The Fourth Noble Truth: Insight 2 The Eightfold Path Step 6 Skillful Effort

Dancing with Life (DWL) Chapter 20; Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:  Step Five (pp. 149-192); Mindfulness:  A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp.391-396)

“And what is Right Effort?  Here, a bhikkhu engenders wishes, makes effort, arouses energy, exerts the mind, and strives for the non-arising of evil, unwholesome states that have not arisen; engenders wishes makes effort, arouses energy, exerts the mind, and strives for the abandoning of evil, unwholesome states that have arisen; engenders wishes, makes effort, arouses energy, exerts the mind, and strives for the arising of wholesome states that have not arisen; engenders wishes, makes effort, arouses energy, exerts the mind, and strives for the stabilizing, for the collation, for the increase, for the maturity, for the development, for the perfection through cultivation of wholesome states that have arisen.  This is called Right Effort.”  The Buddha

Skillful Effort

Bhante G.: “At every moment we choose whether to embrace wholesomeness or unwholesomeness.”  P. 149.  In order to be able to choose, we need to see our train of thought.  Mindfulness is paying attention moment to moment to what is.  By being mindful we see our thoughts and make skillful choices.  This is paying mindful attention. This takes effort, Skillful Effort.

As the Buddha noted, we can direct our effort in four ways:

  • Prevent the arising of unwholesome states of mind.
  • Overcome unwholesome states which have arisen.
  • Strive for wholesome states to arise.
  • Maintain those wholesome states which have arisen.

Prevent the arising of unwholesome states of mind.

How can we prevent unwholesome states which have not arisen?  We need to know how the mind works.  Not being mindful (paying wise attention) can allow these unwholesome states to arise.

“When we are leading basically good and wholesome lives, it is easy to become complacent about our present circumstances. But even under these favorable conditions, we still have many moments when greed, hatred, or delusion arises.  We see something beautiful and we want it; our minds are pulled toward it.  Or perhaps we see somebody doing something we don’t like, and the mind is suddenly filled with judgment and aversion. Or we may be tired, and the mind simple dulls out in delusion.  So the first of the four great endeavors is recognizing the enduring power of these latent defilements, understanding what gives rise to hem and preventing them from arising and taking hold.”  (Mindfulness p. 392).

“For me, one of the most radical, far-reaching, and challenging statements of the Buddha is his statement that as long as there is attachment to the pleasant and aversion to the unpleasant, liberation is impossible.  Clearly, we need a wise and sustained attention to weaken these deeply conditioned habits of mind.”  (Mindfulness p. 392).

In summary, we need to be aware that greed, hatred, and delusion can arise at any time depending on causes and conditions.  Being mindful of this will prevent unwholesome states from arising.

Overcoming unwholesome states which have arisen.

Unwholesome states were defined by the Buddha as the Five Hindrances and in a finer form, the Ten Fetters.  Hindrances are:

  • Greed for sensual pleasures)
  • Ill-will and aversion (desire to get rid of)
  • Dullness and drowsiness
  • Restlessness and worry
  • Doubt in the message of the Buddha

The first way to overcome or abandon these unwholesome states is to be mindful of them.  Often this is enough.  The Buddha mentioned other techniques in which to place our effort:

  • Use its opposite as an antidote (e.g. apply loving kindness when ill will arises)
  • Reflect on how a wise person would view this unwholesome state
  • Deliberately divert your attention.
  • Look directly at it, investigate its source and its hold on the mind.
  • Forcibly suppress the unwholesome thought (mentally shoot down the thought as it arises keeping a sense of humor). Goldstein calls this “cowboy dharma”.

In summary, we accept that unwholesome states arise, it takes effort to overcome them and there are a number of techniques to try starting with mindfulness.

Strive for wholesome states to arise.

The mind is always occupied by some state, that can be either wholesome or unwholesome.  When you have overcome or abandoned an unwholesome state, it is a good time to cultivate a wholesome state.  This will also help to prevent another unwholesome state from arising.

Some techniques to use include:

  • Remember any skillful act that you have done in the past and the pleasant (positive) states of mind that arose with that action.
  • Recall your past successes in battling greed, hatred, or delusion and the wholesome states that arose.
  • Apply loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy or equanimity. Equanimity is cultivated through practicing the seven factors of enlightenment.

“It’s a self-taught skill.  The more we deliberately bring up enjoyable states of mind, the more interesting it becomes and the better we get at it.”  (Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness p. 181)

Maintain those wholesome states which have arisen.

Keeping wholesome thoughts takes effort and practice.  This means putting them into skillful action.  Otherwise, it is easy to fall into old habits.

The best way is to develop strong mindfulness.

Other ways include:

  • Associate with good friends.
  • Study the dharma.
  • Meditate.
  • Remember the big picture, maintaining perspective.
  • Ask yourself, “What, in this moment, am I cultivating?”
  • Remember the Buddha’s words: “Do good, do no evil, and purify the mind.”

“There is some good news here.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell references many studies showing that mastery of any given discipline depends less on some innate talent and genius and more on the number of hours devoted to practice. We don’t have to be a spiritual genius; we just have to put in the time.”  (Mindfulness p. 396).

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Practice the two ways to prevent and overcome unwholesome states and the two ways to cultivate and maintain wholesome states.  Continually ask yourself, “What, in this moment, am I cultivating?”

Meditation

  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice being mindful of what arises and falls away and how all have the same characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness.

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