Skillful Effort

Not too little, not too muchPeter Doobinin

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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?

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