Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of April 26, 2010

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Right Effort

(Aspect 6 of the Eightfold Path)

The notion of Right Effort strikes us first as requiring strength of will, like the effort of lifting a heavy weight. Perhaps the qualifier of “right” brings to mind an intelligent effort, working smart. And certainly both aspects play a role in Right Effort. But there is much more to it. What is an inner effort? What does it mean to work smart in the domain of spiritual practice? This is not only a matter of the necessary proficiency in techniques, but also of understanding the classes of efforts, which we may call active, receptive, and synergic. Experience teaches us the appropriate conditions for each and how to find a right balance among them.

Across the many spiritual and religious paths, the fundamental examples of active inner efforts concern our attention: directing it and maintaining it. Active inner efforts have the feel of ordinary effort, like lifting that weight or an extended period of physical labor. We focus our attention, we form our intention, and we carry it out. The practice of sensing our body and the practice of presence are both primarily active efforts. In the former we hold our attention in our body to awaken and stabilize the energy of body awareness, sensation. In practicing presence, we actively inhabit our life, we will ourselves to be here, to be. We make an initial effort in choosing and beginning a particular practice in a particular moment. And then we make the ongoing effort of continuously maintaining that practice for more than a few seconds, or repeating it regularly. Such active efforts build up enduring pathways in our will, which we experience as determination, commitment, and increasing ability. The steady accumulation of active efforts makes subsequent efforts a little easier and a little stronger.

Receptive efforts do not have the same effortful feel, because they entail letting go, allowing, and opening. But consider letting go of anger in a situation where you notice it just starting to arise in you. You believe in it. You believe you are it. You feel justified in it. To let go of that anger regardless can be a very difficult, wrenching choice, an act of will, an effort of de-identification. This is the core of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation: to let our attention go wide, to notice all that is arising in us, whether thoughts, emotions or sensations, to let them arise and to let them pass without going with them, without becoming enmeshed in that content of awareness, but rather to stay in awareness itself. This is the effort of non-effort, of just being. It brings us into the spacious peace of consciousness.

We can be receptively open to body sensations, by relaxing into body awareness. The energy of sensation then awakens on its own. Acceptance of ourselves, of others, of our situation, comes through a receptive attitude. And total acceptance leads to what is known in Buddhism as a precursor of enlightenment, namely equanimity. In receptivity, we also have the surrender at the heart of certain deep forms of prayer. We open ourselves inwardly to the Sacred, to allow It to act on us, in us, as us. Our job in this is simply to dispose ourselves toward the Higher with love.

Synergic efforts combine elements of active and receptive efforts with a third type, an embracing, harmonizing and enabling attitude that creates a new unity of practice. This is, for example, the effortless effort of just doing what we are doing. We are active in our presence of doing what it is we’re doing and receptive in our awareness of it, in allowing it to happen through us. The result is the doing of non-doing, described so well in the Tao Te Ching. The activity we engage in goes just right, when we let it flow. We do not interfere to improve on the perfection of what we are doing, but neither are we passive in it. We are simultaneously active, open, and riding the wave of synergy.

Synergy also enters deep meditation and prayer. We inwardly reach up toward the Higher, extending our will in love into the Sacred, begging to enter there, begging the One to enter us. At the same time we inwardly step aside to make room for the Sacred. Knowing full well that we cannot control the action of the Higher, we nevertheless do everything in our power to be an attractive receptacle for It, to be simple, direct, and urgent in our need. We strengthen our presence by standing in our will-to-be. We simultaneously open to the higher will and let it come down through us to bolster our will-to-be. A potent energy flows into our being. This welcoming of the higher will into our own will-to-be connects our individual being with the great being of All.

Right Effort also addresses the question of level of effort. The amount of effort makes a difference. But levels of effort are not just a matter of quantity or intensity, but more importantly a matter of which world, which level of reality we address with our effort. We can make efforts not to fall into obsessive states, to see our autopilot mechanisms, our automatic associative thoughts and reactive emotions, to enter sensitive contact with our body, heart, and mind, to inhabit the spacious peace of consciousness, to connect with the world of Sacred Light, to taste and appreciate the unity of Love, and to worship and serve the Ultimate. Right Effort means addressing all these levels with our inner work and finding a workable balance among them.

For this week, reinvigorate your spiritual practice efforts and make them right.


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