The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Effort

Reading time: 5 minutes

He lived on the streets of New York City during the hard years of the 1980s — alone and scared, but somehow undeterred. By most estimates, he would have very little hope for a life of success or luxury. As a Black 15-year old in America, an orphan with no family, no friends, and limited education, just getting off the streets seemed a long shot. But his dream of going to college, of making something of his life, kept him going through the merciless days of inner-city homelessness. 

Over the years to come, he would find a way every day: to secure shelter, to obtain food, to make a few dollars. But most of all, he’d find a way to study. He’d study in the morning when he woke up, while riding the subway, on breaks at work, and before bed.

When he got into New York University on a minority scholarship, he knew that was only the beginning.

Throughout those next four years of college, he carried with him that same work ethic that got him off the streets. He worked, studied, and dreamed big dreams, studied some more; then he did it all again.

The day he crossed the stage, and the dean handed him his diploma — that Holy Grail so many doubted he could ever obtain — he burst into tears. Everyone thought he was crazy, but he didn’t care. No one knew what he had gone through to make it to that stage.

But that also wasn’t the end of the road for him.

At the time I met him, he was weeks away from completing a doctorate. As he described it, “I started with nothing but a dream. Now I have everything I ever dreamed of.”

I only met this man for long enough for him to tell me this story; I never even caught his name. 

But nearly 20 years later, I can still hear the whisper of his story in my ear every time I feel like giving up on something. His story gave me hope and direction then, and it offers a strong example of what we can accomplish with the right effort. His advice to me as he finished his story: “Keep on doing what you’re doing. Failure only means you stopped trying.”

Just keep on doing what you’re doing. Keep going, even when it seems impossible. 

We all have this capacity to persevere, to keep pushing through the greatest of adversities — when we have something in our sights that keeps us driving forward. We see this in the dancer who faces rejection at audition after audition, only landing the part on the 20th or perhaps even the 50th attempt. We see this in the student who struggles in a subject but puts in extra hours at the library day after day to get the grade. We see it in the engineer whose designs encounter seemingly endless setbacks, only determining the “right” configuration after hundreds of failed attempts.

When we have a worthy goal, we tap into a deep reserve of energy. 

We find a way. And we keep on doing what we’re doing until we get it done.

That is the essence of right effort, a part of the Eightfold Path that drives us ever forward, despite the many challenges in the path.

Right effort on the path to liberation

Just as we must stay the course through obstacles in pursuit of academic or professional goals, so must we persevere on the path to achieving liberation from suffering. Achieving lofty goals requires persistent effort over time. The work might be hard, it might be uncomfortable and frustrating, but we continue because we know the goal is worth it.

As a keystone of the Eightfold Path, right effort sustains us through the ups and downs of practice. Grouped along with right mindfulness and right concentration, this part of the path lays the foundation for cultivating mental discipline. Right effort helps us in the critical practice of training the mind with meditation.

We often hear the phrase “practice makes perfect,” which is true. But as many coaches might point out, what is more accurate is that “perfect practice makes perfect.”

In other words, it’s not enough to just practice. Clear intention (what we practice) and careful attention (how we practice it) make a big difference.

This is also true of right effort. There is a “perfect” way to practice right effort. The Buddha taught the Four Right Exertions, which relate to how we manage the “seeds” for “unwholesome” or “wholesome” actions lying within our consciousness:

  • Avoid: We should be aware of the potential for “unwholesome” or harmful thoughts (and the actions that often soon follow), and seek to abandon these thoughts before they surface.
  • Abandon: When we have been unsuccessful in preventing these thoughts or harmful behaviors from arising, we can pause and let go, allowing this destructive energy to subside.
  • Arouse: On the flip side of this, we should be aware of the seeds of “wholesome” or beneficial thoughts (and their subsequent actions), and encourage these to arise.
  • Maintain: When we successfully cultivate wholesome thoughts, we can seek to sustain these kinds of thoughts and behaviors so they become habitual.

Fostering an awareness of these “harmful or helpful” seeds helps us reduce our suffering and increase our wellbeing. And when the going gets tough, a commitment to right effort enables us to “keep on doing what we’re doing.”

Right effort on the path to sustainable development

The SDGs are perhaps the loftiest set of goals in human history. Achieving these goals will not be possible without perseverance and diligent effort. Without question, there will always be barriers, frustrations, and outright exasperation in any effort to achieve any of the goals.

This teaching on right effort doesn’t necessarily relate directly to the context of poverty, gender equality, economic opportunity, or environmental sustainability. However, as people who seek to support these lofty goals, the teaching does relate directly to how we approach our lives and work. 

Right effort can help us cultivate qualities that will sustain us and enhance our impact on the long, challenging road of supporting sustainable development. We can foster resilience, compassion, and wisdom. The Four Right Exertions offer a practical framework for understanding the kinds of thoughts that arise and hinder or help our success. 

Doing this kind of work should, above all else, bring us joy. Despite whatever challenges we face, right effort reminds us of the tremendous opportunity we have. We can, through our work and practice, reduce suffering in our lives and the world.

That is a goal worth working towards.

In the next post, we’ll look at right mindfulness — a critical practice at the heart of Buddhism, helping us to truly understand our minds.