The Effort of Mindful Living

This morning when my bottom hit the meditation cushion, my mind began to churn a not-so- happy story about the night before. In this story, my husband, Bud, was the villain. For a little context, I had been sleeping by myself for four nights up until last night because Bud was out of town on his annual golf retreat with his buddies. I had slept really well while he was gone.  In fact, I had noted to myself how wonderful it was to sleep the whole night through without interruption and the feeling of being refreshed in the morning as a result.

However, last night I slept with Bud for the first time since his return. And, he experienced nightmares which resulted in some significant kicking and yelling—waking me up in the middle of the night. This has been a frequent occurrence. For years, Bud has what I would call night terrors. (Note to people with night terrors: Recently these have happened with much less frequency due to the melatonin he has been taking before bedtime.)

Back to the cushion… I noticed that my mind was starting to tell stories about how much better it was to sleep alone, how difficult it was to get woken up in the middle of the night, how I needed to feel refreshed in the morning in order to get some writing done, and so on. I also noticed that in a very short time these worrisome thoughts were sapping my energy even more.  This recognition was my bell of mindfulness!

Upon discovering that I was now responsible for decreasing my energy, I thought I better shift strategies. The minute I stopped judging Bud and started taking responsibility for the present moment was the minute my heart opened. I knew that if I was grumpy to Bud when he got up, we would not start the day out right; and I really did want us to have a pleasant first day back together. I also remembered that it wasn’t Bud’s fault that he has these terrors and my compassion for him began to grow. The more my heart opened and I relaxed, the more energy I had.

I continued to meditate without the negative thoughts and, at the end, had a lovely moment viewing the growing plants, flowers and tiny buds coming to life in my garden (something that would have been lost to me had I been lost in my head). By the time Bud got up, I felt great and we had a lovely morning together.

The process that I just described can be found in one of my favorite teachings from the Buddhist texts called Right or Skillful Effort.  Skillful effort is a component of the Eight Fold Path which is part of the Four Noble Truths (Buddhist texts are filled with lists!) and it basically spells out how to abandon that which is unskillful and develop that which is skillful. When I say something is “skillful” or “unskillful” I mean those thoughts and actions which lead (or not) to the end of our suffering and toward a greater sense of happiness and peace.

So what is skillful effort? Here’s an adapted version of what the Buddha said…

And what is right effort? There is the case where a someone generates desire, endeavors, persists, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen . . . He upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of unskillful qualities that have arisen. …He upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. …He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This is called right effort.

Here is my translation in colloquial language.

            1. We act to guard against the unskillful that hasn’t yet arisen

            2.  We abandon the unskillful that has arisen

            3.  We develop the skillful

            4.  And we maintain the skillful that we have previously developed

These four aspects of effort are also termed guarding, abandoning, developing, and maintaining.  If you apply these four steps to any moment in life, you will be creating your own happiness and joy.

Here is the way these four efforts play out in the story I just told: I got up to meditate because I know meditation helps me let go of the unskillful thoughts that might arise (guarding). I abandoned the unskillful thoughts that did arise as I was able to notice them with the mindfulness that I had cultivated (abandoning and developing). I developed skillful thoughts of compassion through the meditation practice (more developing) and I maintained them through my thoughtful interactions with my husband (maintaining).

Give them a try and see how they work in your life. Mindful living is not just about being present in the moment without judgement–it requires our attention and our ability to modulate our thoughts and actions in a way that leads to a skillful outcome for ourselves and others. This requires “effort” and the understanding that this kind of effort leads to our freedom from suffering.