The Four Efforts
Before we can meditate, we have to purify ourselves of the gross hindrances (defilements, fetters). The hindrances are those states that hinder us, prevent us from developing on the spiritual path. Letting go of these hindrances is the main job of the first two efforts. The hindrances are wanting, ill will, agitation and anxiety, dullness and drowsiness and doubt. Once we've let go, at least temporarily, of the gross forms of the hindrances, then our meditation practice helps us to recognize the subtle ones so we can let go of them too. Thus purification starts in daily life, before our meditation practice. It then continues in a more refined way during our meditation practice.
In Anguttara Nikaya 2:12, the Buddha discusses the two powers, the power of reflection and the power of development.
The power of reflection refers to the first two efforts. They are to prevent the arising of the hindrances and, if arisen, to abandon them with wisdom power. Wisdom power is initiated by reflecting on misconduct of body, speech and mind and seeing the suffering it can cause in this lifetime. And due to the law of kamma, we can reflect on how it will result in a negative outcome in future lifetimes. This reflection allows us to experience the misconduct as a hot coal in our hand. As soon as we feel the heat we drop it. We don't need to talk ourselves into it. It hurts and we drop it. This is wisdom power.
The power of development refers to the last two efforts, which are to cause the arising of the factors of Awakening and, once arisen, to maintain or further develop them. An important condition for their arising and development is seclusion: finding a quiet place to meditate on a regular basis. If we are able to go on a meditation retreat for a week or more each year, this is really helpful.
First Effort: This is the effort to prevent the arising of the hindrances. This is mainly done by sense restraint. This doesn't mean that we close our eyes or wear ear plugs etc. It means that when we see, hear, smell, taste or feel something or a thought arises that has the potential to arouse wanting or dislike, that we don't focus on the details of that sensory experience. We don't linger on it, get stuck on it. We go with the flow to the next thing that arises. We just note seeing or hearing etc. We don't allow the mind to elaborate into "I see this and I want it"" or I'm experiencing this and I'm annoyed by it". The same goes for the other senses.
In this sutta, the Buddha discusses sense restraint: Anguttara NIkaya 14:14.
As we listen to Dhamma teachings, we'll notice that it is often just the first two hindrances that are mentioned, wanting and ill will. This is because they are considered the most important hindrances to relinquish. And they are considered the basis of the other hindrances. So once they are diminished, the other hindrances automatically diminish.
Second Effort: Once a hindrance has arisen, we make an effort to give it up. This can be hard to do because desire or dislike clouds the clarity of our mind, so we may not be aware a hindrance has arisen. So, whenever we notice we are not feeling content, we need to investigate what desire or what ill will is present. Then we need to remind ourself of the suffering this is causing or will cause to ourself and or others. Dislike causes immediate suffering. Desire also causes immediate suffering because, if it can't be fulfilled immediately, we are thrown into a state of discontent. And even when the desire is fulfilled, suffering eventually happens when the object of our desire wears out or breaks down or loses it's appeal.
As mentioned, we let go of the hindrances via wisdom power, not will power. When we read in the suttas about the Buddha encouraging us to strive, striving means to use wisdom power. If we just try and suppress our bad habits with will power, they come back and bite us as soon as we aren't looking. AND using will power depletes our energy. So, if we start to feel angry towards someone, we ask ourself, "Why am I getting angry? That person is just playing out their habit energy. What they are doing has nothing to do with me." This reflection will help us let go of the anger.
Sometimes mindfulness and reflection is not enough to overcome anger. Loving kindness (metta) or compassion may be needed. The Buddha suggested that when we experience someone with bad speech but good behaviour or vice versa, that we focus on their good qualities, not their unlikeable qualities. If they have both bad speech and bad behaviour, the Buddha suggests that we see them as someone in the desert without protective clothing and without water. Seeing their misery helps compassion to arise in us.
Occasionally, if we are about to say or do something with serious, negative consequences, will power is appropriate to use if wisdom power is unsuccessful. With force, we clamp our mouth shut so no inappropriate words can come out or we shove our hands into our pockets so they can't hit or throw or we rapidly get out of the situation we are in and get to a place of solitude. But using will power is a last resort, after all our other skills have failed.
The Buddha gave a talk on will power as a last resort in Majjhima Nikaya 20: How to Stop Thinking.
Third Effort: Putting in the conditions for the factors of Awakening to arise is the third effort. Conditions for their arising include:
1. Letting go of the hindrances
2. Contemplating the suttas
3. Seclusion - making space for our meditation practice
The first factor of Awakening is mindfulness. Detailed instructions for the arising of mindfulness are coming up, under the Four Satipatthanas.
Once mindfulness is present to a certain degree, it supports the arising of the second factor of Awakening, the investigation of Dhammas. This basically means understanding what are skillful and unskillful qualities of the mind. This is difficult to discern at times because some unskillful qualities are very subtle, very hard to see. Thus the need to investigate to discover them. If we feel very peaceful but our practice isn't developing, it may be a subtle attachment to the objects of the five senses that is hindering us. So we need to investigate to see if a subtle attachment is present and to reflect on the potential for suffering that arises from this attachment so we can let it go.
Once the subtle hindrances are lessened, the next factor, energy, arises. And like energy, the rest of the factors arise on their own. They are joy which evolves into tranquility, then stillness (samadhi) and finally equanimity.
Fourth Effort: This is to preserve the Factors of Awakening that have arisen and to allow them to develop further. This is done by continuing to deal with the very subtle hindrances, using techniques such as breath meditation (anapanasati).
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