Three Flavors of Right Effort: Patience, Intensity & Aim



The following reflection originally appeared in the twice-a-month newsletter I sent out on February 21st, 2023.


***Feel free to read the whole reflection or just skim through the bolded parts.***




In Buddhism & meditation, the basic idea is that we do a variety of practices to gradually release stress and cultivate well-being.  At the simplest level, this process leads to being a little more present and less reactive.  At the grandest level, this is total awakening.Of course, just as one doesn’t become a doctor by sitting on the couch and watching TV shows about hospitals, one doesn’t awaken by reading a few books and thinking nice aspirational thoughts about meditationIn other words, we have to actually apply ourselves; we have to make an effort.In the various traditional texts, there are several different words the Buddha uses to talk about effort.  Today, I’ll share some reflections on three of the most important ones, having to do with the aim, continuity, and intensity of our efforts.


The Flavor of Aim*If we had a backyard vegetable garden, our basic undertaking would be to have a robust and alive garden, with healthy and tasty vegetables.  In order to achieve this grand goal, our aim in gardening would be to both:

  1. Protect our plants from anything that could disrupt this, like rabbits, weeds, or toxic chemicals.
  2. Nourish our plants by providing them with sufficient water, additives, compost, and fertile soil.

Similarly, in the foundational text of Buddhism, The Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha defined “right effort” in terms of our aim.  He said it means to both:

  1. Remove & prevent unwholesome qualities of mind.
  2. Cultivate & maintain wholesome qualities of mind.

A wholesome state of mind is one that is characterized by liberation/well-being or leading to liberation/well-being.  Examples include love, patience, equanimity, calmness, integrity, mindfulness, wisdom, forgiveness, or humility, among others.  On the flip side, an unwholesome state of mind is one that is characterized by suffering/stress or leading to suffering/stress.  Examples include anger, anxiety, despair, craving, delusion, conceit, impatience, or non-mindfulness, among others.In other words, when we make an effort, we have to apply ourselves in the right direction.  If we want to have a thriving garden, we have to get our hands in the dirt; not sit in our living and make drawings of vegetables.  Similarly, if we want to awaken (or inch towards awakening), we have to make an effort to develop wholesome qualities and remove unwholesome qualities from our mind.This process requires a little bit of self-awareness.  For example, consider your primary relationships.

  • Are you reliably loving, generous, patient, and equanimous with those people?  If so, keep it up!  If not, bring those qualities into being!
  • Are you consistently moody before 8am, anxious whenever someone else is in a bad mood, irritable when your routines get disrupted, or judgmental when they do something different than you would?   If so, release them!  If not, prevent a future you from slipping into them!
  • When conflict arises, do you tend to run away, lash out, or stay steadily present/loving/calm?

Basically, the first step to aiming correctly is knowing where we’re coming from.  If we want to shoot a basketball into a hoop, we’re going to want to have our eyes open so we can see where on the court we’re shooting from.  Once we have that basic self-awareness, we can more appropriately orient our efforts.While I gave the example of relationships, it’s essentially the same process in our meditation practice — we release & avoid mindstates that lead to suffering, and cultivate & maintain mindstates that lead to liberation.* Aim is pointing to the Pāli word “vayamo.” This article by Bhikkhu Bodhi explains it in more depth.


The Flavor of Patience*When my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, would talk about “Right Effort,” he primarily said it means to persevere in a relaxed way.In metaphor, our dharma & meditation practice is like a cross-country bicycle ride.  If we want to achieve our “aim” of arriving at the other coast, we have to find a way to keep going no matter what.  Even when it gets hard or difficult, we just keep going.  In one of the Buddha’s most famous quotes, he said, “patient endurance is the ultimate austerity.”  This is an especially fascinating quote, given that the Buddha took on some incredible austerities**, including only eating once every two weeks, sleeping on a mattress of spikes, pulling his hair out by hand, and continuously standing for days on end.In referencing those austerities, he noted they were all useless for the “aim” of awakening, but that patient endurance could take you there.Patience is the ability to keep going, even amidst discomfort and setbacks.However, to truly perfect patience, we also drop the expectation that the discomfort or things we dislike will go away.  For example, if we’re sitting to meditate for an hour and we have an expectation that our mind will calm down in 20 minutes, we can easily be patient for 20 minutes.  However, if we keep holding that expectation and our mind keeps being active, we’ll be agitated and frustrated for the last 40 minutes.In contrast, the perfection of patience teaches us how to keep patiently going forward indefinitely without slipping into reactivity — even if that means the entire meditation (or an entire year!) is restless and scattered.This not-slipping-into-reactivity part is why Sayadaw U Tejaniya emphasizes that we keep going in a relaxed way.  For example, even amidst a really difficult stretch of the cross-country bike ride, like going through the Rocky Mountains, we don’t slip into frantic peddling.  We don’t let our expectations and ideas of how much is left or how hard it is take over our mind.Instead, we fall back on a basic sense of trust that we can do this.  Others have done cross-country bike rides.  Others have learned to live with a little less stress.  Others have fully awakened.  If they can do it, so can we.And so we practice a gentle perseverance, a patient endurance, a willingness to keep going towards awakening, even if it’s tough at times.* Patience is pointing to the Pāli word khanti, which is one of the ten spiritual perfections (parami). Here’s an excellent elaboration by Ajahn Sucitto.**For a full list of the Buddha’s austerities, scroll to the section entitled “The Bodhisattva’s Austerities.”


The Flavor of IntensityOur intensity is the amount of energy or effort we exert in a given moment.The Buddha compared our energy/effort to being like a guitar string — we want it not too taut, but also not too lax. The ideal is somewhere in the middle, with just a little bit of slack.In practice, meditators run into two basic problems: over-exerting and under-exerting.

Over-exerting (the guitar string is too tight!)As a general rule of thumb, if you feel tension while meditating, you’re exerting too much effort.  Watch out for physical tension, like a clenched jaw or a headache, but also the mental-emotional tension from pushing too hard, like getting “tired” from meditating or it feeling like “work.”One common flavor of over-exertion is being too serious.  This usually means we’re bringing agendas, cravings, and expectations into our meditation practice.  Whether we realize it or not, we want specific outcomes, and to the degree that we don’t get them, we feel agitated.  These agitations have a way of building on themselves and leading to burnout if they aren’t seen.Oftentimes, over-exertion has its roots in some sense of shame, like “I’m not okay as I am, but if I can just meditate a little harder, I’ll get rid of my least favorite things about myself and then life will be grand.”  If you find your guitar string is a little too tight, the best instruction is to relax.  Relax your muscles, relax your attention, relax your expectations, relax your need to improve or be better than you are.  Perhaps take the pressure off yourself and give yourself permission to be a little messy, scattered, and broken.  Maybe even take a break from whatever practice just leads to a lot of tension.  Self-compassion practices can also go a long way to softening up a little bit.

Under-exerting (the guitar string is too loose!)Joseph Goldstein often differentiates relaxed from “casual.”  He notes we can apply ourselves with incredible vigor and be relaxed about it, as I described in the section on patience.  However, when we slip into being “casual,” there is no vigor.  Here we find flavors of complacency, apathy, nihilism, or being checked out.The most tell-tale sign of under-exerting is not keeping up our good habits, like meditating.  Sometimes it’s when life is going smoothly and we think, “I don’t really need that; I’m fine,” whereas other times, it’s when life is feeling more difficult and we think, “I just don’t feel like it.”  Or, in either case, perhaps we manage to get started, but as soon as it gets difficult, we quit.On a subtler level, maybe we sit to meditate for 20 minutes, but our heart isn’t entirely in it.  We’re not applying that little bit of effort to remain upright, alert, and really with the meditation; instead, we just let our mind do whatever it wants, like aimlessly think about sandwiches or our five-year plan.Sometimes, depression or doubt in our capacity to change our reality for the better can be the drivers of under-exerting.  It’s also helpful to notice if you tend to have hard swings from over to under-exerting, like a pendulum.Anyhow, if your mind is a little too loose, there are numerous ways to go towards balance, including:

  • Reflecting deeply on your heart’s greatest aspirations, perhaps via journaling
  • Go on a retreat, join a community, read a highly recommended book, or sign up for a challenge — some external supports to “kickstart” effort
  • Arouse curiosity, starting with the question, “why am I not so into this right now?”
Strings in BalanceThe word “viriya” that the Buddha used to describe this kind of energy/effort has connotations of a “heroic” or “courageous” effort*.  In other words, the spiritual journey is sort of like that cross-country bicycle ride.  It takes a lot of effort that’s sustained over a long period of time — amidst the valleys, mountains, and straightaways.  When we balance our guitar strings, we realize we can have an effort that is relaxed and calm, but still has some wholehearted vigor to it.  As one practice instruction, simply monitor your effort levels: does it seem like you are a little tense or a little checked out?  If so, just gently nudge yourself to center, without swinging too hard to the other side.* Viriya, usually translated as effort or energy, is one of the ten spiritual perfections (parami), the five spiritual faculties (indriya), the five powers (bala), and the seven factors of awakening (bojjhanga).




The essence of right effort is a relaxed perseverance towards awakening.   Along the way, we monitor our exertion levels — are we getting tense?  are we getting lax?  We keep monitoring that, keep adjusting, and in stride, proceed courageously and with wholehearted vigor into greater and greater depths.