Guide to Buddhism: Step 8 – Putting in the Effort

Committing to Buddhism requires daily practice, including meditation

Without continuous effort, you will not succeed on your quest for lasting inner peace and happiness. This is not meant as a deterrent, but only to highlight the significant mental change and development that is required.

Each person must work out his or her own deliverance from suffering. Buddha points out the Path to liberation; the rest involves putting the path into practice, a task that demands energy.

This energy is to be applied to the cultivation of the mind. The starting point is the defiled mind, afflicted and deluded. Energy can appear in either wholesome or unwholesome forms.

I. Unwholesome Mental States

We must tackle unwholesome mental states in 2 ways. First, we must prevent unwholesome states (states of mind tainted by defilements) from springing up. Second, we must abandon unwholesome states that have already risen.

A. Preventing unwholesome states from arising

Insofar as they impede concentration, the defilements are usually presented in a fivefold set called the “five hindrances.” They are named this because they block the path to liberation; they grow up and over the mind, preventing calm and insight. The five hindrances are as follows:

i. Sense Desires

In the narrowest sense, it is a lust for agreeable sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. In a broader sense it includes craving in all it modes, whether for sense pleasures, wealth, power, position, fame, or anything else it can settle upon.

ii. ill Will

This is a synonym for aversion. It comprises hated, anger, resentment, repulsion of every shade, whether direct towards other people, towards oneself, towards objects, or towards situations.

iii. Dullness and Drowsiness

Dullness manifests as mental inertia. Drowsiness is mental sinking or excessive inclination to sleep.

iv. Restlessness and Worry

Restlessness is agitation or excitement which drives the mind from thought to thought with speed and frenzy. Worry is remorse over past mistakes and anxiety about their possible undesired consequences.

v. Doubt

A chronic indecisiveness and lack of resolution. A persistent inability to commit oneself to the course of spiritual training.

B. Abandoning unwholesome states that have already arisen

Despite the effort a controlling defilements from arising, the defilements may still surface. They may rise from the buried depths of past accumulations and turn into unwholesome thoughts and emotions.

When this happens, a new kind of effort becomes necessary, the endeavor to abandon. The Buddha gives 5 techniques for expelling or abandoning distracting thoughts.

Whereas the first of the five methods for expelling the hindrances involves a one-on-one alignment between a hindrance and its remedy, the other four utilize general approaches. By applying these five methods, one becomes a master of all the pathways of thought.

One is no longer the subject of the mind but its master. Whatever thought one wants to think, that one will think. Whatever thought one does not want to think, that one will not think.

Even if unwholesome thoughts occasionally arise, one can dispel them immediately, just as quickly as a red-hot pan will turn to steam a few chance drops of water.

Technique No. 1

To expel the defiled thought with an exact opposite wholesome thought.

a. Sense Desires

The general remedy is meditation on impermanence, which knocks away the underlying clinging, the implicit false assumption being that objects clung to are stable and durable.

The remedy for desire in the specific form of sense lust, the most potent antidote is the contemplation of the unattractive nature of the body. You can do this by contemplating what actual makes up a humane body: blood, bile, skin, fingernails, urine, feces, etc. You can also contemplate what your body will look like one day after you die or one week or one month. Once we die, all of our bodies will bloat then start to decay.

b. ill Will

The proper remedy is meditation on loving kindness, which banishes all traces of hatred and anger with the altruistic wish that all beings be well and happy.

c. Dullness and Drowsiness

This calls for a special effort to arouse energy, which there are several suggested methods: visualization of a brilliant ball of light; getting up and doing a period of brisk walking meditation; reflecting on death; or simply making a firm determination to continue striving.

d. Restlessness and Worry

These are most effectively countered by turning the mind to a simple object that tends to calm it down. The recommended method is mindfulness of breathing, attention to the in-and-out flow of the breath.

e. Doubt

The remedy is investigation. Ask questions and study the teachings until the obscure points become clear.

Technique No. 2

To reflect on the thought as vile and shameful.

Technique No. 3

Involves a deliberate diversion of attention. When an unwholesome thought arises and begs to be noticed, instead of indulging it, one simply shuts it out by redirecting one’s attention elsewhere. This is a similar technique to when you have a toddler or one child is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Often you can get them to stop the unwanted behavior by providing other options to occupy their attention and focus.

Technique No. 4

This is the opposite approach, instead of turning away from the unwanted thought, one confronts it directly as an object, scrutinizes its features, and investigates its source. When this is done the thought quiets down and eventually disappears.

Technique No. 5

This last method, suppression, is to be used only as a last report. Suppression is vigorously restraining from the thought with the power of the will in the way a strong man might throw a weaker man to the ground and keep him pinned there with his weight.

II. Wholesome Mental States

Simultaneously with preventing and abandoning unwholesome states (defilements), we must also cultivate wholesome states of mind by encouraging and maintaining wholesome states.

A. Encouraging wholesome states that have not yet arisen

The main method to encourage new wholesome states is through mindfulness and insight. Mindfulness clears the ground for insight into the nature of things by bringing to light phenomena in the present moment, stripped of all subjective commentary, interpretations, and projections.

B. To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen

The last of the four right efforts aims at maintaining the arisen wholesome factors and bringing them to maturity. Called the endeavor to maintain, and it explained as the effort to keep firmly in the mind a favorable object of concentration that has arisen. The wholesome states are states of mind untainted by defilements.

Next: Step 9: Practicing Mindfulness