind of heartful effort. We have to learn to practice heartfully. We have to learn to put our heart into the practice.

The heart quality that motivates dharma practice is compassion; we practice out of compassion for ourselves, so that we may end our suffering. You may not have a heartful relationship to dharma practice. But that’s okay; you can learn to put your heart into your practice.

It’s all about intention. If your intention is skillful, imbued with compassion, the quality of your effort will be skillful. And you can develop skillful intention.

As you practice the dharma, it’s important to pay close attention to the quality of your intention. As you scrutinize your practice, you may discern that the quality of your effort is unskillful. You may discern that your effort is informed by unskillful desire. Maybe you’re compelled by an excessive desire to obtain results.

Or, as you sit down to meditate, you may notice that you’re riddled with aversion. You don’t want to be doing what you’re doing. Like a kid who doesn’t want to play the piano, you’re practicing, but you’re not happy about it.

You may discern, when meditating, that your intention is marred by delusion. You’re not in touch with a clear-cut intention. As you take your seat on the cushion or chair, you’re like somebody who’s been getting on the same commuter train every day for the past twenty years. You’re just going through the motions.

As dharma students developing skillful effort, we seek to purify our intention. We recognize when our intention is unskillful, infused with desire, aversion, or delusion. Assuming the role of the observer, we step back from the unskillful mental quality. We get some distance from it. We stop feeding it. The unskillful quality, in turn, begins to lose its power.

Abandoning unskillful intention, we develop skillful intention. We develop skillful intention by (1) asserting directed thought and (2) connecting to a felt sense.

When we sit down to meditate, we see what the mind is like. Then we set a skillful intention. We assert that we’re going to practice breath meditation, and we’re going to practice out of compassion for ourselves. Then we connect to a felt sense of the heart, the feeling of compassion. It’s important to set a skillful intention at the beginning of every period of formal meditation.

After my morning meditation and before attending to the day’s affairs, I’ll set an intention to keep the breath in mind as the day goes on. Asserting directed thought, I’ll say something along these lines: “I’m going make an effort to keep the breath in mind throughout the day. I’m going to practice out of compassion for myself.” I’ll put my attention on my heart center and apprehend a felt sense of compassion. During the day I’ll check my intention, looking to see if I’m making a wholehearted effort to keep the breath in mind. If I see that I’ve lost the thread, I’ll reset my intention.

In order to move forward toward a greater happiness, we have to learn to make skillful effort. When effort is unskillful, our ability to move forward is greatly diminished. Think about Sona. Plagued by his out-of-tune effort, he came close to forsaking the dharma.

In many ways, it’s the skillfulness of our effort that determines our ability to go on.

Sona, in fact, became fully enlightened, an arahant, not long after he learned to adjust his effort. And although we might not become arahants, we’ll certainly come to know the fruits of the path if we learn to make skillful effort.

Next page: Practice

From The Skill of Living: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Qualities by Peter Doobinin, © 2013. Reprinted with permission of the author. Peter Doobinin is the founder and guiding teacher of Downtown Meditation Community in New York City.

Illustrations by Gavin McClure. See how the art was created here.
Image 1: "buddha disintegrate II (red)." © Gavin McClure.
Image 2: "buddhadisintegrate III (gold)." © Gavin McClure.

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John Haspel's picture

“In order to move forward toward a greater happiness, we have to learn to make skillful effort. “ Very well said. In teaching Right Effort the Buddha maintained a very narrow focus. Today a narrow focus on Dhamma practice is usually met with dismissiveness and disdain.

The Buddha taught Right Effort that includes Shamatha-Vipassana meditation within framework of an Eightfold Path - not only breath meditation but a framework for moment-by-mindful-moment life. The Buddha did not teach that Right Effort involved rituals or following dogma blindly. He did not teach to appease or appeal to gods or other-worldly beings. He did not teach to “just sit.”

He did not teach Right Effort solely for the benefit of others as in the modern understanding of the bodhisattva ideal. (In the Chavalata Sutta the Buddha teaches that Right Effort is to engage in the Dhamma to awaken as an individual with the intention to then assist others in understanding the Dhamma.)

The Buddha did not teach that Right Effort is to hold the view that awakening would take endless eons as many of the later developed schools taught and continue to teach, The Buddha taught Right Effort as one factor of an Eightfold Path that if engaged whole-heartedly any human being could awaken in this present lifetime.

Of course, a Dhamma practice with a “narrow” focus on what the Buddha actually taught is the main point of Right Effort. Thanks for an important article.

John Haspel

Dominic Gomez's picture

Right effort is avoiding wrong actions such as taking life and stealing. Can't get much narrower than that.

wilnerj's picture

Just as loose chopsticks cannot hold rice, every grain falling back into the bowl, an hold that is too tight keeps every grain from being grasped. The chopsticks must be held not too close or too tight and not too loose or wide apart so that a morsel can be lifted from the rice bowl to one's lips.

In my recent trip to Indonesia I met a master wayang puppet master. He meticulously poked holes into the water buffalo rawhide. His attendant pointed to the pictures of this master craftsman posted on the wall behind showing him as a young man playing soccer. And he explained that the flexibility gained from avidly playing this sport had loosened the flow of energy throughout his body and helped him gather it to cultivate the concentration required for mastering the design of traditional wayang shadow puppets. These wayangs contain the pictorial and mythological symbolism portraying the emergence of human consciousness in story form. They have served as the living equivalent to Tibetan Thangka imagery


Danny's picture

"The chopsticks must be held not too close or too tight and not too loose or wide apart so that a morsel can be lifted from the rice bowl to one's lips."

A friend from China told me that when eating rice from a bowl, rather than attempt to lift the small grains with the sticks, it is normal to hold the rice bowl up to one's mouth and use chopsticks to push or shovel the rice directly into the mouth.

Nwestguy03's picture

The analogy most likely refers to items in the rice bowl other than rice. The most common definition of morsel is "a small piece of food."

wilnerj's picture

It is customary in many places to dispense with chopsticks and use one's fingers. Also in many places among "polite" company it is customary to move the rice with one's fork into one's spoon and eat it from there.

The use of the chopsticks as in my answer to Dominic below is just an analogy not to be taken so literally. :)

Too much effort and too little effort makes Johnny a not so good meditator. :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

When eating spaghetti use a fork against the rim of the bowl and twirl a small bundle onto it. Lift it gracefully into your mouth and do not slurp. With continuous skillful efforts, life becomes so much more enjoyable!

wilnerj's picture

The use of chopsticks is about spacing them not too wide and not too close just as in meditation one can exert to much effort or too little effort with poor results.

BTW, the spaghetti would have to be gluten free.

jackelope65's picture

Sometimes we just get stuck in a certain mode and have a hard time changing direction. As a child, i would have to be pushed and prodded to go to Cub Scouts by my mother because i enjoyed playing with my brother and our dog, but when i got to scouts, i loved and excelled in it. My mom spoke to the Cub leader and he subsequently pointed out that my progress had become stuck and i was in danger of being demoted. The problems stopped and subsequently i became self motivated, not only in Cub Scouts, but all my activities. My daughter danced from the age of 2 1/2 years but as a teen she needed a lot of pushing and prodding despite her love of dance. My wife ultimately told her to get herself ready or my she would no longer pay for dance or take her there. Again, she became self motivated and progressed to becoming a ballerina, remaining, now in her 40's, self motivated in all areas of her life. Sometimes when we are stuck, we are blinded to even the fact that we are stuck and all it takes is the right person to point it out as well as note the consequences of our actions or inaction. You may be that right person.

saracanan's picture

I enjoyed this and find it helpful. However, I don't get the huge qualification in the last sentence, "And although we might not become arahants...". The whole point is to realize that which we already are, isn't it?

zijlstra's picture

'To realize what we already are' is a Mahayana Buddhist concept/practice, while this article refers to instructions within the Pali Canon, which isn't what Mahayana is based on. The Pali Canon is the foundation for Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism doesn't even include 'arahantship' as one of the its goals, but instead replaces it with the ideal of the Bodhisattva, which over countless lifetimes can lead to full Buddhahood.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, had been plagued by the question, why people need to exert themselves in religious practice to attain Buddhahood, if they already have Buddha-nature within them. Dogen’s answer to this questions was that zazen (sitting meditation) isn’t a ‘method’ to attain enlightenment, but is itself enlightenment, a way of simply exhibiting one’s innate Buddha-nature! A person must sit in Zazen with constant awareness, and with faith that he/she is already a Buddha. The process is one of self-forgetting, in which the Buddha-nature gradually unfolds. (from P. Harvey's 'An Introduction to Buddhism')

The meditation practices in Theravada Buddhism are different and emphasize the process of 'purifying' the mind from its defilements, which keep us from seeing the true impermanent nature of reality and the ego-lessness of our 'self'. In that sense, one could say it is indeed a slow process of 'becoming', at least from the viewpoint of an unenlightened being. From the perspective of a fully enlightened being, there likely isn't any 'becoming' or 'non-becoming', since these are concepts within the illusionary realm of conditioned phenomena, while 'true' reality is unconditioned.

wilnerj's picture

Yes, there is no becoming.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Dualism is the belief that you are not what you already are: an arhat, a bodhisattva, let alone a buddha.

sks3's picture

Love this statement. As succinct as it gets!

marginal person's picture

Dualism is often a mis-translation of " Hiduzui Hamhala " (literally heavy blow to shatter small mind )
A better translation is Toolism , an ancient zen practice designed to bring a monk to the NOW.
In the practice a veteran monk would lay in wait for novice monks and attempt to render them unconscious with one blow. The blow was delivered with an ordinary tool (usually a heavy wooden soup ladle).
The practice died a natural death (pun intended) due to a major decline in enrollment of young monks.
Happy New Year
May You Be Peaceful
May You Be Happy
May You Be Free Of Concussive Episodes

testingwithfire's picture

Inspiring read. It is overwhelming for this beginner to think of what it would take to be a highly skilled dharma practitioner, but this article helps break down what that might look like. It offers clear tips to help with some of the more common practice errors, and those tips can be used by everyone, not just those who are way down the road. I think I'm going to print this out and read it frequently.

wilnerj's picture

There is no highly skilled dharma practitioner, na marga (no path) and no beginner. The light is unmanifested leading back to the beginning which is the end. Therefore no task lies before one, only this. Then sitting on a cushion or circumambulating the altar (Skt. pradakshina -- to the right) is neither sitting nor walking.

In the Mahayana tradition,feel free to look up the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra (Perfect Wisdom Heart Sutra).

"na dukkha samudaya nirodha marga
(No suffering, source, relief or path)
No suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path leading to the cessation of suffering;

Namo Buddhaya