Category Archives: Eightfold Path

Right Effort

Right Effort is the effort to think, speak and act skilfully. It is traditionally described as the effort to prevent and overcome negative states of mind and to cultivate and maintain positive states of mind. So it is primarily concerned with mental, rather than physical effort.

So what does this mean in practice? When we are doing seated meditation it is pretty obvious that right effort is the effort required to keep our mind in the present moment, letting go of thought as it arises and paying attention to our inner landscape in a completely non-judgemental way.

As we go about our daily lives, however, we generally need to adopt a broader awareness. Sometimes it will be appropriate to bring a very focussed concentration to a task, but much of the time I think our awareness is more free-flowing. How then to apply right effort?

I’ve thought about this a lot recently and we discussed it at our Wednesday Sangha Evening. Last Saturday I attended the Regional Sangha Day in Leeds and joined a discussion on How can we be more present? which really ties in with right effort, and decided to continue this topic the following day on the day retreat here at the Hermitage. So with thanks to all who contributed their thoughts, the way that I am currently thinking of right effort is:

Right Effort is the effort to be present to oneself.

By which I mean that we have sufficient awareness of ourselves to be able to sense and respond to that inner prompting that nudges us to lend a hand, offer a kind word, stop what we were about to do, alter our course and all those other fine adjustments we make if we go through our day with an open mind and heart and an attitude of listening, both within and without.

The opposite to this would be the person who is determined to stick to their plan, to do things their own way, who is tuned out to any input from whatever source. This may take a lot of effort but it is certainly not right effort.

Right Livelihood

Right livelihood is one of three steps of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path that are traditionally considered to be concerned with morality, the other two being right speech and right action.

Right – or skilful – livelihood asks how do we make our living? Does our job cause harm to anyone, including ourself? Is it beneficial to others? Does it require us to break the Precepts? Is it helping us in our spiritual practice or is it so stressful, for example, that we find it difficult or impossible to act mindfully and compassionately?

I think the question of right livelihood is quite complicated in today’s global society where you may be working for a large organisation with some questionable business practices even if your own role does not require you to act in any way that would go against your conscience. And there are many people in this world who have no choice but to do a job that wrecks their health and that of others.

Rather than looking at the nature of the job perhaps we would do better to look at our own motivation. If our motivation is unskilful, if we are greedy or ruthlessly ambitious, then any job we do is likely to be done in such a way as to cause harm, in which case it will not be right livelihood. On the other hand, if our motivation is to bring as much wisdom and compassion as we can to anything we do, then we may be able to transform even the most unpromising work environment into a means of helping beings.

Right Speech

Campaigning for the general election is in full swing here in the UK and I can’t help being struck by the harshness of speech that has become the norm for politicians. I also feel deeply that it does not have to be this way.

In the Noble Eightfold Path the Buddha set out a complete guide to a compassionate way of living that will bring the most joy and fulfilment to oneself and others and lead to the realisation of our true nature. I believe these steps can be practised by anyone, whatever their walk of life and regardless of the way that their colleagues choose to conduct themselves.

One of the steps on the Path is right speech. In his book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, in the summary at the end of the chapter on Skilful Speech, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana lists some key points including this one:

The test of Skilful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”

I realise that this is a pretty tall order when in the midst of a lively conversation or debate, but the more one practises skilful speech in everyday life the more it becomes natural to speak in this way and, actually, to feel it keenly when one makes even a slight mistake and speaks in a harmful way.

Trying to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice we will often find ourselves going against the flow of what is considered normal behaviour, and it takes great courage and effort to do so. I am heartened by the few, exceptional, politicians that I have seen or heard of who can express themselves and their policies clearly and effectively without demeaning others. Such a person demonstrates to me a strength of character that is truly inspiring.