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The Noble Eightfold Path 6

This is the fifth of seven blogs from our 2017 ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course. Each session covers one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path.

6. Right Effort (Skt. samyag-vyāyāma / Pali sammā-vāyāma)

This session begins the final three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path, the actual practice of meditation. However we will see that many of the things described here are already present in the wisdom and ethical aspects of the path. It could actually be said that the path contains all its parts in each single part and each single part contains the whole. Principle throughout all of this is mindfulness – like a thread through beads. Although mindfulness is actually the seventh aspect of the path and the subject of our next meeting, here in right effort, it is already highly visible.

Right effort has four aspects to be mindful of:

1. To avert the arising of unwholesome mind states.

Unwholesome mind states most essentially are all those that are ignorant of how things truly are – transitory, not-self and suffering (see session one). More accessibly they are those that at their heart are driven by the Three Root Poisons of delusion, greed and hatred, (represented by a pig, chicken and snake chasing each others tails) and more accessible still, by the five hinderances of grasping, aversion, sloth, agitation and doubt. Actually there are many lists in Buddhism of unwholesome mind states which include:

  • The Four Taints: sensual desire, clinging to existence, wrong views and ignorance.

  • The Four Bodily Knots: covetousness, ill will, adherence to rites and ceremonies, dogmatism.

  • The Six Hinderances: addiction, aversion, sloth/torpor, worry/agitation, speculative doubt and ignorance.

  • The Ten Fetters: sensual lust, clinging to existence, aversion, conceit, wrong view, adherence to rights and ceremonies, doubt, envy, avarice and ignorance.

  • The Ten Defilements: greed, hatred, delusion, conceit, wrong views, doubt, sloth, restlessness, shamelessness and fearlessness of wrongdoing.

And there are more …. however as you can see there are many repetitions within the list with the Three Root Poisons being most important. From our perspective of using our felt sense as a means to know what is happening in us, all these unwholesome mind states will probably be felt as a contraction and so when we become aware of a contraction we know that either an unwholesome mind state is about to arise or has already done so.

It is important in this context to remember that from the Buddhist perspective awakening occurs once the deferments – the three root poisons – come to an end. The Buddhist understanding of ‘defilement’ is very profound and includes the notion of ‘latent defilement’ – defilements that arise from karmic seeds created over innumerable previous life times. As a psychotherapist and an agnostic on the issue of rebirth I tend to partially think of these as those painful and sometimes traumatic experiences that we have acquired during early life and then subsequently consolidated throughout the years since. In practice this is the experience of going along quite happily and then one of our buttons gets touch and we immediately regress into some defensive pattern of being that has nothing much to do with what is actually happening in the moment. Again this is typically signalled by a felt contraction.

2. To release unwholesome mind states already arisen.

How do we release an unwholesome mind state? Simple – we just become mindful of it! Mindful means we recognise its existence and desist from pouring fuel on it to keep it going. i.e.: drop the story line. In Buddhism there exists the belief that in each micro moment only one mind state can exist (although this is not how it feels when different mind states follow each other and interweave in extremely rapid succession). Thus in one micro moment may exist an unwholesome mind state – say greed – and then in the next mindfulness, a wholesome mind state which immediately extinguishes the previous unwholesome one. Of course this does not necessarily prevent the third micro moment in the sequence being devoted to an unwholesome mind state again!

A second means, other than mindfulness, is the cultivation of ‘self-respect’ and ‘respect for the wise’. These wholesome mental states relate to having a heightened sense of conscience and responsibility. We might understand this as the introjection of a benevolent wise person and thinking of how they might act in the circumstances. (Hopefully they might say something along the lines of abandon what is unwholesome but do not add to this a second arrow of wallowing in guilt and shame).

A third means is distract ourselves! Joseph Goldstein reports an experiment with children which demonstrated that those children who could distract themselves were best able to resist immediate gratification for a greater gratification they had to wait for. Resist the dubious pleasures of the three poisons for the greater pleasure of awakening?!

A fourth – the opposite. Use our analytical mind to really cognitively investigate exactly what is happening in us. This is very much the psychotherapists world of identifying underlying emotions behind behaviours and destructive patterns of thought.

A finally a fifth – repression. Sometimes in the middle of the night when I wake with a pain in my knee and begin to imagine I have cancer of the leg and it will have to be amputated I say to myself quite fiercely – “Shut the f..k up!” (Yes, surprisingly, the Buddha did say this in his own words).

3. To encourage and increase wholesome mind states.

In the same way it helps to know what are unwholesome mind states it is also helps to have a clear idea of what wholesome is – so back to some important lists:

  • The Four Divine Abodes: kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

  • The Seven Factors of Enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, calm, concentration and equanimity.

  • The Six Perfections: generosity, virtue, acceptance, diligence, concentration and wisdom.

Again this is a mere selection of the most important and also again there is a clear overlap with perhaps a combination of compassion and wisdom being at the heart of it. Once we have the feel of this life throws up continuos opportunities to embody and practice these wholesome mental states – it’s as if the whole world is desperately thirsty for any one or any situation to embody and act upon them. On a feeling level a wholesome mind state is felt as an expansion and perhaps as a warmth.

4. To maintain and increase wholesome mind states that have already arisen.

And back to mindfulness – mindful of the arising of a wholesome mental state we guard it using our mindfulness from descending into something unwholesome. I guess we all know this one – perhaps talking about a friend or a situation in a kindly way, suddenly some imp jumps into our conversation and we have inserted a shadow of envy or put down. Catching this – being mindful – we just notice it and let it go.

The mental states that we are maintaining and strengthening here Buddhism calls “the beautiful mental factors.” Cultivating seeing what is good, being grateful and appreciative, giving appropriate praise and celebration of others, always choosing to be generous rather than mean, focusing on what has been done well and not all on the less good seem to me to embody these beautiful mental factors – and they certainly make the heart feel good! And we need not be perfect, it’s all in the practice …. and practice … and practice …

Right Effort from the non-dual perspective

Throughout these notes we have periodically drifted into a very different perspective that is the view of those schools of Buddhism – Dzogchen, Mahamudra and maybe Zen – that may be called ‘non-dual’. This is a huge subject but one of the key aspects is that of resting in a state of awareness that is not partitioned into subject and object – hence ‘non-dual’. We have explored this amongst ourselves through the ‘doing nothing’ meditations. Plainly the notion of ‘effort’ here cannot be the same as the highly effortful practices we have been describing above – so what else could it mean? I suggest that effort in this context could describe being mindfully aware of when resting in non-dual awareness fades back into ordinary awareness and this then requires the intention to enter it again. Thus in the context of the Doing Nothing meditation, when we notice we have begun to try to control, alter or improve our experience, that is, when we are no longer doing nothing, in that moment of mindfulness it requires a small momentary effort to let the doing go and return to the effortless non-doing of the practice.

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