In the context of the Buddha’s 8-fold path, right effort (sammā vāyāma) holds a pivotal role. One essential quality of right effort is that it’s balanced – not too much and not too little. This balanced effort comes into play when contemplating and exercising all the other factors of the path.
[The Buddha said] “Soṇa, when you were alone in seclusion, didn’t the following course of thought arise in your mind: ‘I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated from the taints by non-clinging. Now there is wealth in my family, and it is possible for me to enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds. Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life, so that I can enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds’?”
“Tell me, Soṇa, in the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute?”
“What do you think, Sona? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”
“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”
“But, Sona, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”
“So too, Soṇa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Sona, resolve on a a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there.” (from AN 6.55, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
In this story, Soṇa is a monk considering returning to his family because he feels he’s failing in his efforts to develop concentration and insight, a goal of monastic life. But the Buddha tells Soṇa that he only needs to adjust his effort, tightening and loosening as he goes, to make it sustainable. The story ends happily with Soṇa quickly achieving full awakening by following the Buddha’s instruction.
Many meditators struggle with this conundrum. We’re encouraged to put in effort, but find that sometimes we try so hard that we only get frustrated. One way to address this problem is to take the long view. Sitting in meditation for a half-hour each day will help our mood, but will probably not result in full awakening. So why meditate? Because it’s a good thing to do; wherever we’re starting from, it will move us in the direction of a more peaceful heart and mind.
Expecting or working towards a specific result in meditation is an obstacle. Taking things as they are, as they come, as they change, will bring about beneficial results if we are persistent. After decades of practice at home and on retreat, I finally came to understand that sustainability is a functional goal of practice. It has to be challenging enough to hold our interest, and rewarding enough that we do it regularly. There’s no finish line where practice becomes irrelevant; it is (for me, at least) the best way to live.
The Buddha’s 8-fold Path
1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)