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Right Effort: Cultivating Skillful Compassionate Ease

Updated: Feb 20

A pendulum stuck on the upswing

The Eightfold Noble Path dharma wheel, each spoke is labeled. Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livlihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness.

The Noble Eightfold Path guides us to live a life that leads to awakening and frees us from the dis-ease (suffering) we often feel.

We can remember the sections of the Noble Eightfold Path with the acronym VISA LEM C.

Right Effort, states that the effort we put into our daily and spiritual lives should be balanced. Not too relaxed or too stringent.

An old coloured print of a representation of the monk Sona playing the lute as he walks.

To demonstrate this the Buddha asked monk Sona, "Is it true that before you became a monk you were a musician?" Sona replied that it was so. The Buddha asked, "What happens if the string of your instrument is too loose?" "When you pluck it, there will be no sound," Sona replied.

''What happens when the string is too taut?” "It will break."

"The practice of the Way is the same," the Buddha said. “Maintain your health. Be joyful. Do not force yourself to do things you cannot do”. 

Right Effort is the Middle Way. Our Zen practice should be nourishing rather than draining. We need to know our physical and psychological limits and be compassionate to them. A personal awakening glimpse:

I’ve been engaged with my Zen practice for four years now. Some of that time has been spent on deliberate self-investigation. Either independently, with therapy, or guided by our teacher, Kyoji. At other times life lessons meet us squarely in the face!

My journey with writing for this blog series has been one where I’ve encountered my perfectionist trait. Back in December when I proposed writing about the Noble Eightfold Path to Kyoji, the initial posts were short and ‘sweet’. However, between December and January, my ego found them ‘lacking’, and I found myself adding to them. Kyoji has tried to guide me back quite a few times. I am grateful for her encouraging, compassionate, editing guidance. She has allowed me to be me, and discover what I’m now discovering for myself. 🙏 This week perfectionism has reared its head again! My social media posts for our sangha showed some evidence of this side of me. 🥴 When I catch myself in a habitual rut like perfectionism, I feel dis-ease, for a while it’s uncomfortable. If I linger with the dis-ease, I suffer more. If I can ‘just’ recognize it for what it is, I can abide with all the feels, whilst saying to myself “It’s ok, that was then, this is now.”

My perfectionist traits are born from people-pleasing. Rewarded and reinforced in the past, in different ways. For example; getting good grades, and earning praise. My parents and educators were proud, lavishing attention. Somewhere along the line, I formed an attachment to it. Behind the scenes there was competitiveness. With myself and with others. I can acknowledge an attachment to that too. (I’m not alone, am I?🤔)

A woman in a black top has her back to us whilst she spins milticoloured plates on thin poles of varying heights

In my younger adult life, I was spinning all the plates: work, family, children, friends. Running the household, doing the chores, taking the kids to the extra-curricular activities, attending the gym, going and getting my hair and nails done. Ect, ect, etc.

Until I burnt out.

I remember being in shock for a while. I’d dropped one somewhere! The embarrassment, the guilt, the shame! Harshly I judged myself. No longer did I meet my version of perfect and ‘Right’. My core values needed some adjustments. It just so happens that this is when I ‘found’ Soto Zen.

Off the path:

I’m coming to realize that when I go at things hard, what I’m doing is striving for some ideal. Some unachievable notion of perfection. I’ve wandered off the path. Hooked by what we Buddhists call ‘delusion’.

A swan is pictured on black water, its white legs are rapidly moving. Under this is a repeat of the pendulum image stuck on its upswing

Nowadays I might catch my perfectionism trait early when I notice that I’m feeling keen or eager. Later still it manifests as the busy feet of the calm swan illusion. I am over-stretching, and overachieving.

Where overzealous effort abounds, the pendulum is in danger of becoming stuck on an upswing.

A split image, line down the middle. On one side a representation of meditation where a person sits with a gentle breeze overhead, some leaves float on the breeze. This is labelled "what people expect it to feel like". On the right side the image is labelled "what it actually feels like". Above the meditating figure there are multiple thought bubbles. One says "what's for tea tonight?" Another "why is the clock ticking so loud?" and another "has it been 10 minutes already?"

As a newcomer to Zen, we might pour our all into ‘getting’ what we think Buddhism is. We’ve formed an ideal. To reach it we might strive towards sitting as still as we can, hitting the books, or asking all the questions we have. This is natural, but also impossible to maintain. Therefore it becomes inconsistent, and inevitably we let it drop off completely.

Judging it as “Too hard” and passing judgment on ourselves “I don’t get it”, or some version of failing to thrive.

At times we might be diligent in our practice, but if it takes us further from reality or from those we love, there’s a lack of skillful compassionate ease. When we practice sitting and walking meditation in ways that cause our body and mind to suffer, we are also not at ease.

Image is titled Consistency verses Intensity. Insitency is represented first. A large bright flame is pictured under it it says week 1. The flame diminishes to nothing by week 4, there are 5 weeks in total. As you might imagine, with consistency acrosss the 5 weeks the flame is the same size and brightness

There are no Masters of Zen - it is a constant practice of easing into a compassionate balance with life. Therefore we are all students. We are going through life and learning from it continually. Sometimes we go at it hard, and sometimes we are more relaxed.

We can loosen our grip on the ways we try to strive for control and listen to our bodies and minds to build consistency. Kicking our butt compassionately when we are getting too complacent and lackey-daisy.

Stepping back on the path:

The four practices associated with Right Effort are:

l. Preventing unwholesome seeds. "Unwholesome" means not conducive to ease, peace, and liberation. Such as those that might grow into unhappiness, indifference, irritability, disloyalty, and incompatibility.

2. Weeding out the unwholesome seeds that haven’t already taken root.

3. Finding ways to water wholesome (liberating) thoughts with generosity, lovingkindness, and wisdom.

4. Nourishing the wholesome seeds; such as happiness, love, good humor, loyalty, reconciliation, and interconnectedness, so that they will stay present in our minds and grow stronger.  The wholesome seeds need watering every day. If we water them, we will feel joyful, and this will encourage them to stay longer.

Now, we didn’t acquire the core values that drive our characteristics overnight, and working toward skillful compassionate ease isn’t going to happen overnight either. I still find that I’m easing into accepting that it's a practice. One that I have to return to, over and over as my dis-ease presents itself in different guises.

We can try to reframe any uncomfortableness, as an opportunity to work with it. Each time I do I nurture the seeds of equanimity, understanding, joy, and peace.

The ‘father of modern mindfulness’ Thich Nhat Hanh, phrases these opportunities of working with our ego’s habitual traits as “The Way out is in.” Whereas Pema Chodron says “Welcoming The Unwelcome”. 

Kyoji says, “You can rest your ego. Take it off. Fold it up and set it down right there, right next to you for a second, and Practice.” and “How we respond to our doubts, dis-ease, and insecurities is a point of practice.”

The golden thread of these quotes is that the Noble Eightfold Path encourages Right Effort, as the way towards ‘mastering’ the self.

A pendulum swings gently back a forth around the balance point which is labelled mastery with a question mark. On the left the upswing is labelled Failure, rejection, defeat, pain, and sadness. On the right upswing it is labelled Success, Acceptance, Victory, pleasure and jubilation.

Remember the Rights of the Path don’t mean the only acceptable way, rather they are the guidance towards ‘skillful’ effort. Given by Buddha, recorded in the Dharma, and supported by Sangha. Connection with our sangha and our teacher helps us keep the compassionate view of no judgments, and no errors, just stepping back on the path when we see we’ve fallen off.

May you keep coming back to your practice.

Gassho 🙏


31 views2 comments


I am so with you on this, my dharma sister. 🙏🏻 I, too, have dealt with the same types of habits, thoughts and feelings. Always return to the path. I think this is your best blog post yet.❤️

Replying to

 🙏🏻Thank you

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