This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Today I wanted to talk about right effort. Any time you encounter the eightfold path, you'll typically hear it described as right this and right that. Right understanding, right intent and so on. I've mentioned before that I prefer the term "skilful" because it means that it's not right versus wrong. It's skilful as opposed to unskilful. I would like to talk about effort in terms of skilful effort versus unskilful effort, and this reminds me of an expression that I'm sure you've heard, which is that we should work smarter, not harder.
Recently, I gave an eight-day workshop in which I was teaching four new pilots how to fly, followed by eights days' flying. One student really stood out for me. He joined the class several months ago. Not only is he sixty-seven years of age but he also has Parkinson's disease. He was a little bit worried about how those complications would factor into making all of the physical effort that it takes to learn to fly a paramotor. For those of you who don't know what this entails, it means strapping a motor to your back that's usually sixty to seventy pounds, and then running with that until you're going fast enough to take off.
I told him, if you're determined to learn, we'll spend all the time that it takes. When the day came for training to start, he was a little nervous. I was too, but he did remarkably well. He knew at what time he needed to take his medication. He knew how long it would take before the medication started to kick in. He knew when the window was open for him to go out and start practising and, when that window was closing, he would be the first to shut it down and say, OK, I'm done.
Those were not skilful times to continue to practise and to continue to try to push himself. As I observed this over the course of several days, I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he was learning because of the effort he was putting in. It wasn't that he was trying really hard; he was trying in a very smart way. He knew when to try and when not to try. I'm pleased to say he ended up being in the top of the class. He accomplished his goal. He learned to fly. He had six or seven flights throughout training that he did all on his own and he nailed it every time he took off. He was a textbook student. I was very pleased to see his progress because it is common in this environment for me to train students who come in with the mindset of wanting to be really gung-ho and they work really hard and they're tired but they keep going, and then sometimes they get hurt.
This reminds me of the Buddhist description of the instrument with strings. That is, if the strings are too tight then it sounds bad. If it's not tight enough, it also sounds bad. Somewhere in the middle is the proper tension on the strings. That's how it works a lot of the time with effort. There are times when we try too hard and there are times when we don't try hard enough. Just the right amount of effort is what you would call smart effort.
Sometimes, in meditation practice, people will say, I'm going to start meditating one hour every day, and they're determined. Then they burn out after two or three days because it's actually really hard to set aside a whole hour every day. I see that happen all the time. Maybe it would be more beneficial to ask yourself what the skilful amount of effort is. Because that is very personal, right? The amount of effort that it takes for you to do something may be very different to the amount of effort that it takes me to do something.
Whether it's sitting down to meditate, practising mindfulness generally, maintaining healthy relationships with the people that I love and care about, recording a podcast or packing my gear to go flying, there's effort involved. I am now thinking about what kind of skilful effort I can put in, rather than just working hard for the sake of it. I don't want to discount the idea of working hard. I think hard work goes a very long way. But it's helpful to to take this concept and think about it in the context of work or parenting or going to school or going out and walking your dog, or whatever. And especially mindfulness, right?
It would be good to be able to sit and think, as you look inward, do I know myself well enough to be able to be more skilful with regards to the effort that I'm putting into what I'm trying to achieve? See if you can improve in any of those areas just based on the understanding that, like my student, you need to put in just the right amount of effort to excel and to accomplish the goal that you set out to reach.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.