2021-03-04 Mindfulness of Breathing (45) Effort Factor of Awakening
5:49PM Mar 4, 2021
The topic now is the third factor of awakening – the effort factor or the effort limb. The word 'aṅga' can mean limb or part. It's a part of the whole. The seven limbs or factors or parts of awakening can be seen as part of seven different qualities, practices or states – of one whole, one whole way of being.
One of these ways of being is to engage – to make efforts to do things. So it's not just passivity in how we are – but also an engagement in our practice and in our world. The word 'viriya' comes from the word 'hero.' It implies a kind of heroic effort. But all these words such as 'effort' and 'heroic' can cause you to be exhausted when you hear them as, "Oh, no. I have to do all this work now – tiring work."
Some translators render this word for 'effort' in the effort factor of awakening as 'endeavor.' For some of us, the word 'endeavor' has a nicer feeling than the word 'effort.' We 'endeavor' to do something. It's what we're engaged in trying to do. To make it feel closer-in, and less about the energetics of effort, I relate right effort with the word 'choice.'
It's the choices we make – as we practice and as we live our life. A choice doesn't necessarily imply that there's a lot of effort, strain. or work. It's just a choice – what we're going to endeavor to do.
The usual definition or description of the effort factor of awakening is the same description as that of the effort factor of the Eightfold Path. If you take it as 'endeavoring,' the Buddha is teaching us: What – in our wonderful precious life – what endeavors are worthwhile to do? What should we do with our life? Which endeavors?
Rather than answering that there's a particular project, particular work to do, or a particular career – the answer has to do with the consequences of what we do and how we do it. Those things that lead to what is skillful or wholesome, choose those things. Those things that lead to what's unskillful and unwholesome, don't do those things. Don't choose those things to do.
What's most skillful, in the teachings of the Buddha, are those things that avoid causing suffering. Suffering comes along with a feeling of being caught, trapped, constricted, clinging to something, craving. The world's gotten smaller, narrower. We choose to do those things that are skillful, things that lead away from suffering. We choose things that lead to a kind of wonderful happiness, and peace – things that go along with feelings of freedom, openness, tranquility, goodness, and happiness.
It isn't just any old happiness we're looking for. Some happiness is like the happiness of winning the lottery. It's not a deep, nourishing wellspring of goodness, warmth, and peace. It's not intimacy with the warmth and juiciness of life. It's more a surface joy, exuberance, and a promise of all kinds of exciting things. It's said that most people who win big in the lottery are less happy, a year later, than they were before they won it.
So, what is lasting happiness? What gives us lasting well-being? Begin to have a sense of what that is – not in the big-picture sense of it, and not far in the future – but to recognize it in ourselves, moment by moment.
If I'm driving my car, and there's a green light up ahead, but I don't know if I'll make it, I might get contracted, focused, and tight: "I better get it! I'll be late for my appointment. My life will be so much more difficult if I don't make that green light." Then, we get contracted and tight. This feeling is in the body, mind, and heart. Maybe it's subtle, but it's not a very good feeling. It's not nourishing. It's not one that inculcates goodness, warmth, peace, love, or care for others.
Another choice would be: "I see the light up there. It's green right now, but probably I can't reach it in time. I'm not sure." Rather than racing to see if I can get through it –there's no one behind me right now – what if I actually go a little bit slower, take it easy, and give the light a chance to turn red? Then, I can be connected to myself in a different way. I can relax, be more open, receptive to the traffic around me and to the environment. I can not be so narrowly focused." The light turns red, and you stop and sit there. And, it turns out that you're quite content. You did a nice thing for yourself.
Some of you might think this example is ridiculous. But we have ten thousand of these small choices we make throughout the day. To begin to endeavor – right effort – is to make wise choices around these ten thousand little things we do throughout the day. This includes the big choices we make, the big things we do.
This is how we bring mindfulness into daily life. We bring mindfulness to all of what we're doing. We're not just aware of what we're doing, we're aware of the choices we make as we do them. We're aware of the options we have, in which direction we go: the skillful or the unskillful.
The investigation factor of awakening – the factor that sees clearly and sees distinctions – includes seeing the distinctions between what's healthy or unhealthy, skillful or unskillful, beneficial or non-beneficial, leading to entrapment or leading to freedom. Right effort is the factor of awakening that's constantly turning toward healthy choices. But not because it's a lot of work.
In fact, as we get the hang of it, it feels the opposite. That's where the least work is. In some ways, choosing the unskillful thing – if you're lazy, or if you find it's easier to go along with your impulses – it can feel like the easy way. But generally, the consequences of that choice require much more work, repair, and stress later. Choose the healthy and skillful approach, and the consequences tend to be good in the future. No repairs needed. You don't have to de-stress afterwards, or recover from it.
Getting into the habit and the ongoingness of being present and making wise choices of what's skillful and beneficial, begins to create a life that has less and less stress in it. There's less and less needing to recover from the stress and tensions of our life. There's more energy and more vitality for this life of ours, than if we choose the unskillful, repeatedly.
The effort factor of awakening is certainly the individual practices and choices we make along this line. But it's more of a state, a generalized attitude, or orientation for how we live, where we're naturally oriented toward the skillful – toward choices leading to our betterment, to ease, peace, and ongoing well-being. There's a momentum in that direction. There's strength in that, which follows in the wake of the second factor of awakening becoming stronger – really seeing clearly.
So first, there's mindfulness, which places us in the present moment. Then, there's investigation, exploration, or discovery, which helps us see all the choices we have in the moment. When we see the green light or the red light ahead as we're driving, we see, "Oh, there's a choice here."
Then there's the effort factor of awakening, which something inside of you knows with time. There doesn't have to be a lot of reflection, planning, calculating – bringing up the calculus of stress and freedom. It just feels as if: "Oh, 'that's' the natural thing to do. That's the easeful way. That's where the doors are open. That's where freedom is found." And, of course, we choose that.
The choice becomes more and more effortless, delight, and joyful. My hope for all of you is that if you do this, a day will come when the word 'effort' just brings you a big smile. "Oh, I'm so lucky to be able to make effort. Wow, this effort thing is fantastic!" Wouldn't that be great?
Along the way, what's happening is you're beginning to manifest your freedom, your ability to be free. To simply choose to be mindful is an expression of freedom. To choose to discover, look more carefully and investigate is an engagement with your freedom. To make your choice is an engagement, an enactment of freedom. That's very different from being the victim of our experience, carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, with everything being so hard and uphill. We're being impacted, we're being burdened by piles and piles of responsibility. There's no freedom.
To 'choose' freedom over and over again, is not second nature for many people. But this is what we're working with: how we set ourselves free – in the 'big' sense as well –through all these small movements of manifesting our freedom in mindfulness, investigation, and the choices we make.
So thank you, and I look forward to continuing this series.