In her book A Heart as Wide as the World Sharon Salzberg describes “effort” as the “unconstrained willingness to persevere through difficulty.” She goes on to say, “Effort is the willingness to open where we have been closed, to come close to what we have avoided, to be patient with ourselves, to let go of preconceptions.”
I love the phrase “unconstrained willingness to persevere.” I think for many of us in our lives we are many things to so many people and we have taken on many different kinds of tasks. Sometimes a kind of automatic pilot can kick in. We understand how to make our lives work and so we move forward, effortlessly. There is nothing wrong with being good at what you do, or having an established work or parenting pattern. But when something is effortless, are you connected to it? In yoga when we teach the very first pose, Tadasana, people will almost always say “you mean I just stand here?” The answer is “sort of.” If you are really thinking, however, about your balance and engaging the muscles of your legs and the position of your spine and shoulders you will find that it takes effort. You will even start to build some heat in your body, it is important to figure out the alignment in that first standing pose because it will be relevant to every other pose you do, including even the fanciest of arm balances.
The same is true in our lives. If we construct our lives in such a way that they require very little focused effort, we start to feel disconnected from ourselves and the people and things we care about most. One of the reasons I believe that having a special needs child has been an incredible gift is that her unpredictability and the effort it takes to be her parent mean that I can never really slide towards autopilot. She is the ultimate reminder to wake up and pay attention because life is happening, and of course if you take your eyes off her for a minute she is hanging from the rafters…..So that is motivation to stay present.
The word “unconstrained” is perfect to describe the effort we should put into our lives and relationships. It implies that unlimited potential is possible if we let ourselves live fully. We all have lists of things in our heads that we would like to do. They don’t have to be lofty. They can be as mundane as cleaning the kitchen or as vast as enlightenment for all beings. They both take effort, attention and mindfulness. It is tempting when we meet people we admire, such as great teachers, writers or artists, to imagine that they were born with skills we were not. It is true that someone who is destined to be seven feet tall because of their genetics is more likely to play professional basketball than someone who never makes it to six feet. However, there is enormous effort, and concentration that goes into being an athlete even if one is born with some of the cards stacked in your favor. When I have met great meditation and yoga teachers, I am always amazed and maybe a little envious of what they know and how easily they seem to convey their knowledge. What it is important to remember is that this wisdom took effort and discipline. It took focus and perseverance. Wishing for knowledge or clarity but not undertaking the learning is like wishing to be in the NBA and never picking up a basketball.
Right Effort is part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path. It is the fundamental belief that it takes effort to wake up to the full awareness available to us all. In my mind it is the difference between being able to drive a car so spaced out that I don’t even notice that I have been listening to commercials, and driving a car with full attention to what I hear, what I see and what I am doing. From the outside both experiences are identical, but inside they are completely different Yoga and meditation are two ways we can practice mindfulness and attention, but any activity can become a mindfulness exercise. It just takes effort and perseverance and the unconstrained willingness to believe that every moment is an opportunity to practice being awake. It is this practice, this effort of returning our attention repeatedly to where we are and what we are doing, that will help us realize that we have everything we need for real sustainable, wakeful joy.