Friday, January 14, 2011

Right Effort That's Right for Me

Lately, I've been taking the time to appreciate what I have and wher e I am in life.  I've certainly had a charmed life, being born to two wonderful, loving, and stable parents who raised me morally and with a great education.  I never wanted for anything.  I'm certainly in the very top percentile in terms of starting out with opportunity.  The question to keep posing to myself is if I'm making the "right" use of it.  The challenge comes in definitely what "right" is for me and then acting on it.

Much of finding this definition of "right" and the opportunity to act on it passes passively, meaning that we did not explicitly decide to eliminate certain options, they were eliminated due to our own inaction.  I remember the first time realizing that a door was closed to me.  Sitting in a high school art class, watching the Winter Olympics, it occurred to me that several of the medalists were younger than I was, and had started as children.  Anyway, it never occurred to me until that moment that winning all sports in the Olympics wasn't an option to me.  I still figured that I could do anything.  Though now, my body already had ruts and I had already missed out on years of important training needed to prepare me for such high level success.  It's when Virgil's idea "Optima dies, prima fugit." (the best days are the first to flee) occurred to me long before I knew the words.

Over the years, many other opportunities passively passed me by, and that's ok as I've learned to let go of ambition and see more to be "of use".  In Buddha Is As Buddha Does by the Lama Surya Das, he relates a quote by a forest monk from Thailand, "In Asia, the class sequence of the teachings and practice is first generosity, then morality, and then meditation…. But here in the United States, the sequence seems to be meditation first, then morality, and after some time, as a kind of appendix, there is some teaching about generosity."  This strikes me as huge, since I spend more time focusing on meditation and mindfulness, than on anything else.  In some ways, this is highly self-serving, though I always convince myself that I need to bring my best self to any situation, and that I have a long way to go in the realm of mindfulness.  This year, I aim intentionally to change my focus from self-service to world service. 

Though given all of the ways of possibly serving, I need to discover the right way to do that for me.  There are more charities in the world than I have pennies to my name, and trying to spread the pennies evenly wouldn't do any good.  Value comes when I can focus my resources--time, money, energy--into the things that really matter to me, while striving to ensure that all of my acts are wholesome. 

Somewhere in my life I heard or read the concept that men are typically generous toward loved ones, family, friends, and people that they know, while women tend to be more generous to the world at large.  I cannot recall the source of this, nor do I have evidence to back it up, though I feel that for me, it is certainly easier for me to be generous with those whom I know.  Perhaps that it is focus that I've passively "chosen".  More now, I aim to spread my attention outward. 

Nearly 2 years ago, I focused on Why I Blog and identified goals of sharing, a primary one being not resting until others are free of suffering, as in the Bodhisattva vow.  My way is in helping others be more mindful.   Recently, I've teamed up with others who share this goal, we call ourselves Stark Raving Bits, to create daytender, a web site for helping to cultivate mindfulness in others.   


  1. The question about what the appropriate definition of “right” is in the sense of “right action” is a good one. That’s something I also passively ponder. I’ve been reading a therapist manual for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) recently. With respect to validity claims, ACT takes a contextualisitc stance. For the contextualists, what is most true is what is most functional. So for them, the self-defeating cognition that ‘I’m unlovable,’ for instance, is not untrue because it is factually wrong; it is untrue because it limits one’s ability to make and sustain meaningful relationships.

    Because I have a tendency to take things literally and legalistically, coming to grips with a contextualistic worldview has been difficult. Part of me doesn’t care what is functional. I’ve been told that truth with a capital t should be objective and absolute. However, within the context of mental health, contextualistic validity claims make a lot of sense. It doesn’t matter what our personal limitations are from a god’s-eye view. Focusing on our limitations is inherently problematic. It reduces our perceived options at best, and cripples us with depression and the lake at worst. But, I’m getting off topic.

    Defining right action as the action that is most functional isn’t enough. The next question is, functional for what purpose? The ACT stance is that we should always let our deepest values determine our courses of action. If our deep values are toward mindfulness, our actions and intermediate goals should lead us in the direction of increased mindfulness. If our deep values are toward world service, then right actions are the ones that help us broaden the scope and efficacy of our service. So our personal goals, then, become ever moving toward our values. Not only is that inherently fulfilling, but it is a seemingly never ending quest because of we age and develop our values become clearer, they deepen, and they sometimes shift in the particulars. So in this sense, the rightness of right action is itself always subject to change.

  2. Great post Ed. Interestingly my first instinct in using daytender is thankfulness and as a result feeling that I need to give back because of all the goodness I get from others.

  3. S, right on. "rightness" is something that is deeply personal and ever fluid. It's not something to be found, bottled, stored, and displayed as a trophy... it is something to be explored and to be lived.

    Thanks, Kav. I find the gratitude step to be the most potent one for me. It's inspiring. Many thanks to Richard Israel and Vanda North of for teaching me that in their book.

  4. This excellent post struck quite a chord in me.

    I too have noticed that people younger than me are very successful and somehow I have missed the path down which they traveled. Then I realize that they probably focused exclusively on their passions (to the detriment of a social life?) and I get over it.

    Sometimes I struggle with pursuing what I am passionate about (currently: tax law) and being generous. Can these things come together?

    As for the order of practice, perhaps these differences stem from inherent differences in the societies? Americans tend to be quite generous, giving to their alma maters and charities and starting foundations...but are maybe more distracted than their Asian cousins? This would suggest the need for cultivating mindfulness is greater in Americans? Forgive the racism, haha, just trying to look from a sociological perspective.

    Please post more often!

  5. "If you haven't any charity in your heart you have the worst kind of heart trouble" to cure it help people, let's unite for one good cause, be a volunteer"save lives"!