Wise Effort – True North

September 23, 2013
Carrying forward the spirit and intention of the ethical practices, we move into the wisdom aspect of the Eightfold Path. This includes wise effort, wise concentration and wise mindfulness. In reality, though, each factor of the Path is dependent upon the others in order to make an integrated whole; wise effort is dependent upon wise understanding, which is dependent upon wise mindfulness, which is dependent upon wise action, etc.
Cultivating skillful, wholesome mind-states, (a mind that is peaceful, flexible and not in contention with the conditions of one’s life), while learning to recognize and then abandon unwholesome, unskillful mind-states (greed, ill-will, and ignorance) is how the Buddha defined Wise Effort.
Whether in meditation or daily life, this requires patient, steady, persistent mindfulness along with a generosity of spirit that allows for trial and error, ups and downs, messing it up and getting it right. The bottom line is that when my efforts are wise, ethical and clear, I’ll likely not cause harm to myself or anyone around me, and I’m much more likely to make good considered choices and decisions.
In meditation practice, wise effort requires the willingness to stay present with whatever arises, breath-by-breath, moment-by nonjudgmental-moment. Gentle persistence is my favorite way of thinking about this kind of effort. Sometimes in meditation when I feel my energy waning, my attention drifting, or when I’m trying too hard to stay focused and feel my mind and body tighten, I think “gentle persistence…come back…feel the breath…relax…begin again.” Using any of those words or just getting the internal sense of the words re-directs my efforts, buoys up the energy and strengthens my resolve. Just as with daily life, meditation practice requires continual adjustment and fine tuning.
With respect to wise effort in daily life, I like to use the following questions to help steer and clarify my thinking. I think of them as compass questions. You may recognize them from earlier discussions.
What, when I do it, will be for my long-term welfare and happiness?
This is a very grounding question the Buddha recommended to access one’s deepest wisdom. It helps avoid impulsivity and reactivity and their potentially harmful consequences. It is a guide towards an appropriate response.
What has become clear since last we met?
This is a great question that comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s very helpful in looking back at patterns, decisions, outcomes, clarifying what’s happening, what’s okay, what needs to be changed. You can adapt it for yourself, i.e., “what has become clear since last time….this issue arose?” etc.
What makes me come alive?
My experience is that this changes over time, but that I feel most alive, engaged and happy when I am living and working in line with my values, and doing what feels right in my heart and supports my well-being. As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”
What evokes my reverent heart?
We stand in reverence when we have those experiences that take our breath away, those times that we’re stopped in our tracks from an experience of beauty, joy, love or peace. I have a sense that the connection we feel at those moments are among the deepest and most profound. By staying connected to our reverent heart, we live with great respect and dignity for ourselves and others.

For me, Wise Effort is true north. How we use our efforts has far reaching implications, and this discussion just scratches the surface.