Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Eightfold Path: Right Effort (part.1)

Getting started
Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.  
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.

So, what is Right Effort and why bother?
Right effort is defined as the consistent and disciplined application of energy. In this context it applies to the path of practice and the attainment of its results. When we look at Right Effort, we are really looking at a combination of intention, energy and will. In tough times, it may be better viewed as the power or ability to make something happen in spite of the circumstances and difficulties in front of us.
Right Effort is the fuel that drives practice and its necessary change, transformation and realigning of values. It leads us through the challenges and resistance that accompany the path and the letting go of the familiar and comfortable. Without appropriate effort our practice will never develop and we won’t have the necessary resources to let go of the habitual patterns that keep us running in circles, unaware and unable to stop doing the same old thing we’ve always done. Right Effort makes the difference. It determines ultimately how far we go in uprooting the suffering and dissatisfaction in our lives and how capable we become of contributing to the reduction of global suffering.

Looking at the fourfold path: lusty defilements
Within earlier Buddhist teachings Right effort was divided into four pragmatic categories (gotta love those lists). They are;

1.      To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states
2.      To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen
3.      To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen
4.      To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen

(Bhikku Bodhi, 2008)

When I read these lines the first time I was rather amused by the author’s choice of words. I actually enjoyed reading Bhikku Bodhi's traditional Theravada take on The Noble Eightfold Path, although to me it reveals much of what is wrong with more traditional representations of Buddhist teachings. In rereading his chapter on Right Effort in preparation for this blog post, I was struck by his use of the terms 'defilements' and 'lust' on repeated occasions. What wonderful words! They seem to come straight out of the bible, or the Koran.
I've written in previous posts of words as suggestive symbols that entice often unintended subjective meaning and interpretation from readers and listeners. Yet, words are also keys that unlock doors of understanding, awareness and consciousness. Like all keys, words also close doors, as well as confuse and misdirect. I would hazard a guess that the words defilement and lust fail to open the appropriate doors intended along the eightfold path for most folk from my generation. Lust just happens to be the name of perfumes by both Sex and the City (I’m not kidding, TV programmes now produce fragrance for the more daring and chic) and Lush, and Defilement inspires, at least for me, thoughts of a dodgy S and M porno. Even the word wholesome is iffy, sounding like something you'd eat, rather than examine on the meditation cushion. Needless to say, I shall avoid using such terms below, or at least have them accompanied by more user-friendly words.