Buddha's Teachings: The Eightfold Path - 6. Right Effort (Samma vayama)
by Manda Oleary
From the moment I was asked to write the theme of the month for October, the journey began. I took this theme with me throughout my days, carried it with me as if it were my closest friend.
At first, it was only the two words "Right Effort" that I held close. I did not read too much into the philosophy; I just felt what these words meant for me personally. How I experience them and how I could directly relate them to my path, my life. For me, it became more interesting to discover what happens off of my mat. It became a search not only for what I put effort into, but how I move through the world, how I talk to others, and what I choose to put in my body. What thoughts I choose to keep and how I treat myself.
During this process, I discovered that I was pregnant. The new discovery brought me face to face with Right Effort. How beautiful to connect to the little one growing inside of me as I move through this theme of the month.
After this time of contemplation, I read more about this noble truth. "Right Effort", also called "Right Diligence", is the sixth component of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. In Buddhism, the most traditional definition of Right Effort is to exert oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities.
The Buddha taught there are four aspects to the Right Effort:
- The effort to prevent unwholesome qualities, especially greed, anger, and ignorance from arising.
- The effort to extinguish unwholesome qualities that already have arisen.
- The effort to cultivate skilful or wholesome qualities, especially generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
- The effort to strengthen the wholesome qualities that have already arisen.
The notion of Right Effort does not just apply to our practice, but how we conduct our lives. It calls us to develop and encourage good qualities. There are many good qualities to be cultivated, but the ones that the Buddha particularly targeted were mindfulness, energy, joy, tranquillity, and equanimity.
Along with this, the Buddha taught that our practice should be like a well-tuned string instrument. If the strings are too loose, they will not play the sound. If they are too tight, they will break. A spiritual practice should be nourishing, not draining. So cultivating Right Effort must begin with finding the "Middle Way".
The Middle Way
My life has always been about finding balance, both on and off the mat. Finding balance in relationships, how I communicate, give, receive, and share. I have learned that what is especially important is finding the balance in our relationship with ourselves, what thoughts we keep, and how we are kind to ourselves.
I love this Middle Way that the Buddha expresses, as it rings so true for me. Everything depends on this: not going into extremes and pushing ourselves over our limits, but also not laying back and not giving any effort at all. The middle way is where the magic can unfold. We allow ourselves to find what works best for us and renew that practice each day, every time we step onto our yoga mats. One of the first things that deeply inspired me at the start of my yoga practice was a teacher sharing this in class:
"Every day you will feel different, your practice will be different, you will be more flexible some days, and some days you may not be able to do what you just did the day before. It is about just showing up and doing your best, and allowing your best on that day to be good enough."
I loved how practising yoga every day showed me this. How my mat was a direct mirror into my inner world. How finding the balance helped me find myself.
So the Middle Way.
The Buddha shared that the path can be difficult and progress sometimes can feel so far away. One day you improve and then you take a few steps back the next. It can sometimes be difficult to feel that progress is actually being made. This can of course then lead to doubt, but when doubt is arising, don't fear. Instead, use this doubt to dive deeper. Use this time to connect back to the truth that our only constant is change.
Doubt can also be a gentle reminder to study; not only self-study but also to study yogic teachings and spend time reading and in contemplation to strengthen and provide new direction.
This is truly " Right effort "
Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again and you will be filled with joy.
A Joyful Practice
Another important aspect of this theme is to cultivate a joyful practice. But how can we find joy in our practice, and more importantly, how can we find joy in the difficult moments and the struggles that we may encounter along the way?
This was always something fun for me to experiment with. Fun? I can hear you question how difficult moments could be fun for me.
I guess I find so much beauty in the breakdown and I find that most gifts and insights come through these experiences. When something goes wrong, I use it as a new way to go right. If I am struggling, I see it as a friend showing up to teach me. And if things are feeling difficult, I use it as an opportunity to get closer and closer to what is underneath it all and to see clearly again. It is how we see things, our perspective, that changes or crashes our worlds, both inner and outer.
"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
Do you know this quote? It is printed on our Delight Yoga bags that we sell in our studios. Have you ever really sat down with a difficult experience and tried to see it with new eyes, rephrase the story, and transform the moment. This is what brings the most joy. It is not about being happy or even finding happiness, it is about how we allow all emotions in to be fully experienced, it's finding the beauty in the breakdown, and it's all about seeing things with new eyes and an open heart again and again, even when it is hard. Go there, fall, pick yourself back up, keep going, and smile. This is what I believe brings Joy.
“The Fourfold Right Diligence is nourished by joy and interest. If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly.”
– Thich Nhat Hahn
Lastly, I would like to give attention to mindfulness. For me, this is still a word that can easily be misunderstood, causing many of us to hide from it or not want to practice it at all. But what a gift it is to keep searching. After all, how are we going to progress on a spiritual path if our minds are lost in thought, memories of the past, or projections of the future?
Mindfulness is about giving attention to what is happening right now, and by doing this, we have the hope of seeing things as they truly are. Something a teacher once shared with me comes to mind, "Take care of this moment and the rest will work itself out."
This small sentence inspired me so much, and as I practised this taking care of the moment, it felt the truth of her words. Each time, the next moment would just flow from the previous one and everything felt taken care of. It is this flow where true mindfulness can be felt.
The Buddha shares that our energy is fundamental to the entire process. It is impossible to be constantly in the present moment in our everyday lives, but we must have the energy to return back to it again and again and again. All of this energy can be built and cultivated by making our efforts joyful. Joy will replenish and charge our batteries for use when we need them. So by practising joy, we allow ourselves to experience the beauty and awe available in every moment and refrain from pushing too hard and losing the joy of the practice.
If we are careful and follow this joy, it will build and build to a castle of bliss. This can help fuel our progress on the path.
A Heart Full of Delight
How beautiful that we are in a time where more and more people are turning to yoga and mediation. Stillness is becoming a tool for transformation. These teachings from long ago are still very much alive and are shaping how we can experience life. How lucky we are to have a community like Delight Yoga to remind us of these words and honour such a way of living. I believe at one moment these practices will become effortless.
Working with Delight Yoga has not only given me the space to go deeper into these qualities, but it has also shown me what effortless effort can feel like. I am forever grateful for this space to grow in. Not only for the teachers and our team, but for the students that practice here. The eager eyes and open hearts that come in for a class are so inspiring to see. Everyone walking their path, taking a moment for discovery and daring to truly show up on the mat. We all have our part in forming this community, but for me, it is the students who make it go round and round. What would Delight Yoga be without all of you? Thank you for showing up, which is what Right Effort is also about. Just that simple act of showing up is half the effort.
Obviously there is much much more I could share about Right Effort, but I will stop here - the Middle Way ;)
I hope this theme of the month can inspire you to take your practice into the world and really take the time to find joy in all moments, all emotions, in all phases of life. Be kind to yourself and take care of the space you inhabit on this earth.
With this new month we are also stepping into a new season, autumn, the perfect time to slow down and redirect our energy. Watching the leaves change and fall, as we learn to let go again and again of what does not serve us any longer. Transformation.
As I write these last words I am touched by my own transformation coming soon, giving birth to new life. What a joy to experience the unknown. Carrying around this theme of the month and this little one inside has been beyond inspiring, as is the connection I have found between the two. Every thought I chose, every move, even what I ate ~ it was all for the true intention and right effort of the little one growing inside of me.
I leave you with a question: "How much time do you give yourself to experience the unknown each day?"
This practice of the Eightfold Path has many tools ~ collect them, discover them. Take them with you. On and off the mat.
With a heart full of love,
"Your self realization is the greatest gift you can render the world"
- Ramana Maharshi
Manda's relationship with movement begin at the age of three... She used ballet and modern dance as a way to experiment and express herself as she traveled through her youth.