We all put effort into our life in different ways. It may be through work, for family or friends, in the pursuit of some passion or interest, or with our spiritual practice. The Buddha talked about Right Effort or Attuned Effort i.e. effort that supports us to realise truth, called the Dhamma in the Buddhist tradition. But how should we direct this effort? How does that work in practice?
This truth or Dhamma isn’t a thought or theory, it’s not a belief or viewpoint; the word Dhamma means simply that which is here right now. It’s about seeing this moment clearly. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are phrased in a formulaic way that a doctor of the Buddha’s time would have used when helping a patient, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. The challenge we face is that it’s not easy for us to understand that we don’t see clearly, that we don’t fully realise how it is. By assuming the role of a doctor perhaps the Buddha was trying to point out that we have a problem, and the first step towards addressing it is waking up to that possibility.
But when we put forth effort we need to especially mindful of how we do it. If we set ourselves a goal and we pursue that goal, although it may seem like the right thing to do, and in certain limited contexts can work; in our spiritual practice we can undermine our own actions at the outset.
A goal is a desire. By any other name it’s really a desire, and by aiming for it we’re attaching to it. When we base our practice on the pursuit of goals we’re really creating a set of desires that we wish to satisfy. However noble our intention, that’s what we’re doing.
There really is no goal to awakening. It’s not an achievement, it’s not a state or an accomplishment. To frame it in this way is to turn it into a thought, a fantasy and fill that with expectations. Awakening is seeing how it is in this moment right now with full clarity. No ignorance of assumptions, beliefs, ideas, thoughts, identifications, labels or any other mental or emotional baggage – in whatever state any or all of these might be, these are seen clearly too, and by not having any attachment or identification with any of these, they have no influence to obstruct or obscure the seeing of how it is.
By setting a goal or identifying with an outcome we create a thought which we then energise with our desire. We might have a strong and clear motivation at the start but motivation is not a constant. It’s not possible to be fully motivated every day at all times in perpetuity, that’s not how this human experience works. So at some point that energy will rebalance itself. That may be a gradual decline or we may experience a strong reaction, and if we’ve set our hearts on this goal we’ve created then we can experience disappointment or even despair if we feel that we’ve ‘failed’.
But what have we failed at? We’ve failed at achieving a self-created desire born out of a thought that originated in trying to change this or that aspect of ourselves or this experience. So we have a thought of a goal, a thought of failure or under-achievement, and if this isn’t seen then at some point we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start again. We can find ourselves trapped in a cycle of seeking if we don’t see through this. The key word here is ‘see’.
So we’re back to seeing, seeing clearly how it is. This is a suggestion for reflection, don’t take it on board as a statement of reality, or we’re back in the realm of thought not direct experience. Instead, hold it lightly as a pointer to help support looking. So if we look deeply at what arose before the desire that sent us on the path to creating a goal what do we find?
Just sitting with this and looking, what is seen? Is it seen or noted that there is a core of dissatisfaction or resistance to what is?
This core of dissatisfaction is like a seed that grows in the rich soil of desire for physical being. From this seed emerges the shoot of conscious desire that can branch off in a number of ways; it’s a tree that can bear a variety of fruit. One approach is to break these down into desire for having that which pleases us, avoiding that which displeases us and desire for becoming i.e. being seen to be this or that type of person, but however we break it down they all share a common root.
The challenge is not to try and chop down the tree, the challenge is to not let it develop in the first place. The question is, how do we do that?
Well, it’s interesting; the Buddha spoke of three fundamental characteristics of existence: everything is impermanent, nothing has a separate self, and existence leads to suffering. The first is relatively easy to engage with, we get told it at school by our science teacher; everything changes all the time. The second seems attractive and promising and that’s where so many focus their attention when they start down a spiritual path – seeking to realise no separate self.
But very few ever take time to look at the third one. Maybe it sounds too negative: ‘existence leads to suffering’. It’s had so many apologists over the years who try to imply that it’s not what it seems. But look. Spend time and look. Setting aside all desire in whatever form it takes, look at this experience in the moment. Is it seen that there’s an energy, a frisson or friction deep in our experience?
This is what the Buddha pointed to. As long as there is desire for birth, there will be an energised state maintaining, grasping, holding onto that, and it feels like this. It is the battery that sustains this human experience. We can’t let go by an act of will but we can see. We can be with this and see it and realise its nature.
To patiently allow this experience the space to be, to keep this in awareness means that it can’t sprout and send forth shoots of desire in an attempt to ‘fix’ this, to improve or change that. It’s at the core of this human experience and it is this way. The letting go isn’t the letting go of this, it’s the letting go of wanting to change this or feeling that it should be changed.
So when we talk about putting forth effort, the place to start with this is in putting forth the effort to look and see. To see what’s in the heart, how it moves, how it reacts, what triggers it. To be with these experiences, to hold them mindfully allowing them to be. When we see clearly how it is, when we allow it in this way, then it isn’t controlling us or affecting us because we’ve created or rather allowed the space that removes attachment. And this is when we experience freedom.